Goa is a land that is known as an international tourist paradise for its vast beaches, tropical greenery, diverse history, and, of course, exquisite cuisine. The best feature of this Indian state though is its friendly people.

narrow street full of shops and restaurants outside of our hotel

Narrow street full of shops and restaurants outside of our hotel.

 

After stepping out of our hotel onto the main road, we walked for miles up and down Fort Aguada Road. The road was filled with tourists looking for an open-air restaurant, a good buy on souvenirs or just enjoying the scenery. My husband noticed that most of the restaurants posted their menus in Russian as well as in English because most of the tourists spoke Russian as opposed to a European language. One thing that impressed me about Goa is the consistently good sidewalks across the state (unlike those in many of the large cities in India). I was glad to see that cows still roam freely on the roads.

 

local cow searching for food along the street

Local cow searching for food along the street

 

During one tour, we started the day in Old Goa with its impressive old buildings and churches that were built by the Portuguese in the 1500s. We stopped at the Sé Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which, despite their need for more aggressive preservation, attract many tourists and students each day. We ended the day at Fort Aguada in Candolim, the largest and best preserved fort in Goa, that was built in the early 1600s to protect the area from the Dutch. On top of the fort is a lighthouse that was built much later to aid ships in the area. These historical monuments remind us of the contribution made by the Portuguese to the Goa of today.

 

 

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Sé Cathedral in Old Goa

 

part of the old Fort Aguada in Goa

part of the old Fort Aguada in Goa

 

Goa is famous for its beaches that run along the western coast. The water here is clean and calm; the sand is warm and plentiful. The one by our hotel in North Goa, Candolim Beach, is clean and popular for water sports. We ate every meal looking out over it. Unfortunately we never made it in time to watch a sunset. In contrast, Dona Paula Beach, in South Goa, is full of activity with vendors selling t-shirts, scarves and snacks along the beautiful pedestrian wharf. Since the town has grown right up to the beach road, it is more of an attraction than a quiet place.

Candolim Beach in north Goa is a popular tourist destination

Candolim Beach in north Goa is a popular tourist destination

 

Goa is special because of its people. They were very friendly and helpful. I especially enjoyed meeting the children. They were so friendly and wanted to be in my photographs. We had a great time meeting people in Goa. They generously gave us a trip we will remember forever.

 

Now, on to Calicut in Kerala…

 

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Since I am interested not only in cooked food but the ingredients that go into a recipe I wanted to check out the Friday market that happens weekly in Mapusa (pronounced map’-sa). It is the largest city in northern Goa. A (part time) farm manager by day, I am interested in all aspects of creating food, from soil conservation, fertilizer use and methods of farming to chopping, spicing and cooking a delicious entrée. I am interested in food from end to end.

 

We hired a driver and car to take us to Mapusa. As we approached the market I realized it was huge based on the number of motorcyces lined up along the periphery. I couldn’t wait to get inside to see what was for sale.

 

Jewelry and silver trinkets for sale in the Mapusa, Goa Friday market.

Jewelry and silver trinkets for sale in the Mapusa, Goa Friday market.

I found vendors selling clothing and textiles for the home, shoes, ropes, brooms, plastic storage bins and buckets. Some sold lovely antiques and beautiful silver jewelry. I purchased two silver coated wooden elephants for my adult children. After haggling a bit on the price, I left the booth with my prizes. Haggling is the way business is done here so it becomes a game to see how successful one can be at negotiating the best price. The vendors were very friendly and wanted to me to buy everything even though I didn’t need or want it. How would I carry one of everything from every vendor in the market home in my suitcase?

 

 

Several vendors sold dried, ground spices like turmeric, chile powder and cumin. Of course they all sold saffron. (I bought another 5 or 6 grams because I now know that I hadn’t been using it liberally enough in the past. See my post Dubai’s Incredible Spice Souk. I also saw many masalas, or spice blends, that I really wanted to try but wasn’t sure I could get it through Customs. I did buy some garlic chile masala with kokum in it that could be used to season almost any meat dish and looked really tasty. 

