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Goan grub, honest & homely

The Villa Isabella was built by a Portuguese family a few hundred years ago in a tiny village called Verla Parla, in Mapsa, Goa. Boyhood buddy and long time Calcutta boy Shayne Ballantyne who moved base and worked for many years (and still does) on the oil rigs in Abu Dhabi, bought the Villa Isabella. It became the home of the Ballantyne family.

The interior was renovated and modernised, billiard room and all, but the salient features of the original construction and architecture, and also the external appearance, were kept intact. The massive teakwood front door, for example, along with its huge iron key with which you could knock a man out cold, remains to this day.

Into this idyllic setting walk another boyhood friend, musician and painter extraordinaire Lew Hilt and myself, some 10 years ago. To do nothing but relax. No commitments. Pure holiday. Ten memorable days.

Morning ritual was to get to market in Mapsa with Shayne and go berserk buying squid, lobster, pomfret, mussels and every other seafood imaginable. If we were enthusiastic enough we would rise really early and go to Bethim where the trawlers came in with their catch. Lew and Shayne once came back from Bethim with a silver pomfret weighing over three kilos! On the east coast, these never exceed seven or eight hundred grams, at best. Occasionally, our market bags would contain country chickens, or other meat. With family, guests and friends, there were close to a dozen mouths to feed, on an average, at every meal.

Xacuti, Cafreal, Sorpotel, Vindaloo, temperado curried seafood of every variety, and of course, the simply divine Goa sausages, it was all there. Some evenings there would be a barbecue out in the courtyard over a proper charcoal fire, with homemade sauces and dips. All washed down by fenny, naturally.

When I heard that there was a Konkan food festival on at Tangerine (2/1, Outram Street) in which Goan cuisine featured significantly, I was there like a shot. The festival is on till August 20 at least and popular items will be retained on the menu of this multicuisine restaurant that offers Indian, Oriental and Continental cuisine.

They have come up with an imaginative and authentic menu. The buffet at lunchtime offers some items from it, while dinner is a la carte. There are restaurants in the city where west coast cuisine is available, but Goa has not been well represented, whereas at the Tangerine food fest it is, and this was my main attraction. After a look at the menu, which is extensive, I decided to try items from Goa and Mangalore.

For starters there was Pomfret Rechedo, Butter Garlic Prawn, Chicken Melagu and Kaju Kotembir Vada. Pomfret Rechedo is pomfret slit open and stuffed with a mixture made by stir-frying minced prawns with chopped onions, crushed coriander seeds, ground black pepper and Goan red chillies till well cooked. The stuffed pomfret is shallow-fried in a non-stick pan till sealed and then it is cooked further in the oven before serving.

Butter Garlic Prawn is a light and subtle starter that balances the rechedo well. Prawns are sauteed with onions and garlic in butter, seasoned and garnished with chopped spring onions. Chicken Melagu is boneless cubes of chicken marinated in lime juice, flour, turmeric, salt and freshly ground pepper and deep-fried and then sauteed with black pepper and curry leaves.

Kaju Kotembir Vada is a vegetarian item, and like the Melagu, is a Mangalorean preparation. A soft dough is made with gram flour, chilli powder, turmeric and other seasoning. Chopped coriander and pieces of cashew nut are incorporated in the dough. The dough is rolled into a cylindrical shape, wrapped in foil and then steamed. Once cooked it is allowed to cool. Thin slices are cut from the cylindrical shape and deep-fried. These vadas are served with coriander chutney.

On to the main course, the items were the classic Avial (this, as an exception, was Kerala style), Prawn Balichao and Chicken Jeera Mary ' both Goan items. The Avial was made with drumsticks, carrots and beans, parboiled and then sauteed with a paste made with grated coconut, garlic and turmeric powder. Curry leaves and seasoning are added as well.

For the Prawn Balichao, onions are browned and then a paste made with cardamom, cloves, Goan red chillies, coriander seeds, Goan vinegar and cumin is added. When the masalas have cooked for a while, tomatoes are added. The prawns are cooked in this gravy and the dish is garnished with golden-fried garlic before serving.

Chicken Jeera Mary is made in a similar fashion, but the masala paste in this case is made from a strong blend of cumin, black pepper and red chillies. Tomatoes are added and the chicken is cooked in this gravy and the dish is finished with wine vinegar. I must say that the meat was tender and had absorbed the flavours of the gravy. Accompanying these main course dishes were neer dosa and appam. Normally, the Goan items would go with rice.

I personally felt that credit had to be given on the count that there was a simple, homely touch to these dishes. The Avial, Balichao and Chicken Jeera Mary ' basically a chicken curry ' could easily have been something you might encounter in someone's house. Honest, good-tasting food with a zing to it yet not difficult to digest.

For dessert was another Goa special, Bibinka. A blend is made of coconut milk and palm jaggery. This is slow-cooked till quite thick. A layer is placed in an ovenproof vessel and it is cooked with the heat coming from above. When done, another layer is put in and the process goes on till six or seven layers have been cooked through. Bibinka is then cut into smaller shapes before being served.

The cuisine of Maharashtra also features in this festival, and varieties of seafood such as kingfish, surmai, mackerel, squid, crab and seasole are on offer. There is Vindaloo and Xacuti, and the rich Mangalorean gassi curries in crab, chicken and mutton. There are plenty of vegetarian options too and last but not least, there is the classic Mutton Stew in Coconut Milk with appams.

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