- I’ll admit it. When it comes to food, I am frequently a judgmental jerk. I am one of those people who looks into your grocery store cart while waiting in the check-out line. Yes, dude. I saw your value pack of tom yum-flavored Mama noodles, packet of Skittles and six-pack of Asahi — not even Yebisu, but the Foster’s of Japan. I saw that. And gurl, a plastic container of cut-up watermelon? Is it really that difficult to get a wedge of watermelon and cut it yourself?
But I have no leg to stand on. Because I just spent three days in Goa, doing something I don’t normally want anybody to do — wrote a street food guidebook to help people avoid it as much as possible, really — and that is, eat every meal at the hotel restaurant. Every. Single. Meal. Except for the weird interlude spent wandering in the backwoods of Goa, where we ended up in what looked like someone’s backyard dancing to Indian wedding music and shoveling what was optimistically referred to as “Russian salad” into our gaping maws.
It wasn’t just that the cost of every meal was factored into the cost of our stay (not only am I a lazy hypocrite, I am a cheapskate too). Every morning, I thought to myself, I’ll just check what they have today. Just a peek, and then we’ll walk down the beach to somewhere else. (See also: every afternoon, and every early evening. Goans eat dinner late. Like, Brazilian late). But like a terrible siren call luring us to the shallows of delicious, blissful apathy, a veritable army of cast-iron casseroles, each containing an ever-changing cast of curries, stews and grains, would beckon. Mysterious stuffed parathas and deep-fried papads, light as feathers; murky dals, porky vindaloos and buttery naan, delicious enough to drive the crows hovering close to our table to distraction.
The best things, though, were those I’d never seen before, like the South Indian appam, rice and lentil flour touched with coconut milk and cooked in specially-made pans. They resemble Thai kanom krok but are big and savory, edible bowls for the stews with which they are inevitably paired.
Another day brings wada, deep-fried savory “doughnuts” laced with aromatic spices, thick or thin dosas, comforting discs of steamed rice idli and kachori, deep-fried lentil fritters (this is no food for those who are watching their weight). Alongside vats of local mutton xacutti stew and the popular potato-in-gravy specialty aloo bhaji sit offerings of pongal (mushy coconut-laced rice) and sabudana khichri (savory tapioca), all meant to mop up any stray goodness. That’s not to mention the clever pizza-like uttapam, a mutant form of savory pancake that can be paired with a multitude of chutneys (coconut, onion, coriander), both garlic and lime pickles, and a dried south Indian spice blend aptly named “gunpowder”.
Everything is milder and sweeter than at the Indian restaurants back home in Bangkok, and I feel a pang of remorse for once referring to the Indian restaurant near my house (the generally-good Indus, if you’re curious) as “India lite”. It’s more refined and unassuming than what Thais — gourmet adrenaline junkies, every last one of them — have come to associate with what defines “authentic” or even “good”. And there’s so much more of it, a dizzying variety of pulses, pastes and combinations that will never make it out of the country, because it’s not what non-Indians associate with “Indian food”. Every Thai restaurant in the world is saddled with expectations that tom yum soup, pad thai and green curry will be on the menu; the vast culinary lexicon of India, too, is typecast: butter chicken, chicken tandoori, maybe a vindaloo or biryani.
Back at the airport on our way home, I still can’t let go of this desire to try as much as I can. At a place called “Curry Express”, where cooks and servers wear the same disaffected looks one would expect of any Burger King or McDonald’s, I get pani puri: razor-thin dough shaped like eggshells with the tops cut off, filled with legumes and paired with two dipping sauces that taste the same. The dough is stale and my husband thinks I am going to contract some sort of stomach bug. But it, too, is something new, and I likely won’t see another plate until my next trip to India.