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Beyond vindaloo

The cuisine of Goa is a fascinating fusion born in the centuries that Portugal ruled the Indian region. But you won't find it in a restaurant -- it's best enjoyed at home.

August 06, 2003|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

The cuisine of Goa: It's the great, undiscovered regional Indian cooking -- because it's not a restaurant cuisine.

Maybe your curiosity has been piqued by references to "Goan spices" popping up on menus in trendy restaurants. Or maybe you've seen a mention of Goan vindaloo or Goan prawn curry at a northern Indian restaurant. But although more Goans live in Southern California than in any other part of the United States, there are no Goan restaurants here.

Goa, a small state on India's western coast, is famous for its gorgeous beaches, but it also boasts a fascinating fusion cuisine developed during 4 1/2 centuries of Portuguese occupation. Goan dishes -- curries, stews, chutneys and desserts that combine Latin and Asian influences -- appeal to a contemporary taste for assertive seasoning and intriguing spices but have evolved over centuries.

Goan cooking centers on meat and seafood flavored with fragrant and pungent spices: chiles, turmeric, fenugreek, cumin, asafetida, saffron and tamarind, often combined with onions and vinegar. Portuguese ingredients (such as sausage) and Portuguese preparations (such as soups) are combined with tropical ingredients such as coconut, cashews and mangoes. Finally, the cuisine absorbed Asian, African, European, Arab and Brazilian influences because of the country's position as a crossroads of trade routes.

Goan cuisine reaches its heights in home kitchens. Even in Goa, it is not restaurant cuisine. Catering schools train young Goans in the Continental and Punjabi dishes they are most likely to prepare on the job, says restaurateur Addi Decosta of Addi's Tandoor in Redondo Beach, who is from Goa. Resort food is tailored to please weekenders from Mumbai (Bombay), the nearest major city, and overseas tourists arriving on charter flights. "Tourists who want Goan food eat at shacks on the beach," he says.

In Redondo Beach, Decosta has added a few Goan dishes to his northern Indian menu. These include shrimp cooked with coconut and red or green masalas and vindaloo -- not the bastardized, fiery version of this dish that is served in almost every Indian restaurant, but one that's seasoned Goan-style, with red chiles, fragrant spices and vinegar. Decosta's green masala also has a sharp vinegar tang.

In The Times' test kitchen, Decosta prepared his shrimp masala. The dish's distinctive, full-bodied sauce is made by mixing spices into a base of onion "gravy" created from 16 cups of chopped white onions that are reduced, then pureed.

We sampled other Goan dishes when Rose Nair and her sister, Nalini Viegas, brought together friends at Viegas' home in Anaheim Hills.

A tray of appetizers featured shrimp podi, tiny rounds of ground shrimp and coconut seasoned with cilantro, chiles and garlic. Another finger food was potato chops: golden-brown pan-fried mashed potato cakes filled with spiced ground beef made by Huntington Beach resident Margaret De Sa, who shared her recipe.

Classic Goan dishes served at the party included sorpatel (a pork and liver stew), and xacuti, a spicy stew that is thought to have originated with nomadic Muslim herders because it was first made with goat meat but today is also made with lamb, beef and chicken. At the dessert table, we sampled Anne Dos Santos' baath, a coconut and farina cake flavored with rose water; and Edison De Sa's bebinca, a multilayered cake that's extremely difficult to make, scented with nutmeg and resembling a many-tiered pudding.

Nair and Viegas contributed several dishes to the buffet: a shrimp-mango curry, anchovies with spices and chiles, clams with a coconut and chile masala and a showy dish known as beef rolls, for which they shared their recipe. Wrapped with thin-cut beef, the rolls contain chorizo, hard-boiled egg and a mixture of chopped cilantro, chiles and onion. They make a colorful presentation when sliced and arranged on tomato sauce.

For cooks curious about Goan cuisine, there are some home-grown resources. Isabel de Figueiredo of Irvine has collaborated with her siblings on a book, "Spiced Delicacies: Family Recipes From Goa," that records recipes of their mother, Alda Ribeiro Colaco, (available for $18 including shipping from www.geocities.com/goancookbook).

De Figueiredo's brother, Francis X. Colaco of Washington, D.C., wrote the text for the book, which in addition to food covers Goan history and culture. Among the recipes is one for caldo verde, a Portuguese soup of sausage and greens; there are also dishes with Portuguese names but such Indian ingredients as tamarind juice and turmeric. A sauteed pumpkin dish is flavored with garlic, ginger and coconut. Empadinhas, small pork pies, are made with chiles, cumin seeds, garlic, turmeric and other spices ground and mixed with vinegar to form a paste. "Goan cooking keeps morphing and changing," says De Figueiredo. "In our book, we have tried to go back to the sources."

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