How to make the transition from running home kitchens to running commercial kitchens. Six Goan ladies who showed the way.

Clockwise: Mutton xacuti, pumpkin sukke, chicken caffreal, Goan rice, vag caldine, prawn cutty, chaoli ras, bhindi sukke. Chef Sarita's dinner spread at the Tempero, ITC Grand Goa

Chef's Table, Goa

Chef Sacramenta Carvalho looked nonplussed for a few seconds when I asked for the Goan menu after we walked into her restaurant for lunch last month. Seasoned chef that she is, she quickly regained her composure. This happened at the Tempero, the Goan speciality restaurant at the newly opened ITC Grand Goa Hotel. A luxury resort at South Goa where we had gone for a short break a couple a couple of weekends back.

The folks at the ITC were kind enough to host us for dinner the previous night at the Tempero and that is when we first met chef Sarita, as chef Sacramenta is better known as. A flurry of food followed that night…crab cakes on a chilli paste bed (her creation), choriz pav, Portuguese fish balls, peri peri prawns, prawn rissois (similar to karanji, a Maharashtrian moon shaped puff) and some more dishes that I do not remember and fresh kokum sherbat which thankfully was not excessively sweet unlike what I have often experienced in Mumbai. 

There was more to follow. The ‘mains’… pumpkin and bhindi (okra) sukhe and veg caldin and chaoli ros to show that Goan do vegetarian food too and rather well at that I must say as we realised that night…prawn curry, mutton xacuti, chicken caffreal…desserts…bebenca, dodol, alle belle. As it often happens with such menu tastings, the meal started with many highs and then became a blur of flavours and memories. It was more food than we could handle but at the end of it we (K and I) knew that this was food that spoke to our souls.

Which is why we did not think twice about going to the Tempero for lunch the next day. And then the day after again, before we left the hotel.

Chef Sacramenta Carvalho, AKA chef Sarita at the ITC Grand Goa

The reason why chef Sarita was in a bit of a tizzy when we walked in for lunch was because the Tempero, like hotel speciality restaurants across the country, is not kept open for lunch. Just dinner. They do offer a few Goan dishes in the daily buffet I was told and had a small Goan section in the hotels a la carte menu too. However, the Goan menu of Tempero, with all its regalia, was not available for lunch when we stayed at the ITC Grand Goa in May. 

Seeing our crestfallen faces, chef Sarita then did what any Goan grandmother (she is a doting grandmother of a two year old herself, as we learnt the next day) would do when guests drop in at home unannounced. 

Pomfret xit codi

She fried and served us a plate of rava (semolina) coated king prawns. Biggish ones and ones which were really fresh and juicy. While we ooh’d and aah’d our way through them, she cooked us a delightful plate of fish codi (curry), with fresh pomfret in this case. She served it with red maata rice which the Goans eat, as do the Keralites and Mangaloreans, and which has become my rice of choice for the past few months. 

There was also poi and pav, Goan breads on the table. Both very soft as they were baked in house and fresh.

Poi to the left, pav to the right

On the third day of our stay, I went to chef Sarita and said that a simple meal of pork chilli fry would be lovely before we left for the airport. She thought for a few minutes and then went to her cooking station and sent out chicken jeere mira (pepper and cumin chicken)…a dish we had never had before and whose flavours reminded me of a Muslim sheekh kebab... fiery peri peri prawns and then, when we were almost full, pork chilli fry and the pulao which is cooked in most Goan Catholic households on Sundays, to have after Mass. With prawns in this case.

Pork chilli fry, Sunday pulao

Chef Sarita had not trained to be a chef in the conventional sense as I learnt while chatting with her after our meal. She had not been to catering college at least. 

She told me that she used to work as an exec assistant in a hotel called the Golden Tulip and then moved to the Park Hyatt at Goa where she first worked at the front office. She said that there were times back then when she saw that the guests were not too happy with the food on offer at the hotel. She realised that they missed the local flavour in it. This made her feel bad.

That is when she decided to enter the hotel’s kitchen, cook dishes that she had seen her mother and her grandmother cook and then serve it to to the hotel's guests. This turned out to be a great success it seems.

Chef Sarita is at her happiest when at her kitchen

 This was twenty years back. The experiment worked and she has not left the kitchen since, even though her children are settled and her husband runs a car rental business. “He says that he will go mad if I stay home all day,” she told me with a smile about her husband while she showed us pictures of her granddaughter the day we were to leave the hotel. She had adopted us as family by then you could say.

She told us that was given her own restaurant at the Park Hyatt, Goa, after she proved her worth. It was called Casa Sarita. “My home,” as chef Sarita proudly said. She later moved on and worked with the Cidade de Goa restaurant including at their branch at Lisbon.

“They found it spicy though the Goans loved it,” is what she said most unassumingly, when I asked her about how the Portuguese reacted to her cooking. Goan Catholic food is of course heavily influenced by the Portuguese cooking tradition though it has now attained an identity of its own. It is not just her native Goan Catholic cooking that chef Sarita focuses on today. She told me that she’s now exploring Goan Saraswat (Hindu) cooking and is even coming out with options for Jains (Goan food sans meat, onion & garlic!).

