A Goan Summer
May 14, 2011 § 8 Comments
A different version of this article appears in the Mint travel section dt. 14.05.2011.
Growing up in Goa, summer holidays in Goa were never much fun. The perils of studying in a “Central Board” school was that all my friends (who were the progeny of non-Goans who were in Goa to do the unthinkable –work) would head back to their “native place” for month long family visits. In desperation I would have to turn to the neighbourhood kids to include me in their games. My friends came back from their holidays, recharged (especially those who came one week late into the term – God, how I hated them) while I was, well, still there. As I grew older, and more mobile, I found to my dismay that May meant the beginning of the end of the tourist season, though that never stopped us from sitting on the beaches till we got dizzy in the heat.
It was really only later, when Law School decimated the concept of “summer vacations” with its trimester system, that I truly understood what an idiot I was for underestimating how awesome it really was to have grown up in Goa, especially during summer.
Food is a great part of the culture of Goa, and summer is when things reach a mindblowing crescendo. After all, while they’ll tell you that the Mango is the King of fruits, very few people will tell you that Goa is the Castle. Goa has over 100 varieties of mangoes, many of them lovingly created by Jesuits who brought the technique of grafting with them from Portugal. Each time a new mango came into being, it was christened with the name of its grafter. So don’t mind the cannibalistic feeling you may get while eating mangoes with names like Fernandin, Colaso, and Xaver.
The varieties are plenty, but the mango schedule is so precise that you could probably predict the date by identifying the mango on your plate. The arrival of the mango is announced by the blossoming of the tree in the beginning of the year. You can predict when the tree will bear fruit judging from the date on which the tree blooms.
Raw mangoes begin to surface in the month of March. On most days you can enetr Goan households to the aroma of mustard and asafetida roasting in oil and poured over finely chopped raw mangoes, (aamblis) which have been treated with salt and freshly ground red chilies. Other days ladies can be found stuffing a lethal spice mix into the carefully crafted hollow of a raw mango. And then of course there is the “sick pickle” – seeded raw mangoes in salt brine, which is served as a side to pez, a simple rice congee, and the cure for most ailments. March also sees the overburdened trees of the Bimbla or Bilimbi fruit, notorious for their sourness, which also end up in a pickle jar. These sour fruits, along with other seasonal goodies like starfruit and ambades (hog plums) also turn up as souring agents in prawn curries and other coconut based gravies, like udidmethi. The flesh of the fruit is to be smashed into the gravy for best results, and if there is a seed involved, gnaw it with all you got.
At home, our Panha and Kokum Sarbat would wow friends who came over. The concentrates would be refrigerated for easy access after a hot day, and would be soon joined by neero, or the freshly extracted juice of the cashew apple.
After precious cashews are harvested, the attached cashew apples are cut and crushed in a stone apparatus, and the juice collected thus is neero. Neero is perfectly nonalcoholic but gives a mysterious kick to young children who drink it, having no idea of the process of distilling. It is after the first distilling that this juice becomes Urak, and two more rounds of distilling produces Goa’s most vile export, Feni. Families keep a few handfuls of cashew apples from their orchards to eat – either raw (with a sprinkling of salt and chili powder to cut through the sweetness of the fruit) or cooked in a coconut based gravy, not the most popular dish in my book. While Urak is relatively easy to find in season in Goa, you might have to follow your nose to a Cashew farm to get your hands on some cold refreshing Neera. Cashew apples are notoriously bad travelers, with their thin skins, so you’re chances of scoring some are best at a farm.
For the many Goan families, mango season has its own rituals. Soon-to-be-ripe mangoes are identified and twisted off the tree branches, carefully, breaking it away from your body – or else the blasted deek or tree sap ends up blackening your hands until it slowly peels off along with your skin. If the deek falls on the mango, it leaves a black stain, reducing its market value. Keep your eyes peeled for the prized zhadpiko, a mango ripened on the tree itself, which apparently tastes the best amongst its peers.
