Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Going, going, Goa!
India’s most popular tourist destination is changing in many aspects and at least some of the changes are for the better
Let’s be honest. Nobody ever went to Goa for the food. Oh yes, we said we did. But it was always the idea of Goan food, rather than the food itself.
For decades, the quintessential upper middle class Goa holiday experience consisted of going from one of the resort hotels to a beach shack where a happy Goan would welcome you with a cold beer. Aforementioned happy Goan would tell you that you were in luck. He had just been delivered a basket of fish freshly caught from the sea and he would cook it for you. Then, he would smear the fish on both sides with a masala and pan-fry it for you.
“Ah”, you would say to your companions on your table, “this is the real Goa! Such fresh fish! Such amazing masala!” The happy Goan restaurateur would smile back at you and send over some more beer. By the time you staggered out you were sated and content.
It was fun. Did it really matter that the fish had probably not been caught locally, that the happy Goan restaurateur had got it from a supplier who relied on farmed fish that was often not from Goa at all? That the shack had only two masalas: one a basic Goan masala and the other, the same masala with more chilli?
I am guessing it did not. Till about fifteen years ago, most visitors to Goa were from Mumbai or Bangalore and saw the beaches and the shacks as an escape from the rigours of city life. They wanted a sense of relaxed freedom, not gourmet cuisine.
In those days, I used to stay at the Taj Holiday Village and though the food there, cooked by Chef Urbano Rego, was the best in Goa, I could see why so many guests preferred to eat at a beach shack. ‘It’s the vibe, ma-an,’ they would say.
That Goa vanished for a variety of reasons. In the late seventies when I first went there, it was still significantly different from the rest of India, with Portuguese influences and a laidback way of life. Now, it is not so different from the rest of the country—it could be a part of Maharashtra or Karnataka—and though the Goans themselves are still pretty laidback, there has been an influx of migrants in the tourism and travel industry who are not particularly laidback.
Way back then, Goa was hoping to attract upmarket tourists from Europe and America. That never really happened. Then, in the mid-1990s, a policy change allowed tour operators to bring charter flights from all over the world directly to Goa airport. So, Goa became a group-travel destination and later, a destination that was particularly attractive to Russians and Eastern Europeans. This was not necessarily a bad thing but it was not part of the original plan either.
Next, North India discovered Goa. At first, it was just Dilliwallas. But now tourists from all over the North flock to Goa, edging out the Mumbaikars. They have different tastes and different preferences, so that has required another series of adjustments for the destination.
The Russians have had problems of their own. Even before the war in Ukraine began, they had stopped coming in such large numbers, so Goa has become increasingly dependent on visitors from North India, many of whom have no real interest in fish cooked at a beach shack or in fish cooked anywhere at all. So, the nature of the restaurants and the food has also changed.
You now have a new touristy Goa. It is full of garishly lit casinos, so-called ‘beachside restaurants’ where guests arrive by the coachload, other large restaurants where butter chicken can be the star of the menu and jam packed clubs that blast Bollywood music and aim determinedly for the middle of the market. This Goa makes a lot of money. The visitors love it. And nobody is complaining.
As the numbers of visitors have grown, so have the hotels. Goa now has more five-star hotel rooms than Mumbai, flights are packed and fares are high as travel bounces back after the pandemic. This means that tourism is no longer as single-dimensional as it once was. There is now a segment at the top where visitors shun the casinos and what they call “the tourist places” (though of course we are all tourists when we go to Goa). It has led to the growth of a new generation of restaurants that excite most upmarket visitors to Goa the most.
I have been to Goa three times in the last 14 months or so and several things stuck me about the new food scene. The first is that people are finally going to Goa for the food. They may still go to the beach shacks (“it is the vibe ma-an”) but they are no longer as naïve as they used to be.
Secondly, they are not even as interested in eating Goan food as they used to be. The days when you went to a handful of established but fairly basic restaurants for vindaloo and sorpotel are over. These restaurants still do well but they are no longer on any lists of must-visit places.
Thirdly, hotel dining is dead. Very few hotels have food that is very good. They have a captive guest base (many people go on all-inclusive packages) and are content to churn out acceptable but mediocre food. Not one person recommended any hotel restaurant to me on any of my visits.
Fourthly, restaurateurs from all over India are trying to open in Goa because business is so good in the state. Rohit Khattar of Indian Accent should open a new place by the end of the year. Mumbai’s highly regarded Izumi runs a beautiful outpost there. The Jamun group (Jamun, Pings, etc.) runs its best restaurant in Goa. And over the next twelve months, most top Indian restaurant groups will have outposts in Goa.
It is this boom that has led people to call Goa India’s restaurant capital and while that accolade may be premature, I certainly ate very well while I was there (you can find a list of restaurants I ate at in The Taste, my column for Hindustantimes.com). Oddly enough it was the Japanese food that scored (I kid you not!) at such places as Izumi and a lovely little Izakaya called Makutsu.
And there is a new chef-driven boom. Makutsu is run by the gifted Pablo Miranda. His contemporary Rahul Gomes Pereira holds on to a vanishing Goa at Jamun. Sandeep Sreedharan fuses the food of Kerala and Goa at Mahe. Avinash Martins is transforming Goan cuisine at Cavatina.
So, do I miss the Goa of old and the gentle scam of the fresh fish at the beach shacks? A little. But Goa has moved on. And now that there is more than one Goa experience, I am content enough.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, September 17, 2022
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