The sweet scent of hot caramel teases the heady fragrance of cardamom in the air. I’m beating 14 egg yolks with flour in a frenzy, standing in Mollie da Gama Silva’s cluttered but clean kitchen in Saligao, Goa. It’s my first lesson in baking the decadent, ghee-slathered, many-layered Goan-Portuguese dessert, bebinca.
I grew up in a Catholic household in Mumbai to a Goan dad and a Mangalorean mum. My sister and I hardly visited either hometown and learned no Konkani – but we did eat a lot of bebinca. Back then, Goa was a haze of sandy beaches and boxes of the sweet, greasy dessert, brought back by everyone who travelled to Goa. I’d prolong my share by carving out thin slices and eating it layer by layer at teatime. It was only when my parents got divorced a few years ago that I realised the importance and urgency of collecting stories and traditions.
Before coming on this trip, I sat down with my father to scoop out stories of the past, of my grandfather and his father who had both lived in Saligao, next door to Mollie. My great-grandfather spent a significant portion of his life cooking in Zanzibar on the east coast of Africa – a revelation that suddenly made our kitchen of the last few years slide into place. My sister and my dad often share cooking tips and market discoveries, but we hadn’t realised he had a culinary bone in him until he began parcelling boxes of pancakes stuffed with coconut and jaggery for my colleagues on Pancake Tuesday, and turning out spicy pork sorpotel for Christmas. I’m more comfortable baking, with its precise measurements and instructions. I would never have pictured any of us being so much at ease in the kitchen, but now it feels like we share a cooking gene.
Mollie will give me the first of two lessons in creating the bebinca of my childhood, albeit not the commercial kind you get in stores. The ingredients are so basic, they’re almost dubious – there’s only flour, egg yolks, sugar, two strains of coconut milk and lots of ghee. But bebinca takes eight hours for perfection.
Plastic bottles of pickled gooseberries (amla), chillies, torra (sliced raw mango pickle), and para (dried, marinated and pickled mackerels, eaten after frying) lie shoulder to shoulder on the shelves of Mollie’s brightly lit kitchen. As she extracts the coconut milk, she tells me how she was once sent back home by her mother-in-law to learn how to cook in a week. Her crime: she’d served sunny-side up eggs with the yolks that weren’t smack in the centre.
Eggs can be just as illuminating when it comes to bebinca. Mollie’s recipe calls for a ratio of 14 egg yolks to one cup of flour. It’s a telling detail – eggs aren’t traditionally whisked into Indian dessert – and one that is crucial to the origin stories of bebinca. Back when the Portuguese ruled the seaside state in the 17th and 18th centuries, the nuns in the Convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa used to bleach their spotless habits with egg whites. There were plenty of yolks left over, and as legend has it, a young Portuguese nun named Bebiana whipped them into a dessert, stacking seven layers of the batter for the seven hills that dotted both Old Goa and Lisbon in Portugal.
By the time we’ve shuffled our bebinca into the electric oven, Mollie’s already moved on to readying lunch, a traditional hearty affair. She’s brought out a bright orange prawn and turnip curry, thin slices of roast beef, coconut-drenched tisreos (clams), enough Goa parboiled rice to feed a family of six, egg-stuffed potato chops and a little bowl of day-old thick sambarachi koddi (a rather sour coconut curry of dried and fresh prawns, dried mango seeds and the bimbli fruit). As we tuck in, I remember the walk we took through Cottula vado (neighbourhood) the day before. The sturdy, brightly painted houses had mother-of-pearl window panes, teak beams, intricate cornices and symmetrical arches. Mollie told me that my grandfather’s home once had the same elaborate detailing, although today just one wall remains run over with weeds and creepers. I hadn’t realised the magnitude of our loss until now.
There’s a lot of waiting when it comes to baking a bebinca. Every ten minutes, the pan is taken out of the electric oven and a generous helping of ghee is ladled over, followed by more batter, to bake a new layer. Bebincas come in a range of shapes and sizes; ours is elliptical. As we sit around, cooling off under fans in the afternoon heat, Mollie says that it’s important to find what you love to eat, so that you can bake it. She could polish off half a bebinca in one sitting when she first began baking it. Bebinca used to be more popular among the wealthy who had easier access to eggs and coconuts, as I learned from Fatima da Silva Gracias, food historian and author of Cozinha de Goa. Fortunately today, it’s more an investment of time than money.
When the bebinca is ready, the long hours seem worth it. It’s browned over beautifully, and there’s a sheen thanks to the ghee that acts both as glaze and glue. The slice melts in my mouth, leaving an aftertaste of cardamom.
