In late 2021, I went on a food trip to Goa that altered everything I knew and understood about its cuisine, culture and people. I had visited the sunshine state over a dozen times earlier, from the time I was a college student wanting to let loose. Those early trips included meals at Souza Lobo, doughnuts at the German bakery, sunsets at Anjuna beach, late-night partying at Tito’s bar, and visits to the Saturday night market (in fact, it was so repetitive that I can barely distinguish one visit from another in my hazy memory). But this time was different. Through the prism of food, I experienced a side to Goa that most are oblivious to, one which might even be hidden from many locals.
Having graduated from culinary school and worked at Michelin-star fine-dining restaurants in New York City, I returned to Mumbai in 2010, rising through the ranks to become a head chef cooking European food. After years of toiling over mother sauces and hand-rolled pasta, it finally struck me that I was cooking recipes from places I had never travelled to. The lack of context left me feeling disconnected from the plates going out of my kitchen, and it took an extensive food trip to rectify that. Four months spent eating my way through 36 towns and cities across France, Italy and Spain gave me a taste of those native cuisines like no cookbooks or mentor chefs could.
Soon after, I took on the role of chef partner at The Bombay Canteen, a modern Indian restaurant, and my focus shifted to desi food. Exploring different parts of India to absorb the diversity of regional cuisines became my new priority, one that I began to revel in. Over eight years, I have visited nearly a hundred towns and cities, spending 314 days on the road. I called it “Chef On The Road”, a notion that travel through the lens of someone who lives and breathes food 24x7 would offer an enriched perspective.
As with many of my later food trips, it took a bit of digging deeper, some crowdsourcing of recommendations from social media, and tapping into my network of chef friends and food experts, for me to fully realise that Goa, India’s vacation capital, is far from being just a land of beaches and casinos, or prawn curry and vindalho.
A day spent trekking through the hilly interiors of Chorla Ghat was a mini-immersion into the lives of its Gaonkar people. Wild ingredients like edible fungi, chivari, or tender bamboo shoots, and a type of bean pod called birmala are unique to this tribal community’s cuisine, reflecting the landscape of lush forests and waterfalls they thrive in.
At the Cazulo feni distillery, the founder, Hansel Vaz, gave me a crash-course on the state’s prized cashew spirit, which tends to be misunderstood beyond its borders. His tour continued into tavernas, some of them nearly a hundred years old, which remain a unique part of Goa’s drinking culture. Each taverna, Hansel said, was set up to cater to a specific clientele—those near paddy fields and coconut plantations would be for farmers, those near the beach would cater to fishermen.
On Miramar beach, conservation scientist Aaron Savio Lobo introduced me to the Ramponkars, the fishermen whose centuries-old practices ensure that the marine ecosystem is managed without exploitation.
There is Chorão, a small estuarine island on the Mandovi river, home to khazan farming, a carefully designed agro-aquaculture system that is built around the regulation of the salinity and tides of the nutrient-rich brackish waters, allowing the farmer and fishermen to coexist harmoniously.
The original version of the ubiquitous poee is practically a dying art today, one that the Godinho bakery in Majorda has preserved—it still uses fresh toddy in the kneading of the dough, as used to be the practice. The bakers, or poders, who work here operate almost entirely sans measuring tools, a surprising but impressive departure from the pastry chefs I have met in Paris and New York.
I would be hard-pressed to pick my favourite meal but one of the most memorable was the largely vegetarian feast laid out by home cooks of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community. An afternoon spent cooking with this ethno-religious Hindu community revealed a massive variety of local produce, like the spice tirphal ambadi (roselle) and sweet potatoes, which aren’t typically associated with Goan food. These were transformed into dishes like khatkhatey, moong gati, akur tonak, manganey, atwal and sukur unde, which deserve so much more recognition.
Then there was the Goan-Portuguese spread laid out for me at Nostalgia, a 22-year-old Goan Portuguese restaurant in the village of Raia. Far beyond the hallowed pork chouriço sausages and sorpotel are dishes like bacalhau cremôso con gambas—a baked preparation made with salted dried cod, potatoes and olives—and cabidela—a classic pork stew characterised by the use of pig’s blood to flavour and thicken the dish. I could go on but I am starting to salivate on my keyboard.
There’s a whole world out there, waiting to be discovered through its plates, which will satiate, move, inform and delight you in more ways than you can imagine. My food trips have left me feeling so connected to a place and its people that they have become a cherished part of who I am as a chef.
There’s so much that differentiates each experience I have had, yet there is a thread that ties them all together. Our food habits today are firmly rooted in the memories and traditions of our past, yet we consume in ignorance most of the time. Understanding the cuisine of a place brings with it a deeper sense of respect and appreciation for the sheer richness of its heritage. Most importantly, breaking bread with locals, sampling food at its source, and hearing the fascinating stories behind ingredients and dishes you had never heard of, let alone tasted, makes for a delicious and rewarding experience.
Thomas Zacharias is a chef with over 15 years of restaurant experience.