Dhruv Baker - MasterChef Winner 2010

Dhruv Baker

Masterchef Winner 2010

Goa and Kerala – Where the eating never stopped...

After a pretty sleepless night on the flight from Heathrow to Mumbai , a transfer from Mumbai to Goa and a 2 hour drive we found ourselves at the beautiful Arco Iris homestay in Curtorim, South Goa. A recently renovated Portuguese colonial property set amongst stunning gardens and overlooking a lake – yes, this will do very nicely thank you. After meeting our incredibly hospitable hosts, Bennita and Ganesh it was time to freshen up then head off to explore the local village with our two new guides – our hosts seven and nine year old daughters.

I have always loved India at sunset - be it the urban chaos of New Delhi, the high-rise madness of Mumbai or the tranquil settings of a South Goan village it is always a magical time of day. The light softens then starts fading as evening take over and the sights, sounds and smells are replaced with entirely new ones. Cicadas take over from the traffic, the smell of the smoke from coconut husks fills the air and the often oppressive heat of day is replaced by a much needed cool breeze. This shift from day to night is also laden with the promise of new and exciting foods in new and exciting places...

We return to the house and sit on the veranda, initially discussing the predictably poor English weather before moving onto less neutral topics as we all get to know each other. Families, friends, jobs, likes and dislikes are all touched upon and without fail each conversation ends on the topic of food. I now know I am in good company and going to relish the next few days.

Dinner tonight is a fantastic introduction to Goan home cooking after an equally delicious introduction to Goan aperitifs (in this case Feni, the potent spirit made from cashew nuts which i now regard without the suspicion I once did). There is no rigid starter, main and dessert structure just a table generously laden with a wonderful selection of dishes. Chicken Xacuti, Pomfret Reshad (Rechad), okra and potatoes, a collection of dals, rice and the ubiquitous, a delicious bread found all over Goa, a clear reminder of their Portuguese past. I was amazed at just how much Portuguese influence can be seen. Not just in the beautiful architecture and the religion but in the food. Sausages more akin to chorizo for sale in all the markets, the Pau, the use of vinegar especially in the misunderstood and demonised Vindaloo, far, far removed from the noxious, lethally hot version found in countless Red Forts across the UK used to soak up gallons of strong lager. Pomfret has always been one of my favourite fish and to see it cooked a new way always makes me childishly excited. The masala used to flavour it was rich and full of spices without being too hot. Layer after layer of flavour made this stand out as a highlight of the trip especially against the backdrop of the airline food I had been subjected to for the preceding 14 hours. Some of my favourite flavours blended delicately to give a rich, aromatic dish crucially not overpowering the fish. Chili, coriander, cumin, cardamom, vinegar, ginger and garlic were the flavours I could identify within that wonderful dish. After a full days travelling and a delicious dinner I could feel I was losing the battle to stay awake so it was to my four-poster bed for the night to recharge my batteries for what promised to be a full day.

We had agreed to meet the Pinto Boys at Cafe Dipac in Mapusa for a breakfast they had spoken about endlessly the night before. We waited for what appeared to be the entire Goan police force to leave their tables before demolishing plate after place of masala rock clams, chilli bhajias and samosas with endless cups of sweet chai. The chilli bhajias nothing like the distant approximation available all over Southall and Tooting – light and crispy, yet not the slightest bit greasy (leaving the batter to ferment overnight the secret to this lightness I was assured). The rock clams still retaining their sweet flavour despite being served in a thin but deeply flavoured masala. And the samosas. Wow the samosas.... A few more tumblers of tea and we were ready for whatever Mapsa market had to throw at us. We decided to take it easy, vegetables and fruit first, then tackle the spice market and finally we were to brave the fish. I adore fish markets. I love the chaos, the activity but above all I love seeing the amazing types of fish and shell fish on offer, quite often varieties i have never seen before. White and black pomfret, mackerel , king fish, prawns of every size imaginable, soft shelled crabs, blue swimmer crabs, spiny lobster, green lipped mussels – it was almost impossible to choose without going completely overboard. Then seeing the one thing I wasn’t at all prepared for. Rows and rows of baby sharks lined up on the floor. Maybe they are in plentiful supply in Goa, i couldn’t tell you, but I’m fairly sure it’s not usually a good thing seeing large numbers of infant apex predators out of their habitat... Anyway, I digress. We opted for mackerel, mussels and some prawns for lunch the following day – more on that later.

Food shopping done it was time for the beach – as it had been almost two hours since we had ingested anything it was time for sustenance in the form of a glass of ice cold sugar cane juice flavoured with ginger and lime. Utterly delicious. Now on to Candolim beach and the Goa I was familiar with. The shacks, the busy beaches, the hawkers and vendors and the henna tattooists. I love shacks in Goa – usually nothing more than a roof on legs with plastic furniture and the sand to wiggle your toes in as you plough though plate after plate of the most delicious, fresh sea food you will ever eat. Today was all about squid and the now familiar rechad masala but this time with mackerel. However dark and cold December and January may have been, one afternoon eating seafood at Claudinas shack on Candolim beach was all I needed to beat the winter blues!

