The Goan monolith can be attributed to the significant contributions of two different communities residing in the region.
Haven’t we all come across the meme, “Goa chalein?” followed by multiple analogies drawn, to relate to real-life situations and that cancelled Goa trip, on numerous occasions? Well, I admit that I have been a part of it too. In fact, I joined the gang quite recently when my college friends insisted on going for a trip for an upcoming long weekend. I readily agreed as I needed a break from the monotonous routine of work, eat, sleep, repeat. The destination, you ask? Someone proposed Goa and there was a long silence on our whatsapp group after a series of bustling messages. I said yes and so did another person and the next thing we knew, we were looking up hotels online. Unfortunately, that plan did not see the light of the next day and just like most Goa plans, ours ended up being only a plan too.
Why did I narrate this story to you? Well, for one, being the foodie I am, I had already researched on the good cafes and shacks we would hog on in North and South Goa. That’s when I made an interesting discovery about the Goan cuisine. Though I’ve tried Goan food in the region, yet I did not know of the diversity that lied in this beachy state. Apparently, there are two major communities in the region that define and shape what we know as the Goan cuisine today.
Same Same Yet Different
Let’s begin with something familiar first. If you are even slightly versed with history, you would have a faint idea about the Portuguese influence in Goa. The Portuguese travelers like Vasco da Gama wanted to invade India through the sea route but their attempts through the Western coast were in vain. It was then that they moved along the northern coast and arrived in Goa in the 16th century. The port town was not only lucrative for them in terms of the sea trade but also due to a prevalent Christian population. The Portuguese brought with Roman Catholicism and that’s how the Catholic community of Goa came into being.
The Catholic cuisine’s significant highlight is the use of toddy vinegar. Vinegar was brought to us by the Portuguese and gradually, seeped into the Catholic homes where beef and pork curries used it as a souring agent. A look at the hooman, which is used to refer to curry in Goan cuisine, and it is quite easy to guess whether it is Catholic-style curry or not, given the reddish hue due to the use of Kashmiri red chilies, unlike the usage of haldi in Hindu style.
That brings us to the other important community of Goa, the Hindu Saraswats. A relatively small section of the population may be aware of this fact that Goa is home to a brimming Hindu community called the Saraswats. It gets its name from the river Saraswati, where these groups of Brahmins dwelled. The sect, comprising of approximately 96 families, settled along the Mandovi river around 1000 B.C. and the Hindu dynasties like Mauryas ruled Goa for about 700 years.
With a continuing strong presence, these Hindu Brahmins evolved their own unique cuisine. This seafood-eating Hindu community boasts of a lavish vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian fare. The difference lies in the fact that they do not eat beef or pork, sticking to poultry and seafood dishes. The fish fare of Goa is well-known and while both the communities use tamarind for fish curries, vinegar is completely absent from the Hindu cuisine. For vegetables, they use kokum as a souring agent which is actually used for oily fish in Catholic households.
The practice of adding vegetables to a non-vegetarian hooman is a predominantly Hindu practice. Since seafood is eaten in most meals, vegetables lend the dishes a distinct flavour. In contrast to Catholic food, Hindus are up for a spicier fare which can be seen in Goan masalas like the Xacuti mix which has red chilies and Goan button chilies along with haldi (turmeric) to make the delicious Xacuti chicken. Similarly, the caffreal masala in Catholic households is incomplete without coconut vinegar, which adds a tangy kick to the fresh green mix for the curries.
The sweet, spicy and salty elements balance the flavours of any dish and it seems like that’s how the Goan cuisine is balanced by the nuances of the two predominant communities.