Before I left for India, I researched the chef at the Taj Vivanta Holiday Village since I was on a culinary mission to try new cuisine and become inspired with new ideas. I learned about his vast experience throughout the Taj Group and his signature Goan-Portuguese fusion second day at the resort, I asked a front desk representative if I could meet with him. He came out to meet me a short while later.
Master Chef Rego told me about the secrets to good Goan cooking and gave me the background on some of his recipes. All Goan cuisine has three elements: sweet, sour and spice. In my experience with various recipes, I hadn’t picked up on that nuance which gives this cuisine is distinctive flavor.
A secret ingredient that enhances the flavors is toddy and its derivative, toddy vinegar which is added as a last step in a recipe. Toddy is liquor made from the sap of palm trees that comes from cut palm flowers. It requires a skilled toddy tapper to climb up to the top of the trees each day to collect the sap from the toddy pots that are hung at the top of the trees. It is then distilled to make liquor and vinegar. The liquor is used instead of yeast to make Sannas and other dishes while the vinegar which is very mild is used as a souring agent instead of tamarind or lemon. More about toddy later…
In addition he shared with me that ingredients used in his cooking must be the freshest possible. As a young boy, his mother used fish that had been caught that day because the flavor was best. Spices must be freshly ground to release their optimal flavors.
He asked me to come to the restaurant for lunch and he would prepare a special meal for me. That was an invitation I could not refuse.
When we walked into the dining room at 2:30, our waiter asked my husband and me what we wanted to eat. We replied that Chef Rego was preparing a special meal for us. Soon a beautifully garnished sprouted mung bean and vegetable salad appeared. Made with tomatoes, carrots, cucumber and baby corn dressed very lightly, the salad was an excellent start to our meal. (I could eat this as my main dish for lunch because it is so well balanced, healthy and tasty.)
This was followed by plates of more beautiful food. In the center was a cutlet made with red snapper on top of a bed of dry fried spinach and coconut. Yum! Arranged on the side was his signature prawns in saffron sauce. The spices and texture of the sauce blended perfectly with the tender prawns. On the side we tried the famous Balchao Naans that are filled with the rich Balchao masala (made with red chiles and other spices) and a bit of cheese. The blend of spices inside this bread make these naans irresistible. I have not seen Balchao Naan on menus in the U.S. but they would be an instant hit with all diners.
After we had started eating, Chef Rego joined us at the table where we continued talking. What a fantastic lunch we ate that day: open air restaurant with great atmosphere, very helpful and friendly wait staff, the best food on the planet and delightful engaging company.
I was impressed not only by Chef Rego’s skills with food but with the man himself. He was very generous with his time and certainly went above and beyond what was required to please hotel guests. His food is truly outstanding and has left a lasting impression on me. (For the remainder of our stay at the hotel, we only ate off of his menu. My only regret is that we could not try everything on the menu before we had to leave.)
Master Chef Rego may be an expert in preparing international cuisines but, as his food clearly showed me, his passion is Goan cuisine.
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