Fresh off the coast

Goan Saraswat Brahmin cuisine is all about flavour, discovers A Varsha Rao as she decodes this lesser-known cuisine from the west coast of India

GSB cuisine uses tamarind and kokum as souring agents instead of vinegar.

Goa. The name itself conjures up images of beach shacks, pork vindaloo and xacuti. But there’s more to this coastal state than just meat and spices. There’s an entire cuisine based on seafood and vegetables, too. And that cuisine is from the community of Goan Saraswat Brahmins. Yes, Goa has a Hindu population that has its own exciting cuisine. Goan Saraswat Brahmins or Goud Saraswat Brahmins (GSB) belong to the Saraswat Brahmin community and have settled along the western coast of India. The Saraswats flourished along the banks of River Saraswati, and their main occupation was the propagation of the Vedas.

The origins

Recently, to celebrate their first anniversary, O Pedro, a popular Goan restaurant in Mumbai, collaborated with Vaishali Joshi, a home chef from Goa who specialises in GSB cuisine. Vaishali sheds light on the origins of the Goan Saraswat Brahmin cuisine. “The Saraswats originally hail from Kashmir. Thousands of years ago, a great famine forced them to move. Since there were no vegetables available, they took to fishing and eating fish from River Saraswati. Then, they moved to a place called Gaur in West Bengal (that’s how the name ‘Goud’ comes into picture), before finally settling down along the western coast,” she says.

But Brahmins eating fish? How is that possible? I ask her. Vaishali clears the air, “The Saraswats don’t consider seafood as non-vegetarian food. For them, seafood is an integral part of their cuisine.” This concept is called pesco-vegetarianism, where seafood is considered as vegetables, too. In fact, GSB community looks at seafood as ‘vegetables from the sea’.

Vaishali says one of the main reasons why GSB cuisine is still unexplored is because of the Portuguese invasion. “When the Portuguese invaded India, they came with the sole intention of propagating Christianity. This influenced the local cuisine also as the converted Goans were hired as cooks in the homes of the Portuguese rulers. This, inadvertently, led to Catholic cuisine dominating the Goan foodscape,” she says.

What are the staples?

GSB cuisine’s main staples involve vegetables, seafood and fruits. The Goud Saraswats eat all kinds of seafood such as crabs, prawns, clams, mussels, and more. Apart from whipping up delectable curries from vegetables, they also cook with fruits (chutneys, curries).

GSB cuisine differs from Catholic Goan cuisine in many ways: firstly, GSB cuisine uses tamarind and kokum as souring agents instead of vinegar. Secondly, they use jaggery to add a dash of sweetness to every meal, which Goan Catholics don’t. Thirdly, the medium of their cooking is coconut oil. While Goan Catholic cuisine is all about heat, meat and spices, GSB cuisine is earthy and tastes sweet and sour.

GSB cuisine

Talking about the main staples of this vegetarian cuisine from Goa, Vaishali says, “Goans, as you know, live off the coconut. So, coconuts are prominent in our cuisine also. GSB cuisine uses a lot of vegetables such as okras, gourds, drumsticks and corn. When it comes to spices, we use star anise, clove, cinnamon, ginger and garlic. We use tamarind, hog plums and star fruits as souring agents.”

Hussain Shazad, executive chef, O Pedro, admits that like the rest of us, he, too, had no idea about the presence of vegetarian cuisine in Goa. It was only when he was researching for O Pedro that he stumbled upon GSB cuisine. “On one of our initial research trips to Goa, we met Aunty Vaishali. She had cooked her heart out and prepared a full-blown GSB meal. We were completely blown away by the ingredients and amazing flavours. That’s when we realised that this cuisine needs to be highlighted.” he says.

In a modern avatar

As part of the collaboration, traditional GSB dishes were taken and given a contemporary twist so as to appeal to the modern diner’s tastes. For instance, Vaishali says, “Khat-khate is a typical GSB dish that was included in the O Pedro menu also. Khat-khate is a vegetable stew, just like avial or Sindhi kadhi. It’s a whole lot of veggies cooked with coconut milk and triphal, a green-coloured pungent Goan spice. We also have something called alsande ton-dak, which looks like rajma, but tastes very different. It’s usually eaten with chapati.”

Chef Hussain points out that since this cuisine is not well-known, it was necessary to tweak the traditional GSB recipes. He says, “Inspired by Aunty Vaishali’s jhunko-bhaakri, we made a jhunko-bhaakri quessidilla. Since GSB cuisine is not well-known, we wanted to make it more relatable and non-intimidating. But we also didn’t want to destroy the soul of the cuisine, which is why we sourced most of our ingredients from Goa itself. We wanted to be as authentic as possible.”

Both Chef Hussain and Vaishali say that the biggest misconception people have about Goan food is that it’s purely non-vegetarian. Vaishali says, “Honestly, till I met my husband, even I didn’t know Goa had a Hindu community. The reality is Goa has 68% Hindus and only 32% Catholics. It’s the general portrayal that has stopped GSB cuisine from getting out. Even Goan restaurants don’t feature GSB dishes.”

 

RECIPE

Panji Green Watana Rassa

Panji Green Watana Rassa
Panji Green Watana Rassa

Ingredients

2 cups dried green watana

1 cup chopped tomato

2 cups sliced onion

¼ cup cilantro leaves, packed

2 tbsp garam masala

½ tbsp fennel seeds

½ cup grated coconut

1 tsp brown mustard seeds

10 pcs curry leaves

4 slit green chillies, at a bias

4 tbsp sunflower oil

Salt & sugar

Method:

Soak the dried watana overnight in at least 8 cups of water.

Pressure cooks the soaked watana on a low flame with 6-8 cups of water and 1 tbsp of salt till they are soft but not mushy. Drain the watana and save the water.

In a small sauté pan, heat 2 tbsp oil on a medium flame, add all the sliced onions and caramelise.

Remove into a bowl add in the cilantro, garam masala, fennel and coconut and grind to a fine paste with 1.5 cups of water.

In a large heavy-bottom sauce pan, heat remaining oil on a medium flame and add in the mustard seeds and let them splutter; follow with curry leaves, and slit chillies.

Finally, add in the tomato and cook till the oil separates. Lower the flame and add in the masala paste at this point and stir continuously.

Once the paste is cooked out, add the boiled watana and 5-6 cups of the reserved water, depending on how thick or runny you want your rassa. Taste and season with salt.

Serve the rassa hot with bhakri, pao, chapati or rice.

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