Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A taste of local food and drink in Panaji (Panji, Panjim)

George Restaurant and Bar sits innocuously in the middle of Panaji (or Panji or Panjim), dwarfed by the huge and impressive Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church. Barely 50 metres in front of the Church, on your right, is the red sign hanging above the entrance to George R&B. While I discovered George R&B accidentally as I was strolling around Panaji, taxi drivers know the place very well, as I learned later during my stay.  More often than not, touristy places appear to find a mention in travel forums. Probably because local folks tend not to seek advice from forums!  

There are those who long to experiment with unfamiliar tastes while traveling, while, on the other hand there are those who are risk averse, preferring to take the safer path down tried and tested food and tastes. The definition of 'local' food can be quite interesting. It is, like most things in life, relative. Traveling to a different country usually implies that any kind of food encountered there may be termed local. However, traveling to another part of your own country results in another definition of local food. For me, traveling to Goa implies that any Goan or Coastal dish would qualify to be called local. The delicious Goan Beef Croquette is a rare entry in typical restaurant menus.   

Another qualifier for a local restaurant would likely be the clientele. In this case, largely locals, most of them seemingly settled for long, a smattering of overseas visitors clutching Lonely Planet guides, and a negligible number of domestic visitors, if at all. The ground floor is non-air-conditioned, with simple furniture,  with a few fans whirring around the room. Friendly staff, quick service, and never in a hurry to see you leave. An air of casual friendliness permeates the air. George R&B probably qualifies on all these counts to be categorized as local.

All I look for are delicious Goan tastes, including Grilled Fish, and a variety of curries sampled over several visits. Ambotik,  Balchao, Cafreal, Vindaloo, Xacuti and the always popular Goan Fish Curry.

The 4-page menu is quite extensive.

George R&B is closed on Sundays. That's Susegaad for you. They do not accept credit cards. On one occasion I found myself short of cash and requested the waiter that I would need some time to bring the cash over in a while. He spoke to the cashier. No problem was the response. Pay me later. More Susegaad. And trust. 

The Church of Immaculate Conception constructed in Baroque style is impressive by day, and even more so by night. Several benches placed on the square allow you to spend a few peaceful moments in front of George R&B, gazing at the flood lit Church, reflecting on the wonders of the world, the lovely Goan curries, and the Susegaad and trust that still exist in Goa.

As you stand in front of the Church looking towards the Mandovi River, you will find a narrow lane going away towards your right, towards the East. In fact Panaji is full of narrow lanes, wonderful to explore on foot. About 50 metres down this lane is a little restaurant, as local as it can get.

The board on the wall announces the menu, mostly snacky stuff as well as Veg and Fish Thalis for lunch. The furniture is simple, as one would expect. Fuse boxes, dangling wires, soft drink advertisements and the Rs 1 to Rs 5 chocolates and Polos on the cashier's table form most of the decor. I tend to accumulate quite a few of these Vicks, Minti and Polo chocolates in lieu of change.   

My choice that evening, to punctuate my walk between bars and restaurants, was a plate of Paav Bhaji, with a Fried Green Chilly. Yum! 

In case you need a quick drink with no frills, look no further than the narrow lane (yes, another one!) that runs away in front of the Church towards the West this time. Godinho Liquors is an ultra-simple watering hole with four or five tables and red, plastic chairs. Two shelves on the wall comprise the bar, assisted by the 2-metre tall fridge partially filled with water, fizzy drinks and fruit juices, sponsored by a soft drink company. 

The Portugese Quarter is dotted with a string of small eating and drinking places. I need to come back another day to check whether Mr Joseph opens his Bar or not.

The City Bar, located behind the High Court area near the Rio de Querem (River of Gold), seems to have a slim chance of opening up. Looks like the Portugese locked up and took the keys with them when they handed Goa over to India in 1961. 

Better luck with Santarita, though. No frills on the outside. Worth a look, I thought to myself.   

Very functional, the interior is less than 5m x 5m, dimly lit, with furniture that does not seem to have changed in decades. No complaints, good enough for a few swigs of "Cashew", as the local Cashew Feni is affectionately referred to. Provides enough aviation fuel to power my wander around the Portugese Quarter.  

The evening typically starts to wind down several hours later after my customary visit to George Restaurant and Bar.  As I start wandering back towards Orav's Guest House, there is a possibility of getting distracted along the way. A quick pit stop at Sushma Bar located on the lane running along the side of the big Church towards Rio de Querem won't hurt, will it? A few drinks, a friendly chat with the owner-bartender, and I am on my way again. 

Ah yes, should you get lost, there's this STD-ISD booth to fall back on. I found this antique piece at the small Cafe at Relax Inn, owned by a friendly gentleman Allwyn whom I was introduced to at George R&B one evening.  My thoughts rolled back down the years to the late '80s and early '90s when traveling to Goa meant getting cut off from the rest of the world. Quite a happy situation it was those days actually, without the evils of constant distraction and random data overload that can so easily ruin your day today if you are not watchful. 

It's probably going to get worse, with the Internet of Things threatening to overpower us and our privacy. Might as well take advantage of the benefits of the device age.  A quick look at the map helps set the context. Where do we head to next? The Rio de Querem joins the Mandovi River near where the main Bus Station  is now located. The Portugese had constructed the 3 km long causeway at this point in 1633, connecting Panaji and the Old