I’m not sure I quite understand the obsession with multi-cuisine menus in Goan restaurants. One section with the familiar recheado coated seafood listings, some meat roasts and curries, the next with a mixture of Indian bhajis, tikkas and naans, and another with manchow soup, chilli chicken, crispy beef and other Indo-Chinese staples. It’s odd, and more than a little dubious, but this is the case everywhere and in almost every restaurant from Pernem to Canacona.
But then I ask myself whether they really are Goan restaurants. While some do boast Goan authenticity, most have multi-cuisine in the subtext or leave it out altogether. Just because the restaurant conducts its business in Goa does not have to infer an adherence to its cuisine. However, confusingly enough, most do have a section reserved for the aforementioned Goan offering. This remains true unless they’re explicitly cooking food from a particular region. I want to say that this arrangement exists because of some underlying insecurity, but I don’t think that’s the case. Maybe if it were just a few of restaurants I’d make them the exceptions, but it’s nearly all of them. The biggest issue I have with all this is that unknowing visitors that dine at these establishments might go so far as to think that multi-cuisine was Goan, perish the thought.
It could just be a way to pad the menu, to make it look long and impressive in the eyes of hungry customers. Maybe to some people diverse menus make chefs look good, they certainly do not to a food critic. If I am being generously optimistic then the observation could intimate the kitchen is either well manned by a diversely talented crew or that the singular person in charge is variously capable. But for me the real reason lies at the core of Goan cuisine, in its domesticity.
Every Goan option is one that is consistently replicated in Goan households. While roasts, croquettes and vindaloos are reserved for more special occasions, fish curry rice, and fried seafood are sometimes an everyday occurrence. Though it can be said that making the masala for xacuti and squeezing the pulpy infused coconut for curries can be troublesome, the fact remains that if your mum or your granny cooks at home, you’ve probably had these Goan dishes a couple of times a month. It thus stands to reason that when you go out, especially when faced with the limited number of restaurants in the area, you want to at least lay eyes on menus that have something foreign or unconventional to offer.
Nevertheless, every restaurant in Goa without a stipulated cuisine, whether it be a hutment on the beach or a massive Portuguese house conversion, must always have something Goan on the menu for those too lazy to cook at home or for tourists looking to try the local food. In a place like Goa you never know who may walk in, so it’s best to be prepared. The more you think about it, the more multi-cuisine makes sense.
In all the places I’ve visited in Goa, no matter the name or fullness of menu, I’ve always ended up ordering the same things. At Fisherman’s Wharf in Panjim we had the chicken cafreal, masala-semolina fried sea bass (chonak) and prawn curry, at Ritz Classic, we had the fish thali which included similarly fried fish, a more Hindu style prawn curry with a few other additions, at Florentine’s we had much of the same with the unusual addition of fried rice and at O’ Coqueiros, when told our favourite rissois de camarão and tongue roast was unavailable, ordered a vindaloo and plates of masala fried copia (modso) to tide us over. Our orders were a constant litany of recurrence to the point where I expected waiters to know exactly what we wanted irrespective of where we were.
I must reiterate that this was not because of a lack of choice; it’s just that no other dishes seemed too interesting, and by God I wasn’t going to order anything Indian or risk my good mood on menu items that a chef may have forgotten was on there. In such cases, your narrow-mindedness isn’t even something you notice, everything transpires as a matter of self-evidence.
It’s funny but even Goans who visit these restaurants very rarely order anything but Goan, only venturing on occasion to have a bowl of manchow or a plate of noodles. Sometimes you may see, on the tables of festive groups, multifarious assortments of butter garlic squid or prawns, a dish of chicken kadai, maybe even butter chicken and rogan jhosh, but in the end, these other items are only available for the sake of appearance, and if they taste good it is rather indicative of your good fortune.
The way your Goan grandmother cooks is time consuming and thus seems to be increasingly left to trained chefs. Sooner than later even thoroughbred Goans who ordinarily do not find reason to go out to eat will have to because they can’t be bothered to spend an hour shaping and breading fish cutlets or rolling and tying beef rollado. I suppose in some ways this is the plight of Goan cooking and it is the one part of my grandmothers’ legacy and Goan culture I wish to continue and save. I do strongly believe that despite it all, there will always be someone, somewhere, who will continue to make Goan chourico the old-fashioned way, motivated not by altruism but by cravings whose powers we know all too well.
Multi-cuisine is a façade behind which heavily ‘touristed’ Goa can cover all bases. It is no wonder that Indo-Chinese is so popular, what with it being so incredibly easy to prepare and cook. As far as I am concerned, all the other cuisines that find their way on Goan restaurant menus are mediocre at best anyway. All these half-baked ventures into the ‘different’ for the sake of it only serve as ways to bring the wayward back home to their mother’s food. And there are more and more of these wayward sons and daughters to bring back. For while the culture of Goa is being denigrated by an almost nationalistic non-secular Indian government, and the food watered down by the interests of Indians from other parts and beach bumming foreigners, true Goans are leaving for greener pastures around the world, or are hypocritically railing from abroad inspired by bouts of nostalgia.
The conventional critical rules for menus that look confused and unfocused do not necessarily apply to those in Goa. In order for this to prove true you must proverbially gloss over the boring Indian, the dreadfully American and the lifeless Indo-Chinese and order what you were going to anyway, the meat and seafood laden indulgences that cleave to the Goan soul. The credibility of a Goan restaurant inevitably rests on nothing besides. I don’t think many people have visited Martin’s Beach Corner for example, and have passed judgement based on their rather mundane chicken manchurian.