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    Whiff and flavour of Goa

The prawn balchao is to my mind the piece de resistance of the menu. Now balchao is not a dish everybody can eat. It is too strong too sour, too aggressive, too Goanese. You have to develop a taste for it. In essence, it is a pickle, the Parsis call it kolminu achar, but the Goans eat it as a dish.

I WISH TO STATE that the most authentic Goan food, outside Goa, is to be found at Dr. Suhas Awchat's Goa Portuguesa at Mahim, Bombay. In his kitchen, stocked with meats and masalas from the markets of Mapusa and Margao, are four of Goa's leading cooks: Ram Gaokar from the Mandovi's Rio Rico, Salu Fernandes from the Taj's Village, Shanker from Nova Goa, and Piedad Gomes from Purvorim's O'Coqueiro. An evening at Goa Portuguesa is an evening in Goa.

I was there (Mahim, not Goa) last week, eating what must be the season's last mussels (the mussels' season ends in July, restarting in November), cooked in the shell, with a green masala. You may also have them bread crumbed and panfried, or sauted in butter and flambed in brandy. But the Goan way is in the green masala. The Goa Portuguesa is possibly the only restaurant in Bombay which serves mussels this size, each one ten times larger than a clam. Than a clam, Mr. Thackeray's family (yes, the same Mr. Thackeray) is very fond of them, I am told. They call them the great grandfather of clams (teesreoche panjoba).

Mussels apart, the restaurant, situated behind the Hinduja Hospital and opposite the Mahim Post Office, is a seafood fancier's paradise: kurleo, teesro, sungta, kalwa, mhori, pomfret, para, lobster, you ask for it, they will get it for you. If necessary from Goa. Mr. Awchat says: "I have given standing orders, any crab, more than nine inches, send it across. They come by Laxmi Bus or Damania Catamaran. And his restaurant is a friendly place, with guitars and mandolins playing, a bar filled with lively Goan spirits, the proprietor showing his albums of VVIP customers, giveaways for regulars such as ceramic salt cellars shaped like coconut shells, and a written guarantee on the front page of the menu: If you are not satisfied with what you have ordered, you may return it to the kitchen. Ask them to make the prawn balchao all over again.

The prawn balchao is to my mind the piece de resistance of the menu. Now balchao is not a dish everybody can eat. It is too strong, too sour, too aggressive, too Goanese. You have to develop a taste for it. In essence, it is a pickle, the Parsis call it kolminu achar, but the Goans eat it as a dish. I understand there are seven to eight types of balchao, subtle distinctions exist between the balchaos of Bardez and those of Salsette. I do not know which kind Goa Portuguesa serves, but the bhakri, a sort of a thick roti made of dry shrimps which is an essential ingredient of the balchao, comes from Luotolim, our Mario Miranda's native village and the place he disappears to every once in a while. There are women in the village who make the bhakri, which is later sold in the Margao market. It is a secret art and the women guard the recipe carefully, at the same time steadily raising the price. The price has gone up in the last five years from Rs.6 to Rs.22. The roti is crushed in hands and mixed in the balchao and it is what provides the fishy flavour.

Mr. Vivek Bhanushali, 18 years with the Taj and now the genial general manager of the Goa Portuguesa, explains: "First you make the pickle, you require palm vinegar and palm feni, and the feni has to be genuine, home made in a respectable Goa home, not synthetic. And you require the bhakri of dried shrimps. You keep the pickle in a dry place and you can store it for as long as 18 months, the vinegarisa great preserver. Then, for the balchao, you add fresh prawns. And you eat it with pao, Goan pao, or what we get from Mr. Bharucha near Paradise Cinema. Soft and fluffy and just right." The prawn balchao costs Rs.80, with the pao, and it is worth the money. As long as you do not mind setting fire to your mouth.

