Eating out in Goa

Just like any other popular (beach) destination, choices of restaurants in Goa can get overwhelming. On one hand, there are the extremely popular and often substandard beach shacks that sell alcohol at a premium only because you have a view of the sea. And on the other, there are the really expensive high-end restaurants serving every conceivable cuisine under the world. Agreed, it is hard to achieve the middle ground but for the budget traveler, choices are plenty.

Poi platter
Poi platter

You can grab a morning breakfast of Vada Pav and Chai for as less as 50 INR. But restaurants that serve meals at affordable rates can be few and far between. I did find an odd shack serving the yummiest meals without causing me to dig deep into my pocket but those shacks are very few and hard to come by. It’s also easy to understand that food is only expensive in the very touristy places and the off the beaten track locales serve food without giving you a heart attack over their prices. Sometimes, while visiting a one-off destination, like the Cabo De Rama near Agonda, I found restaurants serving decently priced meals.

All in a day's work for a fisherman
All in a day’s work for a fisherman

When I visited Goa this time, I stuck to Poi – the Goan bread – mostly for breakfast. I even visited a Poi making factory in Olaulim, near Aldona where I stayed. But I did indulge in some fancy meals. I ate at the inconspicuously located Oltre Marine in little Vagator, run by an Italian couple that came strongly recommended by Savio and Pirko at the Olaulim Backyards. The angry-looking Italian Chef Olga was cooking a storm in the kitchen while terrorizing the poor Indian waiters working under her. I had the most amazing grilled fish at Oltre Marine and had my first taste of limoncello. I will reserve my opinion about the taste of limoncello until I taste the real thing when I am in Italy.

Grilled fish at Oltre Marine
Grilled fish at Oltre Marine
Mouthful of Gnocchi at the Oltre Marine
Mouthful of Gnocchi at the Oltre Marine

Perhaps, the surprising meal of the trip came from the Palacio at Quepem. A renovated ancient mansion by the banks of the Kushavati river Palacio is a treat to the architecture buffs. Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama who have restored and run the place also serve a pocket friendly, veritable Goan-Portuguese multi-course meal, complete with a delicious cocktail made with homegrown ingredients. Call in advance to book a meal. Enjoy the pictures.

Meal at Palaccio
Meal at Palaccio
This cocktail at Palacio was clearly the winner
This cocktail at Palacio was clearly the winner

Poi making

Poi - ready to be baked
Poi – ready to be baked
Making of Poi
Making of Poi
Poi - ready to be baked
Poi – ready to be baked
Poi in a platter
Poi in a platter

What are your eating out experiences in Goa? Leave a comment.

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Survivors of Time – Goa and its mansions

Portuguese colonial influence has left Goa with its magnificent churches, tenacious forts, exquisitely built expansive laterite-stone houses and other cenotaphs strewn across the state serving as historical remnants of its culturally rich past. While the landmark forts and churches have long become tourist attractions, the grand old mansions and houses built centuries ago are still being preserved in pockets in Goa’s villages. Some of these houses are painstakingly restored after having fallen into destruction owing to natural causes. There are also relatively lesser known forts along the length and breadth of the state with little or no tourist footfall throughout the year.

Entrance to Cabo De Rama

One such mansion, Palácio do Deão, sits resolutely in its reclaimed glory by the Kushavati River in the town of Quepem, unperturbed by the hubbub of Goa’s tourist mayhem. Built in 1787 by a Portuguese nobleman who is also credited with the founding of the town of Quepem, the mansion is meticulously restored by Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama, who also accepts visitors and conducts guided tours of the house along with a lavish lunch buffet of Indo-Portuguese cuisine prepared by Celia and served in a dining hall with ornate seating, overlooking the river.

Ruben walks us through the house explaining the displays – he shows us the oyster shell windows, the primitive mobile toilet, the restored domestic relics including iron boxes, mirrors, closets, utensils and antique furniture. The house also has a library with rare books, an eating area (where we were served lunch) and space were cultural events were held. The house features an architecture which is a combination of Hindu and Portuguese cultures, Ruben adds. The garden at Palácio do Deão is an ornate garden with beautiful display of terracotta figurines, stone ornaments, balustrades and ornamental vases.

