We decided to spend Diwali night in the inland town of Mapusa, the biggest modern city in Goa, where we had heard the best effigy-burnings would be. There we checked out an endless array of local boys, each commandeering a demon more aggressive than the last. (One was done up in a black vest and a giant belt buckle that said rock on!) A talent show taking place in a vast parking lot by the bus depot featured 10-year-old girls lip-synching and gyrating to Hindi pop like cast members of Grade School Musical. Families were everywhere, with their babies out way past their bedtime, and they were as enchanted by the lights and the noise as we were. The firecrackers and singing and parading and torching went on till dawn.
One of the most visually striking areas in Goa, where the local and colonial aesthetics are most keenly felt, is in Panjim. Anyone who has spent time in conquest towns in Brazil or Mexico will find the winding, narrow lanes of the old Fontainhas neighborhood, which is Panjim’s atmospheric draw, deeply familiar. Wood-framed row houses in saturated hues and neat little shops predominate, but the 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the jewel in the neighborhood’s Latin-style crown, planted atop a hill where the sun kicks off its blinding whitewashed exterior like a faithful torch. Panjim is tidy and sedate compared with other Indian cities, and spending a few afternoons there was like a vacation-within-a-vacation. Panjim is where Danelle and I shopped (no haggling!) for elaborate Indian gold jewelry, where we meandered aimlessly without interference or questions, and where we ate one of our best Goan meals, at Mums Kitchen.
As much an archive of home recipes as a popular lunch spot serving up crab fritters and prawns caldin (a green-chile-and-coconut stew), Mums is another proud preserver of Goan tradition that takes a stand against the encroachment of fusionism that is seen at so many other restaurants in the state. Where Western taste is indulged in loungey cocktail bars and Euro-flavored beach restaurants like La Plage and Sublime, the food at Mums, Siolim House, Elsewhere, and chef Urbano de Rego’s Beach House restaurant at the Taj Holiday Village is much more authentic. Goan food is southern Indian (think coconut milk, fish, fresh herbs, and tamarind), but it’s uniquely Portuguese-influenced, as Chef Rego, as he is called, explained during a discussion of piri-piri, a base for many Goan sauces made of toddy vinegar and chile peppers. Chef Rego was the first to bring Goan food to the world’s attention, having cooked for the elder President Bush and at the World Economic Forum. “Our food takes time,” he said. “Time to marinate, time to simmer.” We tasted his pork piri-piri at the Taj, and then four other varieties at O’Papagaio, which serves regional, though technically illegal, wild game. (Locating the restaurant was a monumental challenge for able concierges and two Goan drivers. Be sure to have your hotel call ahead, give thorough directions to a driver, and bring along the restaurant’s phone number, just in case.) On the menu that night were porcupine, venison, wild boar, and frog’s legs—sadly, no monitor lizard—and all were boiled, then curried, to surprisingly subtle effect. Since we were the only guests in what is basically the large front room of a house, we popped back into the kitchen, watched the owner add endless pinches of dozens of spice powders, tasted some of the venison before he curried it, and were given the quills of one of the beasts we’d soon be eating. It was a fitting tribute. The porcupine was delicious, like unusually delicate lamb fed on lavender flowers. As development eats away at the remaining stretches of forest, hunting is becoming more challenging, so the porcupine’s days as a blue plate special could be numbered. At least we already knew the same would never be true for still-legal and plentiful frog, which translates from the local Konkani language as “jumping chicken.”
Despite Goa’s pride in its unique cultural identity, there’s worry about cultural dilution. (The dramatic tagline at Mums Kitchen is “A Move to Save Goan Cuisine.”) The state’s Hindu and Muslim populations are growing because of immigration from the neighboring state of Maharashtra, and native Goans often leave to seek their fortunes in the Gulf states or Canada. There are strong non-Goan elements in the evolving cultural mix: the frenetic hustler’s pace of the Delhi and Mumbai natives who have set up shop here; the squajillionaires like Kingfisher chairman Vijay Mallya, who throws the party of the year in his enormous Sinquerim beach house each December; the Europeans in their Speedos, in search of a tan; the just-furloughed Israeli soldiers looking for the party. The Indian government is enthusiastically bureaucratic, and protecting one of the country’s most distinct regional cultures is not its highest priority. For the moment, that’s left up to the Goans themselves, whose live-and-let-live shrug is not the best weapon with which to battle the onslaught. Pitted against the forces of rampant capitalism, it’s not clear who will come out ahead.
Alexandra Marshall is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.