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Goa’s best chef is a secret

Goa’s best chef is a secret
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Chef Vasco Silveira toils with single-minded focus on the Luso-Goan food for his ferociously loyal clientele. The sum result is pure magic, as good as it gets anywhere in the world

The history of the world is on your plate, all food is the expression of a long struggle and a long story. – Anthony Bourdain

The best restaurant you have never heard of is tucked under a colonnaded balcony on Rua de Ourem, alongside the mangrove-lined creek dividing Panaji’s oldest heritage neighbourhoods from the all-concrete business district of Patto. Close by, some of Goa’s most popular establishments thrum with infectious good cheer, right into the moonlight hours. But not Horseshoe (Ferradura in Portuguese), which remains forbiddingly empty most of that time.

This is the paradox carefully cultivated by chef Vasco Silveira, which enables single-minded focus on the Luso-Goan food he toils to present his ferociously loyal clientele. The sum result is pure magic, as good as it gets anywhere in the world.

GOA FOOD PANJIM RECIPES

But even if this great Goan restaurant almost always remains serenely empty, there’s no doubt the connected cuisines of India’s smallest state—the Cozinha de Goa resulting from centuries of profound globalization—are boldly emerging into the global food spotlight. Everywhere you look, critics extol delicacies once unknown outside this tiny sliver of the Konkan coastline. Some time ago, the New York magazine (accurately) called the street food cult favourite ros omelette “one of the world’s great egg dishes". Meanwhile, just up the coast, where it obsessively reinvents cherished specialities like kismur and uddamethi, Mumbai’s landmark “Goa inspired" O Pedro vaulted to No.8 in the 2019 Condé Nast Traveller (CNT) Top Restaurant national rankings.

Peruse the Horseshoe menu, and the wildly cosmopolitan Goan identity leaps out from every page: Pão com Chouriços (Panaji’s famous undo loaves, with homemade Goa sausage), Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (local clams cooked with white wine), Bacalhau no Forno (the famous codfish of Portugal, studded with eggs and olives). Some versions of these dishes are available in other restaurants—notably the wonderful Nostalgia in the south Goa redoubt of Raia—but none of them has every greatest culinary hit, or features anything like the outstanding attention to detail lavished on each item by Silveira (he works in splendid isolation in a kitchen built like a cockpit to his detailed specifications, everything at arm’s reach). Everything he cooks rings like a gong in your head when you taste it, as only the very best food ever does.

In recent years, to test my convictions about Silveira’s culinary chops, I have feasted at his hand with some of India’s top restaurateurs. When I hosted chef Thomas Zacharias—his The Bombay Canteen ranked first in last year’s CNT national rankings—our table plowed through staggering amounts, but then he ordered another bacalhau, and ate it all by himself without ever raising his eyes from the plate. Many months later, I dined there with his colleague, chef Hussain Shahzad, the engine in the O Pedro kitchen. He simply couldn’t stop eating the pearlescent sausages which are produced to Silveira’s specifications with home-made masala, then toasted carefully in the morning sun until he’s satisfied with the moisture levels.

Just before that memorable meal in Goa, my sons and a favourite uncle had another one at O Pedro. All of us are sticklers who have been disappointed by ostensibly Goan restaurant food outside the state. Yet in that instance we found plenty to love, and enough of our heritage to quell scepticism. One item in particular, the Red Snapper Poke, blew me away: chilled coconut milk curry laced with raw mango, and served in a tender coconut so the malai texture contrasted and blended with the fish. It’s one of the best things I have ever eaten. Each spoonful brought further revelation: Superlative Goan food doesn’t have to be restricted to the classics. There’s a bright future to consider as well.


Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.

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