18 June, 2011
There are holidays and then there are holiday destinations. In India however, can say this with some authority, having travelled to almost all the corners of this country, if any one state symbolizes the “chilled out” holiday spirit, it has to be the state of Goa.
Try it if you don’t believe me. Just utter the word “Goa” around anybody and ears perk up. This state had for a long time been my business territory and even then when a trip here was planned, it had me very wary of this one fact. “Oh...so you are going to Goa hmmm”…the underlying message would be, better bring orders and keep your business expenses low, you aint on a paid holiday. I could never elicit the same response when the destination was “Ankaleshwar” or “Vapi”. Goa evokes this peculiar reaction from people without fail.
There is something special in that air…it relaxes you like nothing else as a languor seeps into your bones, the local word for it is “Susegaat”. It comes from the Portuguese word “Socegado” which loosely translates into a laid back serenity or simply said "just to be" doing nothing is the silent part. This typifies everything here. Nothing is hurried and all shall happen in good time…brilliant attitude for a holiday but totally frustrating if you are here on business. Our holiday starts the moment we book the tickets to here, some part of the susegat starts creeping in, to stay within us until a few days after we are actually back like a delicious hangover. The place is on the world tourism map for its Churches, Temples, absolutely stunning beaches and the curious confluence of cultures Hindu Indian & Christian Portuguese which has created a cuisine like nowhere else on this planet.
Of course this article is about food…but you are wondering as to why this long prattle on the state and its spirit? Without being in tune with this spirit you may not enjoy Goa to the fullest. On a very generic basis across the state in any kind of eatery that one frequents the food is by and large good and I mean really good. But this too like its stately spirit will take its own sweet time coming to you. The cooks take pride in doling out fresh stuff on your plate like all good cooks do anywhere but here the preparations are involved, the curries take some time to make so do be patient. Relax with a drink or a chilled beer, the food will eventually happen to you. The common offerings are nearly all from the water bodies around. A huge coastline, six main rivers Mandovi, Mapusa, Chapora, Zuari, Sal & the Terekhol with more than forty odd estuaries provides some of the best Seafood varieties. Fish, Crab, Shells, Lobsters, Prawns and Squid to be later ladled out with curries, masalas or just tossed around in plain butter and pepper sprayed with vinegar & sugar. The leaning on meats is towards red meat so we have mutton, beef and pork much more common than fowl.
What should the vegetarian traveler do here? Till the mid 1990’s I would very confidently have told you in one word…Starve.
The variety on offer for the Vegans was truly limited unless one had relatives who could cook you the famous white pea curry called “pandhrya vatanyachi usal” and if you could have this, the sol kadi and rice day in day out you could last the term of your holiday. But that’s sufferance and the locals were not bothered. We didn’t ask you here so don’t come here and make demands. When you come here, fall in line or plain stay away. But for the non vegetarian this was “Cuisino Paradiso” so they came in droves both Indian and the foreign. Both lingered on for more time than they planned. There was one Kamat Hotel in Panaji which gave you breakfast, meals and snacks. Its still around but now one even sees a ghastly sight like Hotel Shiv Sagar from Bombay serving pav bhaji. Bhelpuri too is available for those who can’t live without it, but don’t even ask me. I write for the purists those pure souls , the people who can experience this state as it is without any embellishment rather than trying to change it to what they would want it from back home. For those changeling vegetarians…I tell them…please stay at home. This article is not for you.
Mum’s Kitchen – Miramar ( Panaji )
In this food paradise standing quietly and tall amongst all eateries serving authentic traditional Goan cuisine is “Mum’s Kitchen” at Campal, on the road to Miramar beach from Panaji. We discovered this place quite by accident about five years back and over the years we have made close to a dozen trips to Goa and every one of these trips included several to this one eatery. The last trip we had a few days back it was with a fairly clear agenda all meals here, why bother searching for something better in the rains when this one was nestled right next to where we stayed.
Circa 2005 it was November and we found ourselves wandering around Panaji hungry. We had come from the beaches of Wagator and it was late in the afternoon. The regular joints in Panaji had closed their lunch sessions and we had no recourse but to move towards the Marriott on Mandovi. Just before we took the turn to reach the Marriott a small wooden board on a shaded bungalow beckoned us “Mums Kitchen”. Turning we parked our rented two wheeler on the footpath and walked in. The place captivated us right from that instant and we didn’t know then, that it was the beginning of a long lasting love affair. A small garden walkway bordered by mini rock pools over a red tiled patio welcomed us. Two flat carpenters benches were laid out with pots of ash for those who had to wait or couldn’t do without their puff. The garden is lush and tangled with such a startling variety of shrubs and flowers, trees and creepers, there is even a clump of bamboo it’s unbelievable. This tangled mass somehow is so harmonious that sitting on the bench one could just sit and stare and be at peace. It’s the Indian version of a Japanese rock garden is what came into my mind, if ever there could be such a thing. This garden is visible to the restaurant patron through tall & wide clear glass windows.
