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Goan rendezvous

The aroma of frying fish mingled with the flavoured smoke from the fiery barbeque sets the mood for the Goan food festival on at The Park


HOW ON earth can a food reviewer go on a diet?

It's like a zookeeper who is allergic to fur or a professional mountain climber with vertigo. Nevertheless, I resolved to grit my teeth and lay down my dessert fork to dive not-so-enthusiastically into my get-skinny diet — tasteless tofu and crummy fruit salad sans whipped cream, custard or even a blob of honey. Then, after one week of cold water (the only - groan! - completely no-fat drink) and wheat flakes (fibre - every dieter's best friend), in the middle of a foul glass of hot green tea, two assignments landed on my messy table. No prizes for guessing what they were. Two food reviews — on the same day.

I decide to tackle the Goan food festival at The Park first. Set beside their roof-top swimming pool at Aqua, the festival has taken over the terrace. There's cheerful Goan music in the air and Aggie, a talented Goan saxophonist, wanders about reflectively playing the blues. An abbreviated Goan flea market sells a rather uninspired collection of knick knacks, pickles and masalas and a dedicated potter devotedly turns his wheel.

The aroma of frying fish mingles affectionately with the flavoured smoke from the fiery barbeque. The buffet, set from one end of the poolside to the other, is an inviting collection of colours, textures and tastes.

I begin by gingerly dipping into the salad bar, where dry prawns kismur occupies pride of place. If you like prawns, you'll love its decisively fishy taste, flavoured with caramelised onions and whole spices. Fernando Da Costa — the laid-back, wise-cracking, very-Goan chef of `Fernando's Nostalgia', a popular `authentic Goan' restaurant — says, "Listen girl, there's `thadka' and `jhadka'. Thadka is the kind of cooking I do — sautéing with passion, standing over the hot stove and waiting for the spices to work and the onions to melt." With a disparaging curl of his lip, he adds, "Jhadka is the kind of cooking almost everyone does nowadays, food in a hurry. Instant noodles and ajinomoto." The festival, he says, will feature "four signature dishes" besides a constantly changing menu.

(Sidelight: Wendell Rodricks, who's in town for a fashion show, interrupts at this point to holler hello to Chef Fernando. He's a Nostalgia regular.)

Back to the buffet, I inspect the food and finally decide to try one spoon of everything. My spoonful of pork vindaloo is deliciously evocative — I can almost see a sun-drenched shack set on grainy golden sand — spiked with coconut vinegar and plump (sigh) with buttery potatoes. The mutton suknem is tougher than it should be, but the prawn curry is perfect - silky, with a red-hot bite. There's also silvery, flaky stuffed grilled mackerel wrapped and roasted in banana leaves. And a person I almost knock over at the buffet assures me that chef's barbequed chicken is "to die for" between animated bites.

Unfortunately, the vegetarian section is largely disappointing. (Goan food, as a rule, is better known for its vindaloos and seafood than veggie dishes). There's a veg xacuti and chouli ros, black-eyed beans and a thick vegetable stew, which reminded me of boarding school food. The dal, however, was delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the twelve-and-a-half grains of wholesome unpolished rice that I allowed myself to try.

Dessert included the famous bebinca, a wickedly addictive concoction made from layer upon layer of coconut pancakes, the easier-to-resist dodol (rice flour, coconut milk, jaggery and cashew nuts) and the ever-present old-faithful - caramel custard.

The festival is on till June 27 and costs Rs. 595 per head. As for me, I'm hitting the grilled soya with a vengeance now.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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