 

Spices galore at the Mapusa Friday Market.

Spices galore at the Mapusa Friday Market.

I was intrigued by the varieties of tea that were for sale. I expected to see different grades and types of black tea. Oh no. I saw black tea, green tea, white tea and herbal tea as well as different flavors of these teas (masala, chocolate, strawberry, pineapple, jasmine,…). I simply had to pick up some lemongrass tea and strawberry black tea. My next stop is what floored me.

 

At one end of the market, all of the produce vendors set up their stands. I was amazed at the quantity and quality of the produce. There were several aisles packed with vendors; I couldn’t even count the number. Huge heads of cauliflower, ripe red tomatoes and piles of carrots went on and on. One vendor had a mountain of green beans that rose above his waist! Another vendor had over a hundred stems of bananas ready to be cut and sold. So much fresh food was available. I wondered if all of this food would be sold but I realized that it was Friday and people needed to purchase items to cook over the weekend. Somehow I think that the market would be close to empty by end of the day.

One of the many fresh produce vendors.

One of the many fresh produce vendors.

 

Filled with tourists, neighbors and locals, the market was a lot of fun for everyone. I believe that the prices I paid were quite reasonable and far lower than I would have paid elsewhere. I had a great time at the market. Unfortunately my husband had to drag me away so we could get to the airport in time to catch our flight.

 


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The driver we hired during our stay in Goa did an outstanding job of meeting my requirements. We gave him a list of some of the things we wanted to see and he set out a plan to see as much as we could in a day and we headed to the Sahakara Spice Farm in Curti, east of Ponda.

 

Entrance to Sahakara Spice Farm in Curti, east of Ponda.

Entrance to Sahakara Spice Farm in Curti, east of Ponda.

 

This is a Goan spice farm tour that is intended for tourists who don’t know much about spices. My purposes for visiting were to see various spices grow in their native environment, expand my knowledge and get some pictures. I knew something about all of the spices but learned a few new bits of information on how they are grown. For example, did you know vanilla beans grow on the vanilla orchid which is a vine that grows up trees? Or, that the pepper plant is a creeper that grows black, green and white peppercorns that vary depending on how they are dried, matured or cooked?

 

Tour guide with lemon grass at Sahakara Spice Farm, Goa.

Tour guide with lemon grass at Sahakara Spice Farm, Goa.

 

Collecting beetlenuts from tree to tree.

Collecting beetlenuts from tree to tree.

Upon arrival at the farm, we were given a glass of lemongrass tea with a little cardamom and ginger that was light and refreshing. Soon a group of us headed out into the farm where our guide told us how each of the spices are grown and their medicinal properties: cloves, curry leaves, cinnamon, nutmeg, beetlenut, cashews, etc. The guide really knew her spices. We saw a demonstration by a very talented young man who climbed to the top of a beetlenut palm tree to harvest beetlenuts. Without climbing up and down successive trees, he just swings from tree to tree to harvest beetlenuts.

 

Just before the end of the tour, our guide came to an abrupt halt. She quickly turned around and told the group there was a snake ahead on our path. Many of the people became very jumpy; others walked a wide circle around the snake. Me? I calmly walked right by it. It was just a tiny little thing, only 18 inches or so. I’m a Texan now and I was not scared by a tiny green snake. Later I was informed it was poisonous. Ugh.

 

After the tour, we were served a traditional Indian lunch before a sip of cashew feni which is fermented from the fruit of the cashew tree. Apparently it is 40 percent alcohol (90 proof) so it has a kick. Yum!

 

I had a fun time at the spice farm even though the tour is meant for tourists.

 
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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.

Chef Rego and Ann Vinod at the Beach House at Taj Vivanta Holiday Resort, Goa.