There are other, safer dishes. The Goencho vagh (tiger) is tiger prawns stuffed with recheiado, the red Goan masala. And you will not find larger prawns anywhere in Bombay. Seven inches, give or take a half-inch. You get three vaghs for Rs.210. And Bombay ducks (bomil), fried and in Goan sauce, for Rs.40, or deboned and crumb fried, Rs.60. Or they serve you two deboned Bombay ducks with crab meat stuck between them. The bomils are treated with salt and lime, the crab sauted with spring onions and Goan spices. The whole dish is bound together with flour and white of egg and shallow fried. If you don't care for the crab meat (I would like to know who does not), you can have prawns between your bomils. With prawns, it is Rs.70, with crab, ten rupees more. I suggest crab meat, save the prawns for the smooth caldine curry. And always eat your Bombay ducks while they are warm.

In the starters, I should also mention the fishroe, just introduced. The roe is from surmai, it is served crumb fried or sauted in chopped onions. I personally prefer the roe from the boi, but that comes from navsari. And there is, of course, the roe from the sturgeon, but that comes from the Caspian Sea.

The king pomfret comes from the Mahim bazar, or what is known as the City Light bazar, or what is known as the City Light cinema. It is one of the best fish markets in Bombay, and even in this season, when most fish markets are empty because of the rough seas, it has a fresh stock every morning. Goa Portuguesa buys its pomfrets from Houlu Moushie, a lady who is quite an operator. She is reported to have own trawlers and has a large staff of fisherwomen who are daughters and daughters-in-law. She also manages to sell the largest pomfrets in the business, some of them filling an entire silver tray. At the restaurant, they are priced by their size and the price varies from Rs.450 to Rs.800.

But let me go about this systematically. Get one of the feni cocktails, a coconut feni cocktail, mixed with lime or orange, they are imaginatively made. And have the rolled papads, stuffed with prawns and crabs, with your cocktail. And remember to order the pao, and specify-garlic pao. The restaurant buys the pao from Mr.Bharucha's bakery, then butters it with chopped garlic and black pepper, and seals it in its salamanders, from where they are brought in the napkined bread-baskets, piping hot and dripping with butter. And you order a good soup with it. I suggest the Sopa Goa Portuguesa, which is a rich seafood soup of clams, prawns, lobsterandsquid. At Rs.38, it is a bargain. If you are a vegetarian (and there is an entire vegetarian menu, though I am not referring to it in this piece), you ask for the caldo verde, which is a potato puree soup, with spinach, Rs.40.

From the main dishes, I would advise the roast pork, nice and lean, cut in thin slices, with a brown sauce. There are diners at the restaurant whoonly eat roast pork, garlic bread, and drink beer, and, occasionally, alittle curry-rice at the end of it. In pork, there is also sorpotel and vindaloo, and the Goan sausages, pickled and screaming. In my childhood, more than anything else, the Goan sausages represented Goa to me. Finally, there is the Goa curry-rice, prawn, fish, crab, take your choice. But have it with the parboiled rice, what they call ukdo, double boiled. I am happy to inform you that the Goa Portuguesa serves it. But you will have to specify, if you do not want to end up with good old basmati. Which is fine in its own place, but not when you are having kurleachi kodi ani xeet. I am not mentioning the chicken and lamb dishes.

Goan food is not particularly distinguished in these, and it does not have to be.But I will mention the dessert, the bibinca, world's richest sweet, forget the Turkish Delight. It is made with milk, coconut milk, egg yolk, honey, pure ghee, and it is done in rich layer after rich layer. End your meal with it. And take some home. The famous Costa's of Goa, famous for their sardinetins, have started packing bibinca, with a shelf life of four months. You can pick up some at Goa Portuguesa.

There is one more thing I would like to mention. It is solkadi, consumed both at the start of the meal and at the conclusion. Prepared with coconut milk, crushed kokum, garlic, chopped chilli, it is an appetiser and an antacid, and it neutralises the spices. What is not known is that some six years ago, when Goa Portuguesa opened, and it had not got a liquor licence, customers used to drink solkadi as Goa beer and enjoy it. Some of them even got tight on it.

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