We entered to find a few tables occupied and asked them whether the kitchen is open as we were hungry. The waiter (today we know his name, Maxi) nodded in a friendly manner and said we are open 11 am to 11 pm. The place inside is just as warm. Wooden beams across the ceiling on which hung potted plants. On pale green walls hung hand paintings of the landscape of Goa. There was a small bar that had a grinding stone and a wicker basket with huge dried coconuts, it was wacky but it worked. Faint music was playing from unobtrusive speakers and we asked for beer. The beer deliciously chilled arrived in pilsner glasses. Maxi recommended try the fish fofo’s first with warm Goan bread and butter, with a suggestion go slow till we bring your main course. This is for your immediate hunger. We were pleasantly appreciative of this and it takes something to get a smile at a restaurant from my wife unless it’s something special. It’s the Hotel management background that turns her eagle eye on to everything all at once. When it took in the clean napkins, the sparkling cutlery and the warm plates she smiled in satisfaction. I now only hoped the food would be just as good. This is where we were to be taken by real surprise.
We had ordered for a plain Fish Curry ( King Fish – Surmai ) and Sannas ( Goan bread which is a steamed bread more like an idli but slightly sweet on account of coconut milk in it ). The Sannas served first as he returned to get the curry was so delicious that we had gobbled them all up much before he came back. We looked sheepishly at the serving waiter who smiled and asked, one more? Please. The fish curry comes with unpolished steamed rice. While he went to get our second Sannas we looked at the fish curry portion. It was sizeable with four huge fillets and enough curry. It looked beautiful and the aromas wafting across had us serving ourselves. We were hungry sure, but superlative food was the last thing we expected. The curry had just the right texture, tanginess and body that when one ladled it onto the rice it was holy matrimony. The curry wrapped itself around every grain and with a portion of the fish delicately steamed in it…we were in food heaven. Our Butter Garlic Prawns had arrived with the order of Sannas and we leisurely but determinedly attacked the meal. Neither of us spoke. We simply chewed , sighed, chewed again. The tongue demanded food before the earlier morsel had gone down and talking was out of question. ( That was the first time…today we pace it out and actually communicate too… in between sighs…don’t record the sounds of the table, they may just sound pornographic on an audio tape ).
The menu is wide and the flavour is on authentic local cuisine. This being Goa you may find some egg dishes and chicken too. In the menu though they are placed on the page detailed for vegetarians. That’s Goan understanding of vegetarian for you.
Over the years and our many visits we have tried most of the items on the menu and every single one of them is given care. There is a pride in its serving and in this pride lies its class. May it be the Goan Sausage or the Pork Vindaloo, the Mutton Xacutti or the Fish curries, the Prawn Balchaos or the Puddings this place serves it with style and a consistency that is exemplary. A decent enough offering on wine ( this may improve with time ) and a cocktail menu completes the list
A meal that includes beers, a good starter, a main course and dessert for two would set you back by about Rs.1500/- if you go overboard on the Wines and the drinks then you would seriously dent the pocket. This place is neither cheap, nor over the top expensive. It is definitely serious value for money for a discerning diner. On this visit when we had all our meals here, we happened to ask Maxi… still the principal face of service here…who is the Chef? He laughed and said we have no chef…Our owner Maria Suzette Martin has designed a menu with recipes from all corners of Goa, some of them (recipes) even lost to locals. We have a designed stock sheet that creates and maintains the consistency. He told us that we also have a yacht where we can take you out on a private cruise for parties of size 2 to 12. We would be doing that soon.
It was raining when we reached for our last meal of this recent trip on 12 July, noon. We had a late afternoon flight. Sitting on the patio…just the two of us…on the bench cradling our beers, watching the heavy rain, drop & soak into the garden. If ever there was a Zen experience it was this, the absolute harmony between Ambience, Service & Cuisine.
P.S : We decided then and there that this experience needed an extension. So at the end of our leisurely lunch parceled a Beef Xacutti and Sannas to be eaten back home at Bombay…talk about pigging on cows…who else could do it but a Kau…it was divinely ordained is how I see it :-)