When the flower children went east looking for spiritual enlightenment, it is not surprising that many ended up in Goa, a lush paradise along India's scenic west coast.
Not surprising because not only is Goa indescribably gorgeous, but because it also is the home of an inclusive, diverse, happy people steeped in the intoxicating culture of "susegado" -- taking it easy.
The locals joke that there are three things Goans do best: khavap, pivap, nidap. Or eat, drink, and sleep. The drinking, of course, refers to Feni, a popular homestyle liquor that runs thicker than blood in many veins here and that is brewed from the quirky, upside-down cashew fruit that grows abundantly in Goa's emerald valleys.
My stepmother is a Goan, and as a girl I spent many summers in this tiny state attending family weddings, events, or just visiting with a big, extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles. My father lives there now, and each time I return to India I look forward to spending some time rediscovering this land that, despite the inevitable scars of progress and overwhelming tourism, holds on to its seductive innocence.
Goa played host to Portuguese colonists from the 1500s all the way until 1961 and modern-day Goa is a mix of this past alien culture and the demands of its present in a globalized India. Old, faded but magnificent Portuguese-era homes with wide verandahs and intricate iron grillwork in the windows sit on the narrow streets that were once lazy pedestrian pathways and are now clogged with noisy cars spitting out gray exhaust. The beaches, once strewn with Goans and hippies who assimilated effortlessly with the locals, are now consumed by expensive resorts accessed by a privileged few.
Young people dream of leaving homes tucked in scenic valleys dotted with mango and jackfruit orchards to work at one of the many call centers that have sprung up around the state.
But despite the changes, Goa's charm is hard to smother, as is the delightful nature of its diversity. The state has large populations of both Hindus and Christians who speak the same language, Konkani, with vastly different accents. Churches like the Basilica of Bom Jesus are as much at home here as the colorful domes of the Mangeshi temple. In fact, Hindus and Christians cross-worship at each other's churches and temples with unbridled gusto. "The more gods to get blessed by, the merrier," my Goan aunt, Vilas maushi, an avid temple- and church-goer herself, once explained very logically.
The cuisine of Goa-- or rather the cuisines-- are just as diverse and delightful. Both the Hindus and the Christians cook a good deal with rice and fish but they cook these ingredients up into vastly different dishes. The Christian cuisine includes dishes like Cafreal, a spicy preparation made usually with chicken and with spices and herbs like coriander, pepper, ginger and garlic. Then there's Bebinca, a multi-layered sweet made with flour and eggs and coconut milk and often sold fresh by the roadside. And Ambot-tik, a spicy-sour dry curry made usually with fish, among many other dishes.
The Hindus, on the other hand, cook fish curries fragrant with triphal, a small, round spice, and mellowed with coconut paste, and vegetable stews like khatkhate and Ambyache Sasam (made with ripe mangoes which also grow abundantly here).
The dish I am sharing today, Vindaloo, is a Goan classic but it is not something my stepmom made in her Hindu kitchen. The reason was it is usually made with pork which is a popular meat among the Christians of Goa but which, for some reason, is a meat even Hindus who are not vegetarian seemed to shun, at least in those days.
I shun pork because I would rather not eat a cute little pig (did you know they are smarter than dogs ?). So my vindaloo is made with two veggies I love and that make great meat substitutes-- eggplant and mushrooms. Trust me, you'll never miss the meat.
I adore vindaloo because it is gloriously vibrant, with the contrasting flavors of vinegar, garlic, chilli powder and mustard. It goes beautifully with boiled rice but I also love scooping it up with a laadi pav roll, sold fresh in Goa by pav-wallahs who make the rounds of neighborhoods each morning on their bicycles.
And now for the recipe. Enjoy, all!
Eggplant and Mushroom Vindaloo
1 large eggplant (I prefer this kind for this dish because it has a heftier texture), cut into a chunky dice
12-15 crimini mushrooms (use button or even shiitake if you prefer), halved or quartered if large
2 medium red onions, chopped
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves
4 spring onions or scallions, white and green parts chopped (optional)
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
2 tsp black mustard seeds
Grind to a paste in a blender the following ingredients:
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar (this recipe traditionally uses white vinegar but I prefer balsamic because it's sweeter and the flavor goes better with the veggies)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
A 1-inch piece of ginger, chopped
2 level tbsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chilli powder (use more or less per your taste)
1 tbsp mustard seeds, ground
1 tbsp coriander seeds, ground
1 tsp cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
Marinate the mushrooms and eggplant in the paste and set aside for at least an hour.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot.
Add the onions and cook, stirring, until golden-brown, about 10 minutes. Do not hurry through this- you want the onions to develop a lot of flavor
Add the marinated vegetables and cook, stirring about 5 minutes.
Add the crushed tomatoes and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to simmer. Cover the pot and allow the curry to cook for about an hour, stirring once in a while to ensure the veggies get cooked evenly.
Once the vegetables are really tender, add more salt if needed and stir in the mustard seeds.
Stir in the coriander leaves and garnish with the spring onions, if using.