Going, going, Goa! Vir Sanghvi’s Rude Food

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Let’s be real here. Nobody ever visited Goa just for the cuisine. Oh yes, we did as we stated. But rather than the food itself, it was always the idea of Goan cuisine.

For many years, travelling from one of the resort hotels to a beach hut where a cheery Goan would greet you with a chilled beer was the epitome of an upper middle class vacation in Goa. The previously mentioned joyful Goan would tell you that you were fortunate. He would cook the fish for you because he had just received a basket of just caught fish from the sea. He would then pan-fry the fish for you after applying masala to both sides of it.

Ah, you would exclaim to your tablemates, “This is the real Goa! Such fresh seafood! Such wonderful masala! The smiling Goan restaurateur would return the smile and bring you more beer. By the time you stumbled outside, you were full and satisfied.

Fun was had. Did it really matter that the joyful Goan restaurateur had purchased the fish from a supplier that frequently used farmed fish that wasn’t even from Goa, even though it had likely not been fished locally? the shack only had two types of masalas, one of which was a standard Goan masala and the other was the same masala but with more chilli?

I predict that it didn’t. Most Goa visitors came from Mumbai or Bangalore until approximately fifteen years ago, and they saw the beaches and shacks as a getaway from the stresses of city life. Not fine dining, but a sense of unhurried freedom was what they want.

I used to stay at the Taj Holiday Village back then, and although Chef Urbano Rego prepared the best food in Goa there, I could understand why so many visitors preferred to eat at a beach shack. They would say, “It’s the vibe, ma-an.”

There were several reasons why that Goa disappeared. With Portuguese influences and a laid-back lifestyle, it was still very different from the rest of India when I first visited in the late 1970s. Though the Goans themselves are still very laid-back, there has been an inflow of migrants in the tourist and travel business who are not particularly laid-back. At this point, it is not that different from the rest of the country—it could be a part of Maharashtra or Karnataka.

Back then, Goa wanted to draw affluent visitors from Europe and America. That never actually took place. Then, in the middle of the 1990s, a change in policy permitted travel agencies to transport charter planes from all over the world to the airport in Goa. Goa thus developed into a popular location for group travel and later, for Russians and other people from Eastern Europe. Although it wasn’t strictly a terrible thing, this was not the original idea.

Next, Goa was found by North India. There were only Dilliwallas at initially. But today tourists from all over the North prefer Goa over Mumbai, and vice versa. They have various likes and tastes, therefore this has necessitated yet another round of adaptations for the location.

The Russians have experienced their own issues. Goa has become increasingly dependent on tourists from North India, many of whom have no actual interest in fish grilled at a beach hut or anywhere else, since they had already stopped travelling in such huge numbers before the start of the war in Ukraine. As a result, both the restaurants’ character and their menus have changed.

The Goa you have now is more touristy. It is crammed with flashy casinos, so-called “beachside restaurants,” where patrons arrive by the coachload, other sizable eateries where butter chicken can be the highlight of the menu, and crowded clubs that blast Bollywood music and aim resolutely for the middle of the market. This Goa is really wealthy. The guests adore it. Nobody is complaining, either.

The number of hotels has increased along with the number of visitors. As traffic picks up after the pandemic, Goa now has more five-star hotel rooms than Mumbai, flights are full, and prices are high. Tourism is no longer as one-dimensional as it formerly was as a result of this. At the top, there is currently a section where tourists avoid the casinos and what they refer to as “the tourist areas” (though of course we are all tourists when we go to Goa). A new generation of upscale eateries that appeal to Goa visitors most has grown as a result of it.

In the past 14 months or so, I have visited Goa three times, and while there, a few things about the new food scene really stood out to me. The first is that individuals are at last travelling to Goa for its cuisine. Even though they still frequent the beach shacks (“it is the vibe ma-an”), they are no longer as innocent as they once were.

Second, they aren’t even as eager to enjoy Goan cuisine as they formerly were. The days of eating vindaloo and sorpotel at a select group of well-known but unassuming restaurants are long gone. Even though they are no longer on any must-visit lists, these eateries are nonetheless successful.

Third, dining in hotels is obsolete. Very few hotels offer excellent food. They are content to produce passable but subpar food because they have a captive clientele (many individuals travel as part of all-inclusive packages). On either of my visits, not a single person offered to recommend a hotel restaurant to me.

Fourth, Goa is experiencing such strong business that restaurateurs from all across India are attempting to open there. By the end of the year, Indian Accent’s Rohit Khattar should launch a new location. Izumi, a renowned restaurant in Mumbai, operates a lovely outlet there. The best restaurant operated by the Jamun group (Jamun, Pings, etc.) is in Goa. And most prestigious Indian restaurant chains will have locations in Goa throughout the course of the following 12 months.

Goa has been dubbed India’s restaurant capital because to this surge, and while that designation may be undeserved, I ate well when I was there (you can find a list of restaurants I ate at in The Taste, my column for Hindustantimes.com). Inexplicably, the Japanese cuisine won (I’m not kidding!) in establishments like Izumi and a charming little Izakaya named Makutsu.

And a new chef-driven boom has emerged. Pablo Miranda, a talented businessman, oversees Makutsu. Rahul Gomes Pereira, a contemporary of his, keeps Jamun’s disappearing Goa alive. At Mahe, Sandeep Sreedharan combines Goan and Keralan cuisine. At Cavatina, Avinash Martins is reinventing Goan cuisine.

Do I long for the Goa of yesteryear, with its soft con of fresh fish at beach shacks? a little bit However, Goa has advanced. And now that I’ve had multiple Goa experiences, I’m satisfied enough.