Monday, June 23, 2008

Mistress of Spice

The problem with husbands is that they never really appreciate their wife’s cooking. It is either compared to what ‘mother makes’ or to the expertise of some cook in a local restaurant. Well it is no different with Joe….he looks forward to getting his taste buds pampered weekly, come what may.

‘How often can we eat out? I ask petulantly, ‘the oil that is used is not very good for your cholesterol levels, at least we can control the excesses at home.’ ‘This chicken tastes like hospital food,’ he grumbles taking a bite of the chicken stew which I had so lovingly prepared, ‘my Mum’s food was much tastier,’ he grumbles.

Determined not to let him get under my skin, I pondered about the restaurants that we could visit since he was in this reminiscing mood.

‘Amigo’s,’ I cry. ‘Where ? Which friend is coming to eat this food? Let them not see what we eat at home,’ he says hurriedly looking towards the door.

‘No one has come,’ I pacify him, ‘Jyothi Nunes and Arvind have been raving about this restaurant under the Nerul bridge. They say the food is ‘home cooked’. Let’s try it out.’

He did not look convinced, even when we set out for the long scenic drive. The problem is that especially in Goa, only a few restaurants are known of…the others remain undetected. We cross the bridge and stop. Were we on the right track? Cause deep down nestling along the river bank is a house…how do we reach the place?

‘There are some steps going down,’ I point. I know this man of mine is not in a mood to find the place. We climb down a donzen or more steps…an old bullock cart wheel is propped against a tree. Was it put for effect? I do not think so. This little hamlet has no pretensions of glamour. A cement floor with a few rustic tables and plastic chairs…..overlooking…… Now this is something to die for. Shades of ‘Goa of yore’ . The serene blue river winding itself under the bridge, lush green mangroves from which a few birds fluttered for their afternoon snack, and a lonely canoe with a fisherman paddling down the watery expanse. I waited in expectation. Was he going to break into song?

Our reverie was broken with the arrival of the waiter. Of season there is no menu. What madam cooks is available for the taking. ‘So what is available,’ I ask. ‘Meats,’ was his response. I wrinkle my eyebrows. So spoilt and accustomed am I to 50 odd dishes listed on a menu that this monosyballic salesmanship was beyond my comprehension.

I guess the gnawing of the juices in Joe’s abdomen helped ease the situation. A little discussion brought out the fact that the meats chicken, beef and pork(depending on availability) are prepared in the chilly fry variety and vindaloo preparation.
‘What about fish?’ was my query… ‘Yes we have fresh red snapper and prawns.’

Meet Sabita Fernandes. This young lady with a shy smile joined us once the order was placed. ‘We only serve fresh sea food, and whatever is prepared in our kitchen,’ she says. ‘At times we tell our guests to go and try some other place as we cater for only a limited number of people.’

The seafood arrives. Baby Tiger prawns and Red Snapper Reichade. The crusty coating of the prawns mask the sweet tenderness of the prawn flavor. And the subltle marination does not detract from the freshness. ‘They are absolutely…fresh..’ I remark, as I take a bite of that crustacean delicacy. She smiles. ‘We have no refrigeration, so everything is fresh.’ ‘So when did you start this restaurant,’ I ask her. It was apparently her husbands Josefat’s idea. And moreover he goes out fishing in his canoe and nets the most delicious crabs and oysters.

‘We would however like people to call us in advance for crabs as we catch them fresh,’ she remarks. DJ Melwyn who was also enjoying a tasty prawn curry meal on the next table remarks, ‘Oh you must see those crabs, they are so huge,’ he gestures with his hand, the distance between the two approx one foot in diameter. Was he kidding? ‘

The waiter brings the crabs wriggling on to the tables. She serves it with an excellent butter garlic sauce,’ he states.

‘This recheade is out of the world,’ Joe remarks, he was on the snapper. ‘So what is the masala,’ I ask her, ‘Bardez style or Sacette.’ Sabita had learned her cooking from her mother and had married into the Bardez taluka. ‘I changed my style to the Bardez style,’ she says, ‘the vinegar keeps the masala for a longer time.’ She talks about the tamarind and fried onions used in South Goa compared to the preserving qualities of vinegar used in the North. ‘And my masala’s are ground on the mixers,’ she says simply.

I look forward in anticipation to the red snapper and look at the plate in horror. All that remains is the head. ‘The head is very tasty, a lot of people chew on it,’ Joe says sheepishly.

Now luckily for him, the prawn curry, unpolished rice and the local preparation of Bhindi Bhaji was there to sample. Sabita informs me that she only uses wood fire for the preparations. This ‘meal plate’ is changed every day…but she keeps prawns at the weekend as many families spend the day here.

‘Would you want to try to make any other masala’s, say a xec-xec, your reachade is excellent, and your prawn curry with that rice and vegetable brings back fond memories.’ Joe nods. I guess he is remembering his mother’s cooking.

‘I do not want to do anything that I don’t like to do,’ she says simply, ‘that is why we are only open for lunch.’ Reichade, Cafreal, chilly fries, vindaloo, when this mistress of spice puts her hand to it, everything is nice.

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