I’m up to my elbows in pork fat. I can feel chunks of lard wobble under my fingertips. The red chilli paste makes my skin smart and vapours of potent, palm vinegar coil around my head. Across the table from me, Frankie Fernandes is rigorously massaging a vat of recheiad masala into 30 kilos of cubed meat. I try to summon his level of athletic enthusiasm but my hands are on fire. “Fast, fast, ha,” he says, gesturing to the plastic clock on the wall next to me. “We have to start stuffing soon.” I think I might pass out.
I arrived at the Fernandes’s home in south Goa a few hours ago on a mission: to make choriz from scratch. Goa’s spicy sausage is a far cry from the simple, salty, sometimes smoked charcuterie of the West. It is tart, spicy, and unabashedly greasy—a complete assault on the senses. Friends who aren’t fans of choriz have often complained when I’ve cooked it at home. The potent punch of vinegar seeps into everything—my hair, their clothes, the curtains—and lingers for hours, sometimes days. Like feni, Goa’s other infamous export, it is not for everyone.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved choriz, or simply Goa sausage (locals never say Goan). It has a pungent aroma, searing spice levels, and gorgeous, fatty meat that makes me weak in the knees. In Madras, where I was schooled, it was a rare treat, something my Mumbai-reared parents saved for special Sunday lunches. With meals of sausage-pao came rambling stories of their college years. My brother and I would hear about Frannie, Melvin, and Sandra.
I start thinking about these people I’ve never met, as I take in the details of the Fernandes home. The walls are bare, except for a flimsy Christian calendar, a gutted badminton racket, and a red football jersey hanging from a nail on the wall. From the kitchen, a few feet away, I hear the pressure cooker go off every few minutes. Must be pork, I think, nothing else takes this long to cook. Outside, three cats and a skinny little pig scuffle through dried leaves looking for a nibble. The radio blares a mix of Konkani and Hindi music. There are sausages everywhere. Strings of wrinkly choriz are draped on bamboo poles in the kitchen, on the porch behind the house, and in the smoking room, which also doubles as a storage area. They look like large necklaces, like super-sized rosaries, or deformed rudraksh malas, an ominous red in the bright Goa sunshine.
“You want to start filling, or no?” Frankie enquires, snapping me out of my daydream.
I get cracking. It took weeks of coldcalling restaurant-owners and hours spent hanging around Madgaon’s sausage market, to find a family willing to let me make sausage with them. But wedged between three gas cylinders and a butcher’s table piled high with meat—meat that I have to salt, marinate in spices, massage into tender submission, and then carefully stuff into tissue-thin cow intestine—I wonder, what I have got myself into.
Goan food has always intrigued me, predominantly because I love pork. Few places in India, except perhaps Coorg and the Northeast, celebrate the meat in the same way. For religious reasons many consider the meat polluting, the ultimate taboo. I think it’s a crime to deny oneself bacon, ribs, crackling, broth, and gloppy, glutinous, stew. Surely then, a cuisine that makes such a brilliant sausage and puts the pig on a pedestal, could not possibly fail me. So I travelled to Goa to look for more of this Portuguese-inspired fare.
Goan cuisine has an interesting history. The Portuguese ruled the region for 451 years from 1510 to 1961, bringing with them tomato, cashew, potato, aubergine, pineapple, papaya, and coriander—ingredients that were until then alien to India. Most significant of these culinary introductions was pimenta malagueta: the slender, spicy fruit that we now call chilli.
Pimento verde (green chilli) revolutionised Indian cuisine. Until these saplings arrived, carefully wrapped in moss to keep them alive through their voyage, Malabari black pepper was the only source of pungency in Indian households. But pepper was frightfully expensive, a rich man’s spice that most of Goa’s citizens had never tasted. Chilli on the other hand travelled easily, thrived in Indian soil, and most importantly, was inexpensive. It was christened the “saviour of the poor”.
