If one were to browse through the cookery section of any reputed bookshop, one would definitely find a book (or many books) about Goan cuisine and gastronomy amidst several books dealing with diverse cuisines. What we eat and how we eat becomes part of our culture and identity. Food-related stereotypes are perhaps the few that we may not resent; that Goans are like fish out of water without fish, for there are Goans who are vegetarians and some do not like the taste of fish.
For a person whose relationship with food has thus far been confined to only consuming it, reviewing a book about cooking and the history and tradition that surrounds such an act can be an unnerving task. Cozinha de Goa by Fátima da Silva Gracias is not a cookbook per se. It deals with the history and tradition of Goan food and includes some recipes as well. Along the way, Mrs. da Silva Gracias also reminisces about her own experiences with cooking and researching about Goan food. A historian who has authored books on colonial health and hygiene and women in Goa, Mrs. da Silva Gracias has crafted Cozinha de Goa in a Maria Aurora Couto-esque fashion, providing us with a daughter’s story in between.
Along with acquainting the reader with the text of Mrs. da Silva Gracias, I would also like to situate her work as primarily trying to assert a Goan identity. I would try to point out a few possibilities and limitations as well. In trying to link cookbooks or books that deal with a particular cuisine to questions of identity, I shall refer the reader to a study of Caribbean cookbooks published in English which would help us in charting new understandings of books on gastronomy. B. W. Higman, the author of the paper titled, ‘Cookbooks and Caribbean Cultural Identity: An English-Language Hors D'Oeuvre’ says, “It can be argued that the emergence of the cookbook marks a critical point in the development of any cuisine and that the specialization and ramification of texts has much to tell about the character of national, regional, and ethnic identities. For these several reasons, a study of the history of cookbooks published in and having to do with the Caribbean can be expected to throw some light on what it means to be Caribbean or to identify with some smaller territory or grouping, and how this meaning has changed in response to social and political development.”
The basic position that Mrs. da Silva Gracias assumes in writing this book and one theme that runs through the entire book is that of the east meets west. The meeting of east and west may have greatly influenced our food habits and culture but the use of this cliché over simplifies our understanding. Although Mrs. da Silva Gracias recognizes that Arab, Chinese, Brazilian, African, Anglo-Indian and other influences have enriched Goan food, the same is not reflected in the text; the treatment to these influences is meager. On the other hand, the picture that forms in the reader’s mind is that of Goan food being composed of the Catholic and Hindu cuisine. Such a line of thought is limiting, as is demonstrated by the following quote: “Portuguese rule created a culinary gap between the Hindus and Christians. On conversion, meat became part of the new diet of the Christians. Different measures and decrees introduced new food habits and discarded old ones.” We know today that tribal or aboriginal populations of South Asia before Hinduism and the advent of the Portuguese consumed meat on a regular basis and by making such assertions, Mrs. da Silva Gracias’ claims search for a pre-Portuguese past that is Hindu by conception.
Food can be used to challenge the fascist arguments of what is Indian and foreign. This ‘Indian’ versus ‘foreign’ debate today has been defined by right-wing understandings of our history and culture. But nobody is aware about many of the food ingredients that were not native to the land and which should have effectively led us to question the whole idea of what is foreign in other spheres of social life: for instance, our dress. Although Mrs. da Silva Gracias could have used food to comment on such narrow tendencies, I still hold that some of her claims are useful to us, “The chili revolutionised Indian cuisine. Few realize that the chili, now widely used and deeply embedded in Goan and Indian cuisine, was a stranger to our continent and that it had been brought in from the Americas only a few centuries ago.” Or consider the following where the native is not Indian but Brazilian, “During my earlier visit to Brazil I noticed that even canjee [pez in our language] was popular in some parts. Some Brazilian researchers believe it came to them from sixteenth century Goa. In Brazil it went through changes. The Portuguese had already added chicken or chicken broth. The Brazilians included bay leaf, garlic, onions, pimenta-do-reino (pepper), carrots, cubed potatoes and so on. King D. Pedro II of Brazil, is said to have loved canja de galinha and even had it during intervals at the theater.”
Mrs. da Silva Gracias, as mentioned before, peppers (to use a food metaphor!) her text with her own experiences and reminisces about Goan cuisine and food and also connects traditional practices to the preparation and consumption of food in her narrative, as food is an intrinsic part of any traditional practice and festivity. She is an accomplished writer and hence this account is delightful and one written with a pinch (food metaphor again!) of nostalgia. But she could have easily critiqued her own position and her memories. In recounting her memories, Mrs. da Silva Gracias paints a rosy picture of the past. “The life of a Hindu woman changed drastically when she became a widow. Although she cooked food for the rest of the family she could eat a very limited vegetarian diet.” This quote is cited as an example where a critical position could have been adopted by Mrs. da Silva Gracias.
The book is written with much imagination and effort. The section where Mrs. da Silva Gracias has described a day in a Goan kitchen, albeit that of a rich family, is a splendid example of her imagination at work. In between the text, she has also provided trivia and recipes in a way that do not obstruct the main flow of the book.
Although Cozinha de Goa is about the history and tradition of Goan food, it also concerns itself with the Goan identity in a subtle way. The parting lines of the book, in a way, make this concern abundantly clear, “Which road will Goan food take? Will it survive and thrive? Will it evolve further? Or will it simply lose out to stronger global trends? Only time can tell…whatever the outcome, this is undeniably an interesting cuisine, of a tiny region shaped by history from far and wide across the globe. It needs to be understood. It deserves to be cherished.”
Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, by Fátima da Silva Gracias (Saligão/Panjim, Goa: Goa 1556& Broadway Book Centre), 2011; pp. xxix+248, Rs. 295/- [ISBN:978-93-80739-09-0]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 11, 2012).