The mangoes are lovingly taken indoors to ripen. In old Goan houses, whole rooms devoted to mangoes brought from the bhaat, covered with newspaper and hay. Some dunk their mangoes in barrels of rice. My parents consulted many experts in the field who have devised a combination of hot and cold water baths for each mango as the best method of treatment, followed by a thorough towel dry. Mangoes are pretty high maintenance!
While some mangoes are sold, none are ever at the cost of the family’s appetite. My grandmother would inspect her room of mangoes daily and pick out the ready ones to be served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and any time in between, which was actually traumatic for me during my teenage acne phase (I was willing to believe that a mango could cause me harm. As if!). Even now, when I’m having lunch “in season” at my granny’s, a cut up mango is placed on the generously served thaali, which goes surprisingly well as an accompaniment to sol kadi-rice. If there’s no sliced mango on your plate, it means that sansav is on the menu: an aromatic dish featuring skinned mangoes floating in a gravy made of coconut and ground mustard, which gives the dish its name. If a son-in-law was visiting, there is probably aamras and poori.
Family members used to eat 18-20 mangoes a day without blinking an eyelid. Mangoes could be sliced in a very civil manner, or they could just have their stems lopped off and consumed in a manner that would make Katrina Kaif blush. No one ever ran out of mangoes in the good old days. The fruits kept coming. You had some from your bhaat, then you’d get some from your family members, then your neighbours, and so on. With recent generations selling off agricultural land, the markets are the places to turn to for the hunt for the perfect mango.
And what mangoes! The arrival of the ripe mango is met with much excitement – false starts, like “outside” mangoes (ripened in “carbate”) are ignored. In many Hindu households, the first mango is presented to Ganesh, and then is devoured by the rest of the family.
Invariably the first mangoes to find their way to the markets are the “ghontas”, a local name for the “bastard” mangoes which are not the product of careful grafting and the like, but are rather just mangoes that grow out of the perfectly natural method of seeds falling to the ground and germinating. Ghontas in their raw form were quickly disposed off into pickles, and when ripened they are cooked, rather than eaten raw. The Alphonso mango, which grafted itself all the way to Ratnagiri where it attained fame under its stage name, Hapus, is repatriated to Goa where it is eaten grudgingly. The official season opener is the Mankhurad, in April, and it is met with so much love and affection that its natural fibrous texture is ignored. May sees the availability of most other varieties of mangoes – the ones with the interesting Roman Catholic names, and even some visitors from outside, like the Totapuri, which gets its name from the little beak it has.
Towards the end of May, the Musraad arrives. In its North Goa variety, the Musraad’s pulpiness is effectively used to make mango jam – mangoes are pressed by hand to extract all the pulp, and this is slow cooked till the water evaporates and doused with sugar and elaichi. After Chorizo, this is probably the best accompaniment ever to fresh pao from the poder. The Goan version of fruit roll-ups, Saat, is rich chewy mango goodness. This is all in preparation for the monsoon – while the jam bubbled away, dollops of pumpkin and spices are dried on the roof for “wodyo”, alongside sabudana wafers and nests of sweet potato noodles. On another roof would dry mackerels, shark and prawns.
Panic ensues with the arrival of the Neelam mangoes in the market. Neelams are small mangoes which would otherwise go unnoticed but for the fact that they are the last mangoes of the season, beyond which things are very, very bleak. Neelams are acquired and eaten at every meal but all it achieves is the postponing of the inevitable – and one day, it’s all over. The skies sympathize with their outpouring of grief.
If you’re visiting Goa in the summer, take some time off your beach schedule to explore the local markets for the variety in fruits. A stroll through the well planned Panaji market is a great way to evaluate the mangoes on offer. Or, befriend some locals and snap up their lunch invites. For a more real experience, several organic farms welcome visitors – and are well worth a day trip – especially for their famed lunches made with seasonal goodies. Locals jams and pickles are available at most women’s self-help organization offices located in Panaji and Madgaon. In summer, the best Goan experience could very well be indoors!