How to explore Goa like a chef


In late 2021 I took a food journey to Goa that changed everything I knew and understood about its cuisine, culture and people. I had visited the Sunshine State over a dozen times since I was a college student looking to let go. Those early excursions included meals at Souza Lobo, donuts at the German Bakery, sunsets on Anjuna Beach, late-night parties at Tito’s Bar, and visits to the Saturday Night Market (in fact, it was so repetitive I can hardly tell one visit from another in my blurred memory). But this time it was different. Through the prism of food, I experienced a side of Goa most are unaware of, one that many locals may not even be aware of.

After graduating from culinary school and working in Michelin-starred gourmet restaurants in New York City, I returned to Mumbai in 2010 and rose through the ranks to become a chef cooking European dishes. After years of struggling with nut sauces and hand-rolled pasta, I finally realized that I was cooking recipes from places I’d never traveled to. The lack of context made me feel disconnected from the plates coming out of my kitchen, and it took an extended food journey to rectify that. Four months spent eating my way through 36 cities in France, Italy and Spain have given me a taste of this indigenous cuisine in a way no cookbook or mentor chef could.

Soon after, I took on the role of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen, a contemporary Indian restaurant, and my focus shifted to desi Food. Exploring different parts of India to absorb the diversity of the regional cuisine became my new priority, one that I began to revel in. In eight years I have visited almost a hundred cities and spent 314 days on the road. I dubbed it Chef On The Road, a notion that a journey through the lens of someone who lives and breathes food 24/7 would provide an enriching perspective.

As with many of my later food journeys, it took me a little digging deeper, gathering some social media recommendations and tapping into my network of fellow chefs and food experts before I fully realized that Goa, India’s holiday capital, is far from just a land of beaches and to be casinos or the shrimp curry vindalho.

A day trekking through the hilly hinterland of Chorla Ghat was a little immersion in Gaonkar life. Wild ingredients such as edible mushrooms, chivarior tender bamboo shoots, and a kind of bean pod called Burma are unique to the cuisine of this tribal community and reflect the landscape of lush forests and waterfalls in which they thrive.

At the Cazulo Feni distillery, the founder, Hansel Vaz, gave me a crash course in the state’s prized cashew spirits, which are often misunderstood across its borders. His tour continued in taverns, some of them almost a hundred years old, which remain a unique part of Goa’s drinking culture. Each tavern, Hansel said, was set up to cater to a specific clientele—those near rice paddies and coconut plantations were for farmers, those near the beach were for fishermen.

On Miramar Beach, conservation scientist Aaron Savio Lobo introduced me to the Ramponkars, the fishermen whose centuries-old practices ensure the marine ecosystem is managed without exploitation.

The Ramponkar fishermen on Miramar Beach.

There is Chorão, a small estuary island in the Mandovi River, home to Khazan Farming, a carefully designed agro-aquaculture system built around salinity and tidal regulation of the nutrient-rich brackish water, allowing farmers and fishermen to live together in harmony.

The original version of the ubiquitous poee is now practically a dying art, preserved by the Godinho Bakery in Majorda – it still uses fresh toddy to knead the dough, as was the norm in the olden days. The bakers or poderthose who work here work almost entirely without measuring tools, a surprising but impressive departure from the pastry chefs I’ve met in Paris and New York.

I would have a hard time picking my favorite meal, but one of the most memorable was the largely vegetarian feast put together by home cooks from the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community. An afternoon spent cooking with this ethno-religious Hindu community revealed a huge variety of local products, such as the spice tirphal ambadi (Roselle) and Sweet Potatoes not normally associated with Goan food. These were transformed into courts such as khatkhatey, Moong Gati, akur tonak, manganese, atwal and sukur undewho deserve so much more recognition.

Then there was the Goan-Portuguese spread laid out for me at Nostalgia, a 22-year-old Goan Portuguese restaurant in the village of Raia. Far beyond the hallowed pork, chouriço sausages and sorpotel dishes are like bacalhau cremeso con gambas– a baked concoction of salted dried cod, potatoes and olives – and cabidela– a classic pork stew, characterized by the use of pig blood to flavor and thicken the dish. I could go on but I’m starting to drool on my keyboard.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be discovered through their plates that will satiate, move, inform and delight you in more ways than you can imagine. My culinary journeys have made me feel so connected to a place and its people that they have become a valued part of who I am as a chef.

There is so much that makes each experience I’ve had different, and yet there is a common thread that ties them all together. Our current eating habits are firmly rooted in the memories and traditions of our past, yet most of the time we consume in ignorance. Understanding a place’s cuisine brings with it a deeper sense of respect and appreciation for the sheer richness of its heritage. Most importantly, breaking bread with locals, tasting food at the source and hearing the fascinating stories behind ingredients and dishes you’ve never heard of, let alone tasted, is a delicious and rewarding experience.

Travel like a chef.

Thomas Zacharias is a chef with over 15 years of restaurant experience.


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