Coming in for a land at Goa's tiny airport after the one-hour flight south from Bombay, I saw lush tropical vegetation stretching to sandy beaches at the edge of the Arabian Sea. Two lazy days on the sandy beach in the 80-degree warmth, followed by an early dinner and bed, and I would be wonderfully tanned and rested before leaving India after a month of hectic sightseeing. Or so I thought.
Instead I spent most of my waking hours over the next two days eating four extraordinary meals at a small restaurant in Panjim, the capital of India's smallest province.
During the tax ride through Panjim (it's sometimes called Panaji) to my hotel, I asked the driver if he had heard of a restaurant called El Gazella, a place mentioned in an article I had read. He hadn't, but finally found it on a quiet residential street, Rua Dr. A. de Noronha.
I rang the doorbell of the stately white stucco house. A middle-aged woman in a housecoat came to the door and told me that the restaurant wasn't open yet, to come back at 7:30 "when Bernardino will be here."
Another taxi returned me to El Gazella, and waited while I had dinner. (Taxis do not charge for waiting in India.) The small dining room has six or seven tables with places for no more than 20 diners. The walls are white, the ceiling bright orange.
Bernardino (de Casto) was indeed there and spoke impeccable English. Over the next two days I learned he was just 29 years old, a former chemistry student who a year earlier was thrust into running the restaurant when his older sister married and gave up the job. He soon learned, as he put it, "cooking is in my blood." Bernardino, assisted by his mother and another sister, now does most of the cooking and supervises the dining room.
For an aperitif was told to sample the local brew - fernis. There are two varieties of this fermented drink. One is made from the cashew apple, the other from the plant (not the nut) of the coconut palm. Both are clear and resemble eau de vie in potency.
During four hours of dining and conversation, Bernardino explained that, despite his name, he was 100 percent Indian. His family had converted to Christianity during the Inquisition at the urging of Portuguese colonists. With annexation for liberation) of Goa by India in 1961 (after 451 years of Portuguese rule) the Hindu influence increased. Today, there are twice as many Hindus as Christians, plus a spattering of Moslems.
The food, like the rest of the culture, is a blend of Indian and Portuguese. It is hot, but not overwhelmingly so, even for a Westerner. The staple is curry, Indian of course, made in an endless variety of ways, usually without meat, although few Goans are vegetarian. An obvious Portuguese contribution is soup. Most conspicuous, however, is the selection of tropical fruits. There is an equal range of fish and seafood.
One morning, I accompanied him to the fish market and watched him shop, carefully examining fish for quality and freshness. He apologized for not buying oysters, but explained that the beds near Panjim were too close to the main shipping channel to make him comfortable, while the ones in northern Goa - 20 miles away - were not fresh enough to suit him. I asked Bernardino what he meant. "Well," he exclaimed, "before I buy them they may have been out of the water for as long as four hours."
Although the menu changes with the day and season, prices are reasonable, to say the least. Most main courses are 8 or 10 rupees - about $1 to $1.20. The exception was lobster. It cost $3.60 to $4.80.
Until 10 years ago, Bernardino explained, fishermen gave lobsters away or sold them for 25 paeses (one-quarter of a rupee, or 3 cents). Then an American woman named Dunbar - she is notorious in certain circles in Goa - started paying fisherman $1 for each lobster they delivered to her home. The market price soared and kept climbing, so that lobsters now sell for $2.50 or more.
In four meals I just about ate my way through the menu - including kingfish balchao (made with a sauce from tiny dried shrimp), mackerel stuffed with masala (made from coconut, coriander leaves and garlic) and wonderfully light sauteed fresh shrimp.
I forgot to mention one thing. The management of El Gazella adds a service charge. But one can learn to live with having 5 percent of $2 added to the check, especially when the chef sends you away with some prize recipes.
