Goan food is not for everyone. And there is no “Goan food” anyway. The state has many different cuisines, including the excellent vegetarian cuisine of the Saraswats. But when we talk about ‘Goan food‘ in the rest of India, we are usually talking about the cuisine of Catholics.
This is popular all over the western part of India due to the uniqueness of its flavors. It is like the cuisine of the rest of India as it includes masalas. But it’s also different because it uses vinegar, an ingredient that doesn’t play a major role in most other Indian cuisines. (In fact, the original Goan vinegar is so crucial to flavor that the great Cyrus Todiwala of London’s Café Spice Namaste struggled to find substitutes when his supply was limited during the lockdown.)
I am an unabashed lover of all kinds of Goan cuisine. My go-to dish at home, when I’m too tired to make anything too complicated, is a simple pulao de chorise or a keema curry made with chorise that crumbles and melts. At any time, you can be sure to find plenty of chorise in my refrigerator.
Like most people who love Catholic food in Goa, I tend to stick to the real thing. There are great chefs in Goa like Urbano Rego who ran the Taj’s food operations until his retirement a few years ago, and Julia Carmen D’Sa who has now moved to Delhi. A new generation of Goan chefs like Avinash Martins and Rahul Gomes Pereira are now starting to make waves. (Although Gresham Fernandes, one of the greatest chefs of his generation, now lives in Goa but unfortunately he barely cooks!)
Goa food purists are always a bit surprised when I say that my favorite Goa restaurant in the world is not in Goa but in Mumbai. This is O Pedro, which was created by legendary Goan chef, the late Floyd Cardoz. Floyd wanted it to be a love letter to Goa. He wanted to capture his sense of fun and the joy the Goans took in their food.
Floyd was fortunate to have two great conductors with him when he created The Bombay Canteen: Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad. Thomas shone at The Bombay Canteen and Hussain guided O Pedro to huge culinary success. Since Floyd’s tragic passing and Thomas’ departure from the band, it’s been Hussain who has kept Floyd’s legacy alive.
I went to O Pedro for dinner last week, with Italian chef Massimo Bottura. Massimo loved it and I thought the food had never been better. Judging from that night’s experience, Hussain is the best chef currently cooking in Mumbai.
What intrigued me about Hussain’s Goan food (he’s not a Goan; he’s of Gujarati descent but was born and raised in Chennai) is how he took Goan food further that I never thought possible. The star dish of the evening was a whole suckling pig stuffed with rice and roasted. Hussain served it with an intense vindaloo sauce. It was, I guess, a pork vindaloo but not the kind you would normally find in Goa.
So was it genuine? Or was it, as critical Indian chiefs like to say, “fusion”?
I asked Massimo Bottura what he thought about it. Indian and Italian cuisines have certain parallels. French cuisine is a set of techniques and not just a bunch of recipes, and chefs are judged on the quality of the new dishes they create. But Indian and Italian cuisine used to be recipe driven. Any deviation from the norm was always frowned upon.
Prior to Bottura’s arrival, most top Italian chefs stuck to traditional dishes and claimed they were doing something new and different by plating them the French way. The same thing happened in India too where the first generation of modern chefs believed that if they Frenchified presentation they had created a new Indian cuisine.
Bottura helped overturn this consensus in Italy by drawing on his knowledge of Italian culinary history and ingredients to create recognizable yet different Italian dishes. For example, he took Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which until then had only been used worldwide (under the name “Parmesan”) to garnish pasta and make simple dishes. Bottura created one of his most famous dishes, The Five Ages of Parmigiano, to teach people how cheese changes with age and how versatile it is, creating a soufflé, wafer, mousse, and more. .
He maintained that. On its current menu, there is a dish called Fiorentina, reminiscent of the famous Florentine steak. Except there’s no beef in Bottura’s version. He uses vegetables to brilliantly convey the meaning of the dish.
Watching Bottura enjoy Hussain’s food, which relies on the advancement of Goan flavors (a chorized taco, made with a wrapper of rice flour, for example), it became clear to me that we are following the path of modern Italian cuisine in the post-Massimo era.
The world’s most famous Indian dish, Gaggan Anand’s Yoghurt Explosion, didn’t exist until Gaggan invented it. But anyone who tried it would immediately recognize the Indian rue flavors as they were mouth-filling.
When Vineet Bhatia created the chocolate samosa, the idea seemed absurd: chocolate is not an Indian ingredient and anyway, a sweet samosa? But the dish worked so well that it is now being copied by dessert chefs and Halwais everywhere. In a generation, people will start thinking that it has always been around and that it is a traditional dish.
The same goes for Manish Mehrotra’s food. Who had ever thought of rubbing sweet pickles on ribs before? Were ribs even part of Indian cuisine? And yet, no one can doubt that the dish tastes completely Indian.
We can think that these are new developments. But they are not. It’s just that we don’t always realize it. If I had told you, back in the 1960s, that it was time for a new, inexpensive hamburger-inspired street snack that used industrial buns and a hash brown, you would have been surprised. And yet, by the 1970s, the vada pav had arrived.
How about this: if I had predicted, even in the 1990s, that a popular ingredient in street food would be cheese, would you have believed me? And yet, street vendors all over India use Amul cheese in everything now. Or: that we take a Tibetan snack and put it in the tandoor? But that’s what we do with tandoori momos.
There are many other examples. When I was growing up in Mumbai, pizzas were hard to come by. Today we have Jain pizzas and even “Chinese” pizzas with noodles at roadside places.
In fact, I venture to suggest that we have been more adventurous with Indian cuisine than the Italians have been with their cuisine. All we have to accept now is that this is a perfectly legitimate way to advance any cuisine and that chefs stop using terms like “fusion”.
There is more than one way to serve a vindaloo. And more than one way to look at Indian cuisine.
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, April 23, 2022
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