Chef Rego and Ann Vinod at the Beach House at Taj Vivanta Holiday Resort, Goa.

 

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.

Goan cuisine prepared by Chef Rego.

Goan cuisine prepared by Chef Rego.

 

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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The Taj resort offered several restaurants. We skipped the Thai restaurant, Banyon Tree, since I was on a mission to try as much Goan cuisine as possible during my visit. On our first night, we were told that the Beach House that specializes in Goan cuisine where the property’s master chef presides was closed for a private party. Instead we dined on the outside deck at Caravela, the informal restaurant. The menu has a wide array of international cuisine but I didn’t want that.

 

Beach House Restaurant at Taj Vivanta Holiday Village

Beach House Restaurant at Taj Vivanta Holiday Village

 

Our waiter at Caravela quickly resolved my disappointment and offered us the menu from the Beach House. I was in heaven. We asked him what he recommended on the menu and had to reduce the list to just a few items. We dined on Recheido (pan grilled Pomfret fish stuffed with masala that is made with toddy) and Prawn Balchao (shrimp in a sweet, sour and spicy masala sauce). These two dishes were incredible with the traditional Goan flavors dancing on my palate. Being a bread-lover we had to try the specialties of the house: Sannas (the Goan version of Idlis, with toddy) and Pao (yeast bread in the shape of a bagel that is cooked twice) – definitely worth the extra calories. For desert, our waiter created a plate with both Dodhol (made with rice flower and jaggery usually reserved for special occasions) and Bebinca (an incredible layered dessert that takes hours to prepare and is incredibly fattening), both traditional Goan specialties. We split the desserts and called dinner a delicious success.

 

The staff in the restaurant was very friendly and helpful. If I asked any one of them a question or made a request, it would be handled immediately and with a smile. They were happy to share their knowledge (and, obviously, their love) of the food as well as of Goa itself.

 

While in Goa, we ate every meal in this restaurant feasting on local Goan specialties. My only regret was that we could not stay longer. I will come back as soon as I can.

 

In my next post, I will share with you the absolute highlight of my entire trip: meeting Chef Rego. 

 

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Our trip continues now in India; our first stop is Goa which is reputed to be an exotic destination where various cultures and flavors have mixed over many generations to create a unique paradise. With beautiful beaches, lush green trees and abundant flowers, it is a perfect setting for a honeymoon or a 25th wedding anniversary celebration. The treasures of Goa are not just the physical setting but the people and cuisine that make it truly special.

 

We decided to stay at the Taj Vivanta Holiday Village Resort on Candolim Beach in Bardez, Goa. The property covers many beautifully landscaped acres. As soon as we entered the main building, I felt the change in attitude from the high pressure of a business city to the relaxed, peaceful congeniality of a resort community.

 

Taj Vivanta Holiday Village in Goa.

Taj Vivanta Holiday Village in Goa.

 

After checking in, we were treated to a traditional, tangy Konkan drink made with local kokum fruit before we walked to our sea-facing cottage. Yes, we had a room with a view of the water! The walk was worth it to get one of the best cottages in the hotel. The property had been renovated a few years earlier so everything sparkled. The Portuguese influence was reflected in the architectural design of the cottage from the balcony and sit out patio. Inside the room was large and spacious with every amenity we could want. I was impressed with the built-in marble sofa (with a padded cushion and soft pillows) and the huge bed. Staying here would be a treat!

 

View of the Arabian Sea from my window at the Taj Vivanta Holiday Village.

View of the Arabian Sea from my window at the Taj Vivanta Holiday Village.

 

The staff was unique. Every time I met someone on the path or in the lobby, he or she was very friendly and went out of his or her way to be helpful. I prefer this informal approach to making guests feel welcome. Our ‘room boy’ created towel sculptures each day. Upon checking in we were met by Lord Ganesh, an elephant, on the desk and later found a dog with a note wishing us a good day on the bed. Efforts like these really did brighten my day.

 

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