Those that follow are between what would be described as "medium" and "hot" in an Indian restaurant here. To change the degree of hotness, increase or decrease the number of peppers. All dishes may be served with boiled white rice. CRAB SEC-SEC 8 Maryland hard-shelled crabs Coconut milk made from 2 cups grated coconut and 1 1/2 cups hot water (see Notes). 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh coconut (see Notes) 4 green hot peppers, 2 inches long, seeds removed 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 5 garlic cloves 1 teaspoon tamarind (see Notes) 1 medium onion, finely chopped 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Kill crabs by piercing the center of the underside with a sharp knife. Remove the hard outer shell and discard just the lung sacks. Separate and lightly crush the pincers. Cut the main body section in half lengthwise.
Place hot peppers, cumin, coriander and garlic in a blender or food processor and reduce to a paste.
Saute the onion in the vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet until transparent. Add the spices, cook for 1/2 minute. Add the coconut milk, bring to a boil and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Add the grated coconut and the crabs, and return liquid to the boil. Add the tamarind. Cook over moderately high heat until done, about 5 to 8 minutes. MACKEREL WITH GREEN MASALA
(4 servings) 2 mackerel or other oil fish, about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pound each 1/2 cup grated fresh coconut (see Notes) 1 medium onion 6 cloves garlic 5 green hot peppers, 2 inches long, seeds removed 1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves, packed lightly 1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds 1 teaspoon tamarind (see Notes) 1 teaspoon coriander seeds 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have fish market bone fish, leaving heads and tails in place. Put a thin coat of oil on baking dish. Lightly salt inside of fish.
Grind remaining ingredients to a paste in a blender or food processor. Stuff the fish with the paste and suture the opening with toothpicks.
Place stuffed fish in a large platter or ovenproof dish and cook until fish flakes, 15 to 18 minutes SHRIMP WITH COCONUT SAUCE (6 servings) 2 pounds peeled and deveined medium-sized shrimp Coconut milk made from 3 cups grated coconut and 2 1/2 cups hot water (see Notes) 2 tablespoons corn starch 3/4 cup loosely packed fresh-grated coconut (see Notes) 1 piece (2 inches long) fresh ginger root, peeled 4 green hot peppers (2 inches long) seeds removed 2 tablespoons coriander seeds 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 2 tablespoons corn starch 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a small bowl, mix the corn starch and 1/4 cup of coconut milk until a smooth paste is formed. Add enough additional coconut milk so that half of the liquid is in the small bowl.
Place the ginger root, peppers, coriander, salt and turmeric in blender or food processor and reduce to a paste.
Saute the onion in the vegetable oil until it is softened. Add spice paste and saute for 1 minute more.
Add shrimp, stir to coat with mixture, and saute 2 minutes. Add grated coconut and the portion of the coconut oil that was mixed with the corn starch. Simmer until sauce thickens.
Add balance of coconut milk and cook until mixture just comes to a boil. NOTES
Canned coconut milk is available in many Asian food stores. A less expensive source is to buy grated coconut (sold in bags) and blend with hot water in a food processor or blender for a few seconds. Transfer mixture to a sieve lined with a double thickness of cheese cloth. Squeeze the liquid into a bowl.
To make grated fresh coconut choose a coconut without cracks and containing liquid. With an ice pick or skewer pierce the black spots or eyes of the coconut. Drain the liquid and reserve for other use. Break the coconut with a hammer and remove the flesh from the shell, levering it out with the point of a strong knife. Peel off the brown membrane and cut the coconut meat into pieces. Grind a few pieces at a time in a food processor or blender. One coconut makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups grated coconut.
Hot peppers (chiles) must be handled with caution since they can be caustic. Do not touch eye or face until after washing hands with soap and water.
Tamarind pulp can be bought in Asian food stores. To make a few teaspoons, place about 1/4 pound of tamarind pulp in a cup of warm water and soak for 30 minutes. Force the soft pulp through a fine sieve. Discard seeds and pulp that does not strain through. If tamarind is unavailable, substitute vinegar or lemon juice.