The next day, I pull into Nagoa, a village in Salcette peppered with palm trees and narrow lanes for lesson two. I’m baking with Alva Pinto, but this time we’re trading the electric oven for the more traditional clay pot; laying down whisks and strainers to use our hands for everything from extracting coconut milk to stirring batter. A metal pot with bebinca batter is placed on sand inside a clay pot, and covered with a large metal lid that’s piled with sonnam (coconut husks), kotte (coconut shells) and fiery lumps of coal. Alva is brisk, and before I know it, the batter is ready and our first layer is browned. The community is close; I don’t need to know Konkani to understand the question yelled out by a neighbour – “Who’s that girl in your kitchen?” – before she drops by to inspect what’s cooking.
As the bebinca bakes, over a lunch that includes homemade grape wine and lip-smackingly good pork sorpotel, Alva and I discuss everything from the catechism class she teaches to family property matters. Alva grew up watching her mother bake 12 bebincas at a time. Each layer takes half an hour to bake in the clay-pot oven, so there’s even more time to kill than with an electric one. I mention childhood memories of pinag, a dark brown, pipe-shaped Goan sweet, and before I know it, she’s roasted Goan parboiled rice and ground it, kneaded in melted coconut and date palm jaggery, and moulded it into shape. As I bite into a piece, the years rush by, but for the first time, I can actually taste the simplicity of this dry, homely sweet.
Alva’s bebinca wins, hands down. Thanks to the clay pot and coal, the bebinca has a deep earthy flavour. Alva used an entire pod of nutmeg instead of cardamom, and it beautifully masks the otherwise obvious scent of egg. I saved a slice for my father, who agreed that it was the best he’d tasted. I’ll probably never have the equipment to bake such a classic bebinca, but I now know what I’ve been missing.
More than a test of stamina, bebinca turned out to be a lesson in patience. Baking the dessert requires whiling away hours, done best listening to stories of people and the dessert. Bebinca is particularly well-travelled; according to Cozinha de Goa, the dessert travelled to far-off Portuguese colonies, from Goa to Malaysia to Indonesia and the Philippines to Hawaii and the Pacific. Along the way, the recipe underwent tremendous changes. The Filipinos did away with the layers for bibingka, as did the Sri Lankans who call it bibikkan. Closer home, there are Mangalorean (bibique) and East Indian variations of the bebinca. Then there were the Goans themselves who took the recipe with them to Portuguese Africa, British East Africa and beyond.
Like our crumbling ancestral home in Saligao, a lot of our family’s stories are possibly also lost or broken. We don’t have elaborate traditions or heirlooms, but some of our habits will strengthen into tradition. The only difference was that this time, the bebinca being brought back from Goa was made by me.
1 cup maida
14 egg yolks, beaten
1 tbsp mixture of nutmeg and cardamom powder
2 cups ground coconut
4 cups granulated sugar
To make the thick coconut milk, pour one cup of warm water over the ground coconut and grind further until it’s a paste. Extract with a strainer, and keep the liquid aside. Grind the leftover coconut with another cup of water, to extract your thin coconut milk.
Dissolve 3 cups of sugar in the thin coconut milk over a slow flame. Once dissolved, let it cool. Stir in 10 yolks little by little into the sugar-coconut mixture. Add maida, a little at a time, stirring continuously until the batter is smooth. Then add the thick coconut milk. Keep aside. This is your off-white mixture.
Caramelise 1 cup of sugar with 2 tbsp of water. Let it cool. Add four yolks. Add ½ cup of the thin coconut milk and ½ cup of maida, stirring continuously until it dissolves. Add the nutmeg and cardamom. This is your dark brown mixture.
Preheat the oven to 350°C. Put three tablespoons of ghee in your baking container and place it in the oven for a few minutes.
Pour 3 ladlefuls of the off-white mixture on the hot ghee. Bake for 15 minutes. Once browned, layer it with 2 tbsps of ghee and then 3 ladlefuls of the dark brown mixture. Bake for 10 minutes. Continue alternating between layers; finish off with an off-white layer.
2 full coconuts, grated
Extract the coconut milk from the grated coconut by adding water and sieving. Mix yolks with sugar. Mix flour with the coconut milk. Run the flour-coconut milk mixture through a sieve into the yolk-sugar mixture until there are no lumps. Mix together.
Extract the thinner milk from the leftover coconut (by adding water and sieving) and add the liquid to the mixture.
Grate one full nutmeg and add a pinch of salt into the batter.
Heat ghee in your baking container on the stove for a few minutes. For the first layer, add a cup of batter and place it on the simmering stove for 15 minutes and then in the clay pot for another 15 minutes. Once cooked, add ghee generously and pour another thin layer of batter and place in the pot for half an hour. Continue until you’ve run out of batter.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.
Janhavi Welinkar is a graduate of The One School Goa. Her interests vary from visual storytelling to food. While rarely glued to a computer screen, she is a voracious reader and treats the camera as her fifth limb.