We end our tour with a multi-course dinner preceded by a cocktail made with locally available ingredients – kokum syrup and feni. The lunch consisted of quintessential Goan specialties with delicacies like prawn curry and chicken vindaloo with a smattering of items borrowed from fusion cuisine such as batter fried prawn dumplings, squid canapés, ending with homemade bebinca – layered egg-yolk pudding popular in Goa.

It was past meal time in the afternoon when we reached our next stop, the Menezes Braganza house in the tiny village of Chandor in South Goa. Understandably, the minder of the house a middle-aged woman, named Judith, has retired for a siesta. Goan takes their siestas seriously, more so in villages where the sun-induced stupor necessitates the practice. The resident maid, however, agreed to take us around elaborating that ‘madam instructs me to show around when there are visitors during lunchtime.’ Built about 400 years ago on a land donated by the king of Portugal, the Braganza house is exquisite with its ornate furniture, long passageway that overlooks a garden, elaborate chandeliers, painting, family portraits and other artifacts.

According to family legend and the minder Judith who later came to explain us the details of the house, the house was divided into two halves with two sisters occupying each half after inheriting the property. Entry is through a huge Portuguese style outer façade with dramatically large stairs leading to the houses. Each house has a separate plaque with names Braganza Pereira (East wing) and Menezes Branganza (west wing) and entry is through respective doors. Judith tells us how the family is scattered all over now – other parts of Goa and Bangalore.

The family gathers on festive occasions, rarely with Judith maintaining the house throughout the year. Though the garden looks like it could do with some pruning, the palatial mansion is well-kept and is a living, albeit crumbling, piece of history from the Portuguese era. As we walked around, gazing at the sagging ceiling, flamboyant entryways, wooden furniture and elegant china, the amorphousness of the living and the dying becomes evident. One part of the house is also a kitchen where Judith gets her meals served, evident by the din of the fridge and the dining table with steel utensils on it.

The drive to the Cabo De Rama takes one through vast expanse of sunburned grasslands dried and golden brown alternating between undulating roads hugged by cashew trees on both sides. There is no traffic as far as eyes can see and the signboard to take diversion to the fort from the road to Agonda is inconspicuous. We fill up on oranges and bananas sold by vendors on a deserted roadside who also sell the other staple, Omlete Pav.

Cabo De Rama has the distinction of being one of the oldest forts in Goa and has witnessed bloody history for having changed hands from Hindu rulers to Mughals to the Portuguese. The Portuguese captured the fort in the 1700s and renovated it by building a chapel and barracks. The fort now lies in a state of abandon but it was used as a prison till mid 1950s. After the Indian government annexed Goa in Operation Vijay, the fort became part of republic India. For a fort of historical significance, Cabo De Rama is desolate and wears the symbol of having been left in the lurch. The church of Santo Antonio, however, is in use even now.

The entrance, the guardhouse, has been recently painted and the view of the fort from either side is spectacular. Though it requires negotiating sharp rocks, the sparse tourists that visit the fort attempt to get down to the rocky sea side on the western side to take in on the breathtaking views from close. We head out and finish our lunch at the sea facing beach shack, perched on laterite stone, served by its pleasant, chip-toothed owner Morano.

We spend the sundown at the Reis Magos fort that squats alongside the Reis Magos Church on the Mandovi River on the other side to Panjim. Though the fort is conspicuous from Panjim, it is largely overlooked by the tourists, who flock its famed counterparts Fort Aguada instead. When we visited, a Punjabi wedding was being held with celebrities like Ritu Beri in attendance. The fort is reclaimed and the walls and pathways built with laterite stones, Portuguese style turrets and the prison cells are beautifully preserved. And with its large French windows offering stunning views of the sea and the sunset itself, there was never a moment of lament for having traveled down the beaten path abandoning the beaches and their shacks to the crowd.

This appeared in The Hindu and can be accessed here.

The River Sutra of Olaulim – Offbeat in Goa

When we reached the guidebook-extolled, purportedly the most scenic spot in Mobor beach in South Goa where the river Sal meets the sea, the sun was at its peak. Almost blinding were the rays as they fell on water, reflecting back making the water simmering in golden hues. Goa’s popular beaches are heaving under pressure with commercial establishments and tourists jostling for space and competing with each other – former for seasonal business from the latter and the latter, for the proverbial relaxing beach holiday despite the chaos. Thus India’s favorite beach destination is overrun with holiday makers the instant season commences but all is not lost if you look to travel off the beaten path.

