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Goan cooks and chefs in Bombay

 

GOAN COOKS AND CHEFS
By Dr Teresa Albuquerque

Quite a few Goans made a mark in Bombay's gourmet world. To name just a few…C. de Souza of Marosa, Toscano of Tosa's, Caji Pereira of MacRonnel's who added a touch of finesse to his pioneer father, Santan Pereira's prospering catering business…Sacru Menezes, well-known sportsman, celebrated for his "City Kitchen"–so popular in the 80's. There are many more…

Goan xit-koddi (rice and curry) has become proverbial. Prof Frank D'Souza, of happy memory, called it the emblem of Goan hospitality, the symbol of pot-luck. In it he saw the meeting of the harvest of the fields with the harvest of the seas to establish the authentic Goan identity. For xit-coddi is purely the prime Goan staple food–the great leveller, the favourite among both rich and poor!

But Goan cuisine goes beyond that. It unmistakably bears the western stamp on the Goan's natural exponence of the culinary art. In the homeland, the Christian convert, particularly, had perforce to adopt a new way of life. Gradually, he was initiated into the new diet, and unfamiliar style and manner of eating along with new dress and general behaviour. With his background knowledge of the blending of spices, he more easily came to acquire other methods of food preservation and preparation, which had to be adjusted to the tropical climate. He learnt new processes of curing meat and fish, of making bread and wine to go with it. He became proficient in the making of sausages, which again, tempered with indigenous spices, took on a suitable local flavour.

Happily all this proved an asset when he migrated for he could easily cater to the western palate of newer masters. According to James Douglas, the biographer of early Bombay, cooking in the city was "execrable" till the arrival of Lord Clare in 1831. Under the French chef, who probably came in his entourage, a number of Goan cooks received a training, which they handed down to generations making the Goan 'cuisinere' renowned.

Truly the Goan cook was in great demand. Samuel T. Sheppard, a later chronicler, says this of Caitan, the Goan chef of the very exclusive European Byculla Club during the 1960s, "A special dinner, to the preparation of which he had personally attended, was an event to warm the heart of the gourmet; in no London club or restaurant could a better meal have been served. "Perhaps it was Caitan or his compatriot, who was responsible for the introduction into this elite club of a delightful drink, which Sheppard called "Goa Gin"–that, in all probability, must have had a simple feni base.

Another Englishman refers to Bootlair Saheb–Anglice, the butler, in a delightful book Behind the Bungalow, written around 1879: "Our grandfathers used to have Parsee butlers in tall hats to wait upon them, but that race is now extinct. The butler on this side of India is now a Goanese…Here is a man whose food by nature is curry and rice, before a hillock of which he sits cross-legged…All our ways of life, our meals and duties, and all our notions of propriety and fitness in connection with the complicated business of appeasing our hunger as becomes our station, all these are a foreign land to him; yet he has made himself entirely at home in them. He has a sound practical knowledge of all our viands, their substance, and the mode of their preparation, their qualities, relationship…He knows all liquors also by name, with their places and times of appearing…" And speaking of Domingos, the cook, he marvels at this accomplishments that "unfold themselves like a lotus flower in the morning" when entrusted with preparation of a "burra khanna", specially since his implements include "a laddle made of half a coconut shell at the end of a stick"–the homely "dholah" (doulo).

From serving in the city's cafes and eating-places, Goans moved to join newly formed steamship companies and sailed the high seas as cooks, butlers and stewards. Here they perfected their skills mastering the art of confectionery and pastry-making, particularly under Italian professionals. The more venturesome utilised this expertise to set up independent cake-shops and restaurants in Bombay and other cities.

Quite a few Goans made a mark in Bombay's gourmet world. To name just a few…C. de Souza of Marosa, Toscano of Tosa's, Caji Pereira of MacRonnel's who added a touch of finesse to his pioneer father, Santan Pereira's prospering catering business…Sacru Menezes, well-known sportsman, celebrated for his "City Kitchen"–so popular in the 80's. There are many more…

But who had a career more spectacular than Miguel Arcanjo Mascarenhas, better known as Masci of the Taj? Immortalised by A F S Talyarkhan as the master cuisinere, who became a legend in his lifetime, in 1919 he started as a kitchen-boy of fifteen, worked his way up to tower over the universally appreciated cuisine of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay, as its Food and Beverage Consultant.

Not only was he instrumental in introducing into the cordon-bleu menu of the Taj exotic Goan specialities like sungtamchi koddi, but with his special gift for improvisation Masci mastered his calling under several foreign chefs under whom he served, emerging as "the greatest Oriental artist of Occidental viands".

To gauge the impact that this Goan chef had on the Taj, India's leading hotel, with which he was so actively associated for 62 years, let us wind up with the tribute paid to Masci by Talyarkhan, "Of him and his culinary art it can be said that it has helped in no small measure, not only the growth of the Taj which is now an institution, but has also given it the momentum it enjoys today."