The Saraswat Thali: A Beautiful Story of Confluence
The Saraswat kitchen has preserved the ancient cuisine of Goa while absorbing new influences down the centuries
It is the smallest state in the country but Goa has so many secrets hidden beneath its green foliage that the average tourist on a six-days-five-nights package, armed with a must-see list gathered from the internet is barely able to scratch the surface. Even when you’ve checked all the boxes that promise a complete cultural experience—and a good number of fish from the sea are now swimming in your tummy—preferably in Feni, the local brew—you still go back with only half a story.
The other half is the Goa that belongs to the numerous communities that have lived here, the aboriginal Kunbis and Gaudas; the fish eating brahmins—Saraswats—who are believed to have migrated to Goa from Kashmir to settle along the west coast of ancient India; the Portuguese who suffused the cuisine with fiery chillies and tangy vinegar, and the contemporary influence of a rapidly shrinking world.
Of late, urban India's interest in hyperlocal food has put the spotlight on Saraswat cuisine—the ancient food of Goa. A few cookbooks, food festivals in uppity hotels and some academic banter by intellectuals from the community has helped. The Saraswats cook a predominantly vegetarian fare, save for the plump, glistening fish from the sea and estuaries, that are fried, pickled, and cooked in fragrant coconut gravies. Rare is the tourist who has left the state without dipping her fingers in its fiery fish curry and rice.
It's not like the world stumbled upon the Saraswats in a remote corner of the emerald state, the community is scattered across coastal Maharashtra and Karnataka, but most trace their roots back here. In Goa though, Saraswat cuisine has retained a distinct character—the Hindus kept pork and other meats out of their kitchens. They didn't adopt certain ingredients like vinegar, introduced by the Portuguese, and used local produce like Kokum, Bimbul and tamarind. But the two communities have a shared love for fresh coconut, fiery red chillies, and the essential trio of pepper-cloves-cinnamon. Locally grown greens and lentils, fruits and plums, varieties of fish and flavouring agents like Teppal (Triphala) are used liberally in both kitchens.
“The Portuguese rule created a culinary gap between Hindus and Christians. On conversion, meat became part of the new diet of the Christians. Different measures and decrees introduced new food habits and discarded old ones,” writes Fatima da Silva Gracias, in her book Cozinha de Goa—History and tradition of Goan Food.
At the same time, many luscious new fruits and vegetables like the mango, cashew, tomato and chillies, came to Goa (and India) via the trade routes the Portuguese used. These are all used in Saraswat cooking today.
Chef Kunal Kapur and Chef Gilbert Fernandes of Cidade de Goa rustle up a delicious prawn curry
Ask a Goan about Hindu and Christian cooking and you’ll get little more than a dismissive shrug, there are no clear boundaries of where one ends and the other begins. But don't go looking for items like the Khatkhatem and Madganem in a Goan restaurant. Unlike the glamorous Vindaloo, Balchao and Bebinca, posterchildren of Goan cuisine that every tourist comes looking for, Saraswat specials like Khatkhatem--it literally means a mishmash--haven’t found a place on restaurant menus.
“Khatkhatem has a variety of root veggies, tubers and seasonal produce cooked in a thick coconut gravy. It is part of the thali offered to the Gods on Hindu festivals,” shares Gilbert Fernandes, executive chef, Cidade De Goa, one of Goa’s oldest five-star properties. The Saraswat thali he has cooked for the Utsav Thalis of India episode on Goa looks like a painting at first glance. A deep orange Prawn Hooman (prawn curry with radish) shares space with a bowl of yellow Dal Varan and clear purple kokum Kodi. It is only when you chug it at the end of the meal will you meet the sharp tang and green chilli kick of this digestive.
For the non-Konkani speaking foodie who’s left a little tongue-tied with the complicated names, the Saraswat thali is a simple arrangement of dishes cooked with seasonal greens, fruits and veggies. Different varieties of beans (Alsande or black-eyed beans, other broad beans) and greens (red and green amaranth, drumstick leaves, colocasia) are cooked routinely. The Hindu kitchens also use vegetables in fish curries—radish gives a delicious twist to a curry of estuarine prawns, Malabar spinach adds a zing to clam-curry (Tisrya Hooman). A piece of fried fish resting by a mound of traditional parboiled rice complete the meal.
For centuries, the people of Goa have typically eaten what grew in their backyards. The women made most things from scratch, steaming, sautéing, curing and sun-drying, believing that a generous garnish of freshly scraped coconut can fix every dish! One of the reasons this nut is revered in this region is its versatility—it provides oil, its flesh is food, husk and shell fire ovens. And we're only talking of the fruit. Back in the day when dairy production was limited, sweets and cakes were prepared with coconut milk. For the Saraswats, a special meal is incomplete without Madganem—steamed chana dal and chopped nuts slow-cooked in coconut milk and jaggery. Redolent with flavours and textures, Madganem represents all things Saraswat.
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