“What keeps you going after twenty years,” I asked her. 

“The smiles on the faces of those who dine at my restaurant,” said chef Sarita with a shy, yet proud smile of her own. A smile of intense satisfaction. A smile that spoke of a sense of inner peace that showed in her food. This is food that makes one happy.

With chef Sarita at the Tempero

After I spoke to her, I realised that this was not the first time that we had eaten her cooking. This was not the first time that we were staying at this property either. We had stayed here in 2009 when it was the Park Hyatt, Goa. The ITC has taken over the property from them recently as you might know. 

My blog posts from then tell me that I had enjoyed the prawn chilli fry and the mutton vindaloo from the buffet at Park Hyatt, Goa. “This is not your average listless 5 star hotel buffet,” I had written then. I now realise that chef Sarita was the person behind both these dishes. She has clearly earned her chef's hat.

Me at the Park Hyatt Goa in July 2009 and at the ITC
Grand Goa in May 2019

The inspiring stories from the kitchens of Goa

(Author note: If tired, this is a good place to take a break and come back to this piece later.)

“What is it with the women in Goa? Where do they get their spunk in the kitchen from?” I wondered on my flight back to Mumbai. 

Let me explain why this thought crossed my mind. This was not the first time that I had seen a Goan lady bring her home recipes to a Goan luxury property you see.

We had stayed at the Marriott Waterfront Goa at Panjim  close to 5 years back. That is when we came across a lady whom the staff lovingly called ‘Aunty Jyacintha’. Chef Jyacintha lived in a village close to the hotel we learnt. She had been employed by the hotel to bring in a Goan flavour to the dishes there. Her job was to make the masala mixes and design the menu and train the hotel chefs on how to cook these. Her husband had passed away and she raised her two young children thanks to this job. She had been with the hotel for 12 years by the time we met here. I was touched and impressed to see the high regard with which the trained (and mostly male) chefs of the hotel held her. Her food was brilliant and once again we did not feel the need to go out of the hotel in search of the local flavour.

What is unique about the achievements of both these ladies, chefs Sarita and Jyacinta, and the foresight of those who supported them, is that the Indian hotel industry still has very few women chefs. A large number of those who are there, specialise in pastry and do not work in the main kitchen. Yet here are two ladies, untrained and with no plans of becoming chefs while growing up, who are running their kitchens in well regarded luxury hotels where the stakes are always high.

Let's hear it from the mom and pop kitchens

I had the rava coated masala mussels at Martin's in Feb 19
and again in June '19. Just as good!

And it is not just the hotels of Goa, some of the popular Goan restaurants of today are powered by women too. Let me tell you about four women who fall in this category. I have not met three of them but have enjoyed their food and how!

The first is a lady named Caraffina at Martin’s Corner in South Goa. We fell in love with the restaurant when we first went there in February. We went back during our trip this May (it is quite close to the ITC Grand Goa) for lunch and then dinner too. We had some amazing rava crusted rechad masala mussel fry, tongue roast, pork chops fried in Goan spices and the prawn balchao (the pickled base of the balchao packed a pleasing punch though the prawns were a tad dry) over two meals.

Prawn balchao with poi at Martin's

Martin’s Corner is a large bustling restaurant and stands today where the once family lived. Old timers remember it as a tiny restaurant with a few tables which had been set up at the outhouse by a gentleman named Martin. His wife, Carrafina, cooked the dishes that were served then. Martin has passed on unfortunately but the restaurant continues to thrive and has grown in size. 

The next generation runs it today, but I am told that mama Carrafina is the one who still doles the masalas out.

Mumbai to Goa

Veg samosas with peri per potatoes at the House of Lloyd, Mumbai
As does the mother of Lloyd Braganza, Celia Braganza, who helped him open a tiny restaurant near a barber shop at Calangute years back ,make the masalas for his restaurants still. Lloyd later shut his first restaurant and opened a larger restaurant called House of Lloyd near Candolim in Goa which he and his wife Nerissa run today and then one at Juhu in Mumbai. I met Nerissa at the Juhu outlet of the restaurant in Mumbai recently.

What won my heart at the House of Lloyd, Mumbai, was the veg samosa. Thin and crisp patti maida crust in which was encased a most alluring mashed potato with peri peri spice mix, which was both hot and sweet. This is now one of my favourite samosas in Mumbai. Not something that I would generally associate with Goan food, though I did see minced meat samosas feature on the menus of the restaurants that we visited in Goa this time.

I marvelled at the very clever and piquant Goan choriz pate and the very intense and very traditional pork sorpotel that I had at the House of Lloyd that day. Seeing me look puzzled at the contrast of the old and the new, Nerissa explained that the pate was their attempt to offer something different to today’s customer. She added that her mother in law’s masalas still form the core of the food at both the restaurants. Hence the menu is grounded on their family's heritage and yet has a touch of what the future holds.

Fish thali, choriz pulao and sorpotel at the House of Lloyd, Mumbai

I got a taste of Mama Celia's spices in the brilliant sorpotel and the choriz pulao (I packed the leftovers for home) that I had and the tantalisingly good prawn curry which came with the fish thali. The prawns were a tad over-cooked no doubt but the curry, Lloyd’s grand-mom Ermina's recipe I later learnt, was one of the most well balanced and yet astonishingly flavoursome ones that I have had. 

