TO A TIME THAT WAS A solider in the war to preserve a precious Goa passes on. Lesley A. Esteves pays tribute
This spring, a bowl of prawn curry served to me on a quiet beach in far south Goa brought tears to my eyes. Not because the curry was magnificent, which it was, but because I had made friends with a man I much admired over just such a bowl of prawns, some years ago in rural Salcette.
Fernando da Costa chatted with everybody who came to his restaurant. But he made friends with me that first time we met because he spotted me eating prawn curry rice with my fingers, which is the polite way in rural Salcette. When he met someone who shared his passion for Goa or its cooking, or both, Fernando could talk for hours about the origins of a particular Goan dish or the merits of branded versus homemade feni, amid lamentations about what had become of his Goa. Every time I went to his restaurant over the years, he would be there to greet me in his trademark straw hat. Every time he came to New Delhi’s Ashok hotel to host a Goan food festival, quite lost in a city where beef is buff and good pork remains a rarity, I would go across to chat with him about fenis and feijoada. Fernando, though, was not one to stop at talking. As worried as he was about the survival of the ‘Goan way of life’, he set about preserving what he could of this heritage. Some record Goa’s built heritage in books and museums. Others fight to heal the land of its hideous mining scars. Fernando’s way was to create a menu for his restaurant Nostalgia, with dishes he said were from the times “when grandpa fancied grandma”.
Fernando did not create a restaurant business as much as he did a temple, where tradition, by virtue of being practised every day, could live on. His menu reflected the cooking of the home kitchen. So a dal and a simple cucumber bhaji occupy as important a space as a pork vindaloo or seafood balchao on his table. His masalas were hand-ground every day. His sausage and, of course, his feni, was homemade. And his restaurant was purely a labour of love. He lived off the income from catering. When he wasn’t looking for another handed-down-across-generations Goan recipe to add to the Nostalgia menu, he was looking for curios from Goa and elsewhere in the former Estado da India to hang on Nostalgia’s crowded walls or another wine for his unparalleled bar. Fernando was sensitive to criticism of this temple the way people can be when they perceive their faith being criticised. I remember getting a letter from him when someone writing praise for Nostalgia in these pages looked around in amazement at the fantastic collection of memorabilia on the walls and described him as “eccentric”. I tried my best but could not entirely convince Fernando that my colleague intended to say something nice about him.
Fernando pursued the preservation of Goan cooking with single-minded devotion, and would not compromise on his recipes by adapting them to other people’s tastes. He was not in the business to serve ‘restaurant food’. Fernando’s prawn curry is made with ladyfingers barely cooked and still bright green, the traditional Goan way. It looks odd to most Indians who won’t eat a ladyfinger unless it’s fried darkest green, and puts some people off. But if you want to eat Goan prawn curry at Nostalgia, you’ll eat it the right way. With your fingers, if you’re well mannered.
Fernando was not eccentric, he insisted, just a perfectionist. If he wanted to be remembered it would not be for the great chef that he was but for recording for history that, in Goa, people ate food like this. The time to remember him came far sooner than hoped, and it came suddenly. Fernando died this past season at the age of 57, just six months after being diagnosed with throat cancer. The thought that he was unable to swallow food in the last months of his life remains a bitter irony. Fernando was no ordinary man. And his loss meant more to me than the loss of a friend and an inexhaustible fount of knowledge about Goan cooking. To me he was as heroic as those who fight against the mining juggernaut that swallows entire ghats in its path.
Fernando’s urge to preserve history came, like it has for so many others in this beleaguered state, in the face of the complex challenges that tourism has wrought upon Goa and in the face of its people’s complicated reaction to these challenges.
I am 25 years younger than Fernando was when he died. But I had the good fortune to see the Goa he knew and loved. In the Goa of our time Israeli reservists could not chase Indians off ‘their’ beaches at gunpoint, a hotel owner in Bardez could not put up a sign saying ‘Indians not allowed’, and all the services on Velsao beach could not be booked for three months by a British group that returns every year. (No, you can’t hire that lounger, even if the British are not on the beach today.) In the Goa of our times, the beachside shacks still served good and honest xacuti and sorpotel and bebinca. And you didn’t have exhaustive pancake menus written in Russian or Hebrew.
Fifteen years ago, a very-broke student, I would ride the overnight bus from Bombay to Goa and get off at Mapusa to stay in friends’ homes in Pilerne. Put off by the unending partying that is life in Bardez and the crassness of life along Goa’s ‘Golden Coast’, in later years I retreated south. The last two times I wanted my own spot in a beachfront Goan hotel I could afford, I paid my hotel bill to a British woman in Bogmalo, and then to a Russian woman in Cavelossim. They owned lovely hotels run by meagrely paid Goan staff. I gave up. I resolved to stay only in Goan homes, as a rule. Only within these homes could I hope to still find the Goa of Fernando’s time.
I first heard the buzz about the ‘untouched’ Palolem beach about seven years ago and went there to see for myself, in time to watch the fishing nets come in. There was just one hotel in Palolem then. I watched as cats, crows, aunties et al fought over the catch. I bought the lone baby shark for ambotik. Here again the Goa I knew and loved was surviving. In 2008 you can barely find a spot on Palolem beach and in its unending line of shacks, the men who sold that baby shark to me refused to greet my party of only Indians or to answer our calls for service, because they don’t serve Indians. In 2008 Palolem is no longer the Goa of Fernando’s time.
To find that Goa, I would have to go even further south. Almost to Karnataka. I stayed in my friend Ritu’s beach house in a village in far south Canacona that nobody had heard of. Turtles nest on its sands in winter. Dolphins play in its waters, visible from the beach. To get around the village I had to ride a bicycle. For breakfast I was offered slices of sweet pink papaya with a dash of lemon juice and a few golden cashew apples from the village gardens. For off-beach entertainment there was little to do but climb the cliffs on the north side that cut the village off from neighbouring Talpona. It is still a village from the Goa of Fernando’s time. There were a couple of shacks offering banana pancakes, but the village panchayat shut them down in a quick and angry overnight strike. I awoke the next morning and they were gone. The village lives to fight another day. The shack that remained was so tiny that you had to place an order the night before in order to have lunch there the next day. I went to the fish market in Canacona one early morning and haggled over a barracuda and some prawns. I asked the shack to cook these for me. Even Goans look for such paradises now. My friends from rural Salcette came to meet me, eager to spend a few days in this untouched village. Then they gave me the sad message from Fernando’s wife.
I had lost not just a friend but a soulmate in the fight to preserve a Goa that now struggles to exist. A friend who has left a legacy dear to both of us that overnight seemed to me to be in graver danger of being wiped out.
But Fernando, our Goa still reveals itself on rare occasions and in places it holds dear. Like sometimes on a quiet afternoon in a tiny village as yet unspoiled by menus promising hummus and baba gannoush.
Amidst the aroma of grilling barracuda, I looked at the bright green bhindi swimming with the prawns in that bowl on that deserted Canacona beach, and wept.
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