We only had a few hours on the beach where I could have stayed, happily, for the rest of the trip but the lure of an evening crabbing in the river behind the house and the promise of a few cheeky glasses of Feni was enough to tear me away so in the name of enjoying the best Goa has to offer it was onto the back of a 20 year-old Enfield Bullet and off in search of Nazareth the crab man. If there is a better way to spend a few hours than checking crab pots while watching the barges laden with iron ore lazily floating downstream on a tranquil river in Goa I have yet to find it. Even the fact that our catch was, at best, meagre didn’t take anything away from the experience. I now understand why people sit for hours waiting for a fish to bite and not being remotely upset or disheartened when nothing is actually caught.

Dinner was to be at a Goan institute – Brittos which has for many years been a favourite haunt for tourists and locals alike. Live music, seafood and cold beer was the order of the night. We had only been in India just over 24 hours yet I may as well have been there weeks. You can’t help but fall into life there and let the pace be dictated for you – a far cry from the frenetic few months back in now distant London.

The next day held in store something that I had been looking forward to since before arriving in India – cooking with Lindon, one half of the Pinto Brothers double act. A chef with an impressive CV and am amazing knowledge of food – sous chef at the Taj Palace in Bombay, 10 years working in various restaurants in Toronto and now in the process of setting up his own restaurant. I actually ended up doing virtually no cooking as Lindon got more and more into the afternoon – plates of crispy prawns with a chilli garlic glaze, green lipped mussels marinated then coated in semolina then deep fried, the now familiar mackerel rechad and a myriad of vegetarian dishes kept coming out of the kitchen. Chris and I spent the next couple of hours shooting the dishes on the veranda of The Only Olive while eating some of the most delicious food i have had in a long time. It really was a truly wonderful day.

Alas our time in Goa was over but the fact that we were headed to Kerala, a region I have never visited in all my years of living in India more than compensated. A quick 2 hour drive to the airport, a flight to Bangalore and another flight to Cochi meant we were nearly there. 2 hours later we arrived at the beautiful home stay Taamara in Alleppey right on the lake which was home for the next couple of days. If Goa had been relaxing this was practically comatose. After a long lunch of Onam Sadya (a tradition meal of fish, coconut chutneys, rice, dal and various condiments all served beautifully on a banana leaf) we headed into ‘town’ to visit the owners coia factory to see how this amazingly versatile material was transformed into mats, blinds, rugs and even jewellery.

The evening consisted of a lazy trip out with a local fisherman (my favourite quote from the entire trip and possibly of the last few years was “Mr Baker your canoe has arrived” – I suspect I won’t be hearing that again in a hurry...) and then dinner with our charming hosts who had heard me talking about lobster earlier in the day so took it upon themselves to serve us a dinner of more lobster than we could manage. Marinated in chilli, ginger, garlic, kokum, salt and pepper then cooked and finished with thick, rich coconut milk. It was nothing short of sublime.

I would like to say my whole time in Kerala was as pleasurable but I cannot lie – the promised/threatened Ayurvedic massage which I was booked in for loomed ahead of me. Chris had been gleefully regaling me with tales of various Ayurvedic treatments – snorting hot oil, men on pulleys jumping and stamping on you, being wrapped in mud and braised, more men inflicting pain on you – the list went on and on. Now my experience of massages has tended to be much more peaceful. Minimalist spas, whale song, people talking in hushed voices, fluffy towels and falling asleep. What greeted me was a hospital (in Kerala you can opt for Ayurvedic treatment instead of more conventional medicine – it’s been around for thousands of years so it must work) and a room with what appeared to be a wooden bed more suited to water boarding than anything that could possibly benefit me. Oh, and two men who ordered me to strip. Completely. Yes sir, even your pants. Now I am probably being far too British and narrow minded but the next hour and half couldn’t have been further from pleasant. Having been coated in hot camphor oil I was then vigorously rubbed, poked, prodded and contorted by two people who whilst looking nice enough, clearly had it in for me. The part I ‘enjoyed’ most was being thrust into a tiny steam room with a wet rag and a warning of ‘power hot in a minute sir’. I am of course embellishing a little bit – I had what appeared to be something woven from a miniscule amount of dental floss to wear so the naked bit is, semantically at least, incorrect. What i will say is that once we had left and the trauma started to subside I fell into the most soporific mood I can ever remember being in. Anytime i sat down I fell asleep. I felt more relaxed than ever and I actually felt marvellous! Maybe it was the relief after the thrashing had stopped but whatever the reason, it really, really worked.

What better way to spend the rest of the day then, than on a rice barge or houseboat floating on the lake snoozing in the sun drinking toddy. Ok the toddy wasn’t so pleasant – it’s an odd, nearly rancid taste, the kind usually described as ‘acquired’ or ‘unusual’ and one I shall probably leave to those who have managed to acquire it.

I couldn’t have had a more enjoyable time in Goa and Kerala, and while we filled far more into the five days we were there than anyone normally would, it did exactly what it was meant to do and that was give me a taste of what the home stay experience has to offer. For those who love to travel and wish to have a more personal and intimate experience with a country as culturally rich and diverse as India then the home stay is for you. If you want the opulent pampering and luxury of a five star hotel (which i also love) then it may not be ideal but give it a go, you never know...