And it is not just his grandmother’s recipes and his mother's masala mixes that power the House of Lloyd. His wife, Nerissa Braganza, is a baker herself and is the one who is responsible for the dessert section serradurra, caramel custard, etc). While I have not met him yet, I am sure that Lloyd would agree that it is the women in his life who form the foundation of his ‘House.’

L to R: Food & travel writer Raul Dias, me, model Teena Singh,
Nerissa Braganza, food writer and my host at the House of Lloyd
that afternoon, Noel Mascarnhas

Leading the charge from the front of the house

Beef croquette at Nostalgia

It is not just as chefs, but even as restaurateurs, that the women of Goa have left their mark on the restaurant landscape of Goa. I realised this when we went to a restaurant called Fernanado’s Nostalgia during this trip. It is located at a placed called Rai in South Goa. We went driving down empty roads one night in a cab to reach it. The next day I read in the local papers that a leopard was spotted in Rai a night or so before. Not where the tourists go I guess!

Nostalgia was recommended to us by many though it was not as packed as say a Martin’s or in the north a Britto’s or Infantaria would be, the night we went. There were a few tables occupied around us though and the folks looked like regulars. The menu indicated that the food was entirely Goan here with a specific focus on the Portuguese heritage of the state. This is not where you come for tandoori crabs or prawns hariyali or a veg vaishno thali. You do not come to Goa for those in any case!

We were very hungry by the time we reached Nostalgia and started our meal with beef croquettes. We did not have to wait too long for them and they were just brilliant. We have had the ones from the bakery at Infantaria in the past. Those are reheated in the micro and served on order. The ones at Nostalgia were freshly fried and was clearly leagues apart from the bakery ones. To use a Goan (and Bengali) football metaphor, this was the FIFA World Cup equivalent of croquettes while the rest, the IFA shield.

Clockwise; Goan Sannas, katra pav, cabidel, feijoada, beef croquette

For our mains, we had a dish called cabidel. It is made with suckling pig. Cut into pieces and cooked on the bone. They serve a whole roast suckling on order too here. The thick sauce/ base of the cabidel had a near wine-like kick to it and I later learnt on the Internet (the staff was friendly but could not explain much) that the pig was cooked in its blood. A bit like the sorpotel. We mopped this up with the Goan version of the sannas, a fermented rice flour based steamed, idli-like bread.

The other dish at Nostalgia that we had was the feijoada. A beans and pork dish that you see in most former Portuguese colonies, Brazil for instance I am told. It was originally used to feed slaves and plantation workers and hence the dish consists primarily of beans with the odd discarded bit of pork added to it. The beans used are rajma/ kidney beans in Goa I think and it has salted pork and choriz in it which adds a uniquely Goan flavour to the dish. I found the version at Nostalgia to be spectacular.  The crusty, brun pav-like, bread called the katra pav, sourced from a local bakery, was the perfect counterfoil to it.

Nostalgia was set up by chef Fernando from what I understand and most of the recipes followed here are his. He has passed on unfortunately, but his wife, Margarida De Noronha Tavora e Costa, still runs Nostalgia today.

With a mix of sharp business acumen, a stringent focus on quality and great customer service, Senora Margarida seems to be doing a great of keeping alive her late husband’s dream of presenting traditional Goan Portuguese food to the world at large. She was not there in town the day we went to the restaurant but I hear from regulars that chatting with her often makes the experience at the restaurant complete and I for sure would love to go back to Nostalgia for that. By the way on hearing we were there, she sent out a dessert platter for us on the house. I had my first taste of the of the bol sans rival, a cashew nut based caked, and loved it as it made me feel nostalgic about the creamy sponge cakes that we have had as kids.

Getting down to business

Chef Sacraments, executive chef Sunil Gadihoke of ITC & me

The stereotype of Goans as portrayed in popular media is that of easy going folks who love the slow life, with not much drive or ambition or even respect for punctuality featuring in their lives. It is all about fish and feni for them' some would say.

Well, if the ladies that I referred to in this post, chefs Sarita, Jyacinta, mama Carrafina and Celia, Nerissa Braganza, and Senora Margarida, were to meet you, they would have told you that it is actually otherwise. 

The only 'problem' is that they would be too busy working and ensuring that you ate well, to be able to take the time out for idle chatter. These women mean business and are shining examples for anyone who wants to enter the food business, regardless of their gender, on how to succeed.

Yes, India has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to seeing women in commercial kitchens but things are changing and it is fair to say that it is super-achievers such as the ladies from Goa in this post have shown how it is to be done.

Last dinner at Martin's
Nostalgia time

Some videos from my YouTube channel. Please subscribe to it if you can;

In conversation with chef Sarita:

Our afternoon at the House of Lloyd, Mumbai:

Our meal at Fernando's Goa:

In conversation with Aunty Jyacintha at the Marriott, Goa

Also of interest: Post on my first trip to Martin's Goa earlier this year


Keka said…
Very well written!