Today, it is impossible to conceive of Goan food (and most Indian fare) without the chilli. In Goa’s Christian homes, green chillies are ground to a paste with coriander, ginger, and garlic to made aadmas, a delectable pork curry made from bony cuts of meat. Dried red chilli is slathered on fried fish or ground to a paste with vinegar to make bottles of prawn balchao.
The colonial influence is most evident in Goa’s capital. In Panjim, I strolled down the promenade along the Mandovi River, soaking in the rich Portuguese architectural influences around me. Even the tackiest souvenir stores had gorgeous, hand-painted tiles outside. This was nothing like the Goa I had visited in the past. Lounging by the beach with a mojito and a good book is a delicious way to spend the weekend, but this was something else. This Goa had a story to tell. In the neighbourhood of Fontainhas, I walked winding roads lined with beautiful, bold colonial homes. Painted in rich maroons and bright sunflower-yellows, they had shuttered wooden windows and wrought iron balconies. Bougainvillea cascaded from compound walls, adding lashes of magenta to the canvas.
According to the history books I’ve been reading, the Portuguese seized control over India for two main reasons: flavour and faith. Indian spices were of great value in the West, and the country’s large population, they felt, were ripe for conversion to Christianity.
Religion has always influenced how we eat. Consider the Jains for instance. Their ethos and long list of taboo foods have led to the birth of an immensely creative cuisine that wastes nothing: Mango and banana peels are cooked in curries, the thick rind of the watermelon is grated and stir-fried with spices, and the seeds of many fruits and vegetables are dried and roasted to add crunch to dishes.
The Portuguese predicament was quite different. They wished the Indians would embrace their cuisine, their meat, wine, and bread—but it wasn’t that simple. So they drew up Christian culinary laws, if only to drive a wedge between the new converts and their old Hindu friends and neighbours. From Fatima Da Silva Gracias’s book Cozinha de Goa, I learned that not eating pork during the 1700s, was an offence punishable by the Inquisition, a wing of the Church responsible for suppressing heresy. A few decades later, a decree was issued banning Christians from cooking rice without salt. These laws seem absurd, even amusing now, but I can imagine the backlash they might have created back in the day.
Curious about just how deeply the Portuguese rule influenced local kitchens—and what Goan food was like before they arrived—I made my way to the Goa Chitra museum in Benaulim, South Goa. It has a collection of about 4,000 Goan artefacts, many of which date back to the pre-Portuguese period. I see carved coconut-shredders with sickle-shaped heads, coconutshell spoons with intricately carved handles, and a bullock-powered implement that was used to extract oil from dried coconuts. Victor Gomes, the museum’s founder, has promised me a traditional Hindu-Goan meal. “This,” he assures me, “is the real deal. Not the kind of nonsense they serve at beach shacks.” We drive past swathes of green, country liquor bars, and modest homes with thatched roofs until we arrive at Mardol, a thali joint in Verna, with a brisk, no-nonsense attitude. Mardol’s kitchens are run by 13 Konkani housewives. While discussing this one’s daughter, that one’s son, and the rising price of fish, they cook food unlike anything I have ever eaten before: sting rayamobtik curry, catfish in a coconut-triphala curry, pumpkin cooked with dried bangda (mackerel), and fat fillets of shark in spicy masala. Save for chillies, I notice, the food on my plate uses mostly indigenous produce. (Sting ray, incidentally, tastes a lot like shark.)
Later that day, I stroll through the messy little lanes of Mapusa Market to stock up on spices, pickles, and masalas. Scouring the local markets is my favourite part of travelling. It’s a lovely way to discover new ingredients, and a great place to buy food souvenirs to take back home. Amidst bottles of balchao and ladis of pao, I was surprised to find familiar flavours. North Goa’s Moira bananas for instance, look just like nendrapzham from Calicut in Kerala, where my grandparents live. They bring back caramel memories of nendrapzham porichathu, fried bananas smothered in ghee and sprinkled with sugar. Calicut after all, was also a Portuguese stronghold.
