Gourmet Goa – How Damn Good Curry put the state on London’s plate

Damn Good Curry

In Britain, Goa lures the masses to its sunshine coastline by whispering exotic paradise promises of palm-fringed beaches. But it really rather rarely bellows about its cuisine. In fact, the most that most folks can ascribe to the area is the curryhouse classic that puts many in a right state, but never fails to fail to transport one to the diminutive state – the vindaloo.

And they’re not wrong to do so – But the Brindian restaurant rendition, typified by a few lumps of potato and excessive use of chilli powder, is a world away from the pungent garlic, vinegar and fresh red chilli stew derived from the Portuguese vino d’alhos, left as a legacy of 400 years of occupation. This is no tarted–up take on a basic curry gravy – rather, a fresh, vibrant, hot-spicy thing of splendour.

It’s also something you’ll find primarily prepared by Goa’s Christian population. Damn Good Curry supperclub host, Nilanjani Pai, says that, if you detect vinegar in a dish, it’s likely to belong to this community. But a taste for a ‘tang’ isn’t limited to Goan Christians – it’s much-loved by every faith, achieved variously through use of tamarind, lime and the intriguingly sour-smoky kokum.

Nilanjani’s personal expression of Goan food draws more heavily from the Hindu table, featuring dishes like prawns in a coconut gravy – celebrating both the bounty of the Arabian sea and the fruits of the highly-revered coconut palm. But this lady’s also developed a taste for choris, a vinegar-spiked, spiced pork sausage which evolved from the original Portuguese chorizo to suit local palates.

Fiona Barrows DGC table

And it’s fair to say that Nilanjani’s take on Goan fare certainly seems to have curried favour amongst the local population this evening, although we’re in East London, not Western India. The weather might be cooler, but the menu is, in the host’s own words, ‘hot hot hot’ – and the 27 Damn Good Curry supperclub guests are unanimous in a committed culinary quest to spice up their lives.

And if whole gram-battered chillies won’t heat up the evening, nothing will. The group is game, and Nilanjani can barely fry fast enough to keep up with the merry mirchi-munchers. Lucky, then, they’re not the sole starter. Heaps of batata bhajjiya disappear just as swiftly, though, the crunchy jacket of each potato slice yielding to a pleasingly fluffy middle.

No doubt Vasco de Gama himself would appreciate the choris pav which comes next. Those sausages have been used in a saucy preparation which is stuffed into the slightly sweet, rich leavened baps known as ‘pav’ – another Portuguese introduction. These particular choris are the real deal, handmade by Alex Santos of Dos Santos Foods, albeit made in Croydon, not Curtorim.

Then it’s time to take pause in preparation for the main event – a meaty melange absolutely not appropriate for the less-than-enthusiastic carnivore. Tonight, though, everyone’s game for a proteinous plateful – especially after an inter-course sip of chilled sol kadi provides the perfect palate cleanse, the sour-salt savour of the kokum beverage leaving one refreshed and raring to go.

Goa landscape

There’s more of that pav passed round with mains – a surprising sponge for the guests, perhaps, but a common way to soak up tasty gravies in Goa. There’s rice, too – rounds upon rounds roar out of the kitchen to provide a bed for pungent mutton xacuti, the herbal, verdantly-sauced chicken cafreal, and that prawn-and-coconut concoction. In addition, there’s a soupy, spectacularly subtle potato dish Nilanjani deems the perfect hangover cure (or, indeed, prevention), ‘Cafe Bhosle Bhaji’.

A bit of argy-bargy over the last morsels would be a certainty, were Nilanjani not such a generous caterer. Seconds, thirds, and even fourths are both proffered and lapped up, totally spoiling the opportunity to roll out the ‘Oh, go on, go on, Goan’ line. Although the comedians in the ranks do at least get the chance to exclaim over the ‘lovely melons’ served for dessert.

But Nilanjani would never desert her diners with such a parsimonious pud, especially after such a spread. Once again, Goa’s showcased on the plate with syrup-soaked squares of baath – a semolina and coconut cake that’s a typical Christmas preparation. The inclusion of eggs may exclude this baked cake from being offered to the Hindu deities, but the consensus says it’s certainly rather heavenly.

The numerous requests for the recipe suggest that tonight’s diners will be going Goan when it comes to preparing festive fare this year. And not a moment too soon. Goa’s culinary melting pot has yielded a fiery, feisty fiesta of flavours, one that’s thus far been woefully under-represented in the UK. Nilanjani’s select snapshot has succeeded not only in putting Goa’s cuisine on the plate, but also firmly – and irrevocably – into the hearts and minds of her guests.

Fiona Barrows Baath


Read more about Goa on your Plate! on Edible Experiences

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