The Olaulim creek
The Olaulim creek

The tiny river Sal flows into the Arabian Sea forming one of the tiniest estuaries where fishing boats are moored and fishermen go about their daily lives – some preparing their boats to set out for the day, some constructing the boats painting the strips of wood with black varnish and some taking a leisurely bath dowsing themselves in buckets of fresh water under the feisty green awning of the cashew trees. We draw curious looks and they suggest unfamiliarity of tourists wandering into their territory. We persist and find a very inviting spot surrounded by a canopy of trees – however, on the other side of the river bank.

It is a cove, a semi-beach, while the rocky surface renders it incapable for easy navigation and the river-meets-sea corner makes it perfect for saline water fishing. But the huge driftwoods that are washed ashore, the laterite-concrete parapet wall along the ridges of the shore and the amply shaded tiny patch of sand engender a feeling that it is a hideaway with a difficult access to get to. Turns out, there is no way to cross over to the other side and the fishing boats that are setting out into the sea are not conducive to get a lift. The only other access is to ride down for a few kilometers and get to Covalessim and take a ferry to cross over to Betul village.

The 10-second ferry ride at Covalessim brings us to the Betul village and we ride along the backwaters in the acrid smell of fish being left out in the sun to dry. Betul’s roads have no signboards and Google maps is the only trustworthy aid to reach any nook and cranny since everything is extensively covered. Betul wears the signature look of a Goan village – children play on the road, local bars announce fish curry meals, a front yard of the church is being cleared up by volunteers for an upcoming feast and just as you steer into a tertiary road, the crowded living quarters constrict your navigation.

At the bay, as the day progresses, the number of men who gather for fishing multiplies. They angle in bunches and as individuals and share their small catches with each other as bait for bigger ones. Many of them good heartedly holler at each other’s jokes in their alcohol-exalted congeniality. One tells us how today was not a great day and brags about his big catch just the previous day.  We take it all in and saunter cautiously to avoid slipping or worse, getting slashed by the sharp edges of the rocks that had dead shellfish stuck on their surface.

We spot a huge jellyfish in the waters, a recent phenomenon that is a cause of concern for the tourism industry in Goa. Though Jellyfish related incidents have not been reported in the country or in Goa, spotting of these fish has been reported in recent times. Bites can vary from toxic to non-toxic so we stay away. We sit around, while away time listening to the banter of men fishing and watching the constant stream of fishing boats heading into the sea.

If you care to make inroads into Goa’s somnolent villages, you will discover numerous water bodies in the form of ponds, backwaters and rivers. Many of these are rich, monsoon fed, self-sustaining ecosystems and host to numerous birds, plants and fish. We saw ponds thick with water lilies in white and pink holding their chin up amid mossy vegetation of aquatic flora. We also spotted the migratory purple heron, tufted duck, fulvous whistling duck and Indian pond heron in these water bodies. Ducks and water fowls putter about in the company of fields on both sides where men till the land in preparation of the winter crop.

Ferries cut across Mandovi, the omnipresent factor of Panjim city, carting hordes of people throughout the day.  We savor lunch at Terrys, overpriced albeit worth for the views of Mandovi and its goings-on, on the banks of Mandovi enroute the recently renovated Reis Magos fort.

To get to Olaulim and to Savio and Pirkko Fernandes’ homestay, it is crucial to first place the tiny village on the map. Because no amount of careful enunciation of the name will yield any result from the locals if you chose to seek and find Olaulim using traditional approach. They simply haven’t heard of it. Though it is in close proximity with Panjim and Mapusa, the village has a truly fallen-off-the-map feel to it. But we have the map and Olaulim is on it. Follow the river, Prikko had earlier told us while sending us directions to reach her. And so we did. We also passed the stately Salvador do Mundo church and other villages to reach the Fernandes’ eco-homestay. Located in a 3-acre property with a charming infinity pool built around a coconut tree and overlooking a creek, this is just where you will go if you want to get lost in your travels, as it were.

Bird calls persist throughout the day, river terns dive into the creek for fish, a lone kingfisher perched on a stump of a dry tree peers into the water for its prey.  The creek is perfectly safe for swimming, Pirkko tells us because the catchment area is controlled by sluice gates and the water level never goes up. But we are already hooked to the kayaks invitingly floating around their tiny jetty. We strap our cameras on, land precariously into the kayaks and row away into the sun.

This appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.