There’s more. Goan dodol—made of rice flour, coconut juice, palm jaggery, and bits of cashew—is simply called “black halwa” in Calicut, and fio de ovos, a Portuguese dessert called letri in Goa, goes by the name mutta mala (egg garland) in the Malabar. I find it strange that the Portuguese influence in Kerala doesn’t extend to meat. Elaborate Syrian Christian weddings may feature roast suckling pig, but it is beef that is commonly consumed at home.
Over the next few days, Gomes introduces me to other local icons. I gorge on tisrya (clams), and aamsol (pork kokum fry) in dingy bars around Madgaon where the owners still speak Portuguese. I have bowls of humon (coarse, coconut fish curry) over conversations with Gowd Saraswat cooks. From them I learn that no “self-respecting Hindu kitchen would ever have vinegar”. I share pork buns and beef-chilli pao with Goan grandpas who wish the Portuguese had never left. “They were sticklers for hygiene!” the owner of a food stall outside Santa Cruz church tells me. “If they saw my gada(stall) right now, they’d throw kerosene all over it.” He bursts into laughter, his belly jiggling with self-amusement. “But seriously,” he added, as his son doused fried pork fillets with vinegar. “They were a great people. Such order, such style.”
I was most excited about visiting the tavernas. They sounded like Utopian dive bars to me. Havens where the liquor is cheap, the fish fresh, and there’s always a pot of some glorious pork curry simmering away on the stove. The good ones, I learn, are run by families, and the lady of the house frequently stops by tables to chat with patrons, and pour them another peg of feni. The one we will visit is known for its sorpotel. But it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, Victor warns me. “To Durigo!” he tells Anthony, our driver. He might as well have said El Dorado.
On our drive there, he tells me how traditional sorpotel is made. “It begins with the slaughter of the pig,” he says. Turning to my inner Anthony Bourdain, I urge him to go on. “When the neck of the pig is slit, a bowlful of the blood is collected for the sorpotel. The meat is cut into chunks and set aside to be used for sausage and pork curries.” What remains, offal like the liver, heart, and tongue, and waste bits like the snout and ears are chopped up to make sorpotel. With the blood, of course.
On my hunt for “real” Goan food I had stumbled upon some divine food—and some that had me summoning the lord for strength. My meal at Durigo, a family-run tavern that’s been around for almost 50 years, oscillates between the two. I have the best san’nams: airy, fluffy, clouds of rice that look like idlis. Once more, I am reminded of the Calicut- Portuguese connection. These san’nams, or sanas, as they are frequently called in Goa, have a delicate sourness that I recognise—the same lightness, and faint whiff of coconut, as appams do.
Chatting with Maggie, the taverna’s matron cook, I figure out that this is because they too use palm toddy to ferment the batter, just like my grandmother. I think of the spindly coconut tree outside my grandparent’s Calicut home, the one that has caused numerous dents in the family car. Maggie has a toddy-tapper on her payroll, ensuring a fresh stash every single day.
Next to the plate of san’nams is a bowl of dark, red sorpotel. It glistens under the light of the naked bulb above our plastic table. My mind reels. I smile at Maggie who tells me that Durigo (Konkani for compound wall) uses only home-made sausage, vinegar, and masala, everything here is made the oldfashioned way. True to Victor’s promise, Durigo’s
sorpotel is packed with offal. “You’ll have a good story to tell,” I tell my worried palate and then dig in.
It is… an adventure. The meat is toothsome, to say the least, but the gravy has a delicious, viscous consistency. It is robust, unapologetically bold, an explosion on my tongue. Oh god, I think, I like the taste of blood! I decide not to confirm with Victor or Maggie whether this particular sorpotel was made with blood. And neither of them, thankfully, volunteers the information.
When I chose to explore Goa’s cuisine I expected fireworks: sour to make my toes curl, spice to render me speechless, and the pork, of course. Now I can safely say I have eaten every edible part of the animal. Interestingly, the best meal I had, the one that made time slow down, was neither Hindu not Christian. Or perhaps it was a blend of both cuisines. Sitting on a Formica chair by a stream in Rachol, at a small eatery in Esperenza Cardoza’s home, I had piles of fried ladyfish, shrimp tossed in only chilli and turmeric powder, and crab so good,it made me whimper. The flesh was moist and sweet, and I swear I tasted the ocean with every pearly nugget of meat.“You can,” Victor insisted, because Esperenza cooks the crab with only two ingredients: whole kokum and green chillies. No salt, no spices, no oil, or water. The crabs remain in seawater until they are popped into a terracotta pot, where they cook—just for a few minutes—in their own juices. I gnaw on the bright orange shell until it yields, sending tender morsels of white meat flying. And when I have cleaned off every last scrap, I greedily slurp up every last drop of ocean juice. Esperenza smiles shyly in approval, and for once I don’t quiz the cook about her recipe, her kitchen, her modest restaurant. I could never replicate this at home. I don’t want to.
I came to Goa looking for Portuguese-inspired fare, but as I ate my way around the state I found so much more: vegetarian thalis, dried prawn chutneys, and varieties of fish I’d never eaten. New-age restaurants too were keen on celebrating local flavours. At Ruta’s, a world food café in Madgaon, I had a delicious bowl of choriz-jambalaya. At Sublime, a chic shack on Morjim beach, chef Chris Saleem blends his nouvelle sensibilities with locally sourced ingredients. Choriz finds its way into his menu too. Goan food, I realised was a glorious mosaic, one that is constantly evolving.
It is on the day after my meal at Esperenza’s that I’m vigorously massaging flaming recheiad masala into Fernandes’s mountain of meat. The pork rind has been cut into long strips and set aside to make “skin sausages”, which are stuffed with nothing but rind and lard. “That’s a one-way ticket to a heart attack,” I say as I work the meat. “Yes, yes, it is,” Frankie says spending a minute pondering over my observation. “But it’s crispy.”
My T-shirt looks like evidence from a crime scene. There is a steady stream of sweat snaking down my back. I know I will smell of vinegar for days. But as I load the meat into the filling machine and see the sausage form I am elated. To be here, with the Fernandes family, on this sunny Friday afternoon. To have made this journey to be part of a culinary ritual that dates back centuries. And of course, because I can satisfy months of gluttony with the stash of Goa sausage I will take home. Sausage that I’ve made from scratch.
Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “Ode To A Hog”.
Where To Eat In The Sunshine State
DURIGO Benaulim, Mobor-Colva Road, same road as Leela and Taj Exotica, South Goa. Don’t miss Beef roulade, san’nams, sorpotel.
ESPERENZA near Rachol Seminary, Salcete, South Goa. Don’t miss Fried ladyfish, prawns, kokum chilli crab.
MARDOL near Abyss Aquarium, Verna, South Goa. Don’t miss Pomfret fry, fish thali, which includes six different kinds of Hindu-Goan preparations.
NOSTALGIA near Our Lady Of Snow Church, Raia, South Goa. Don’t miss Ox tongue, prawn kismuri (dried shrimp roasted with fried onions, coconut, and chillies).
RUTA’S Dr. Miranda Road, behind Nanutel, Margao, South Goa. Don’t miss Choriz jambalaya, apple pie.
SUBLIME Vithaldas Vado, Morjim Beach. Don’t miss Fish carpaccio, chocolate bonbons, choriz preparations vary.
UPPERHOUSE opposite Municipal Garden,Panaji. Don’t miss Samarachi coddi (chicken curry), alle belle (coconut-stuffed pancakes), cafreal.
Neha Sumitran loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
Vaibhav Mehta uses his profession as a photographer and film-maker as an excuse to travel. He uses his spare time to fulfil various pursuits, from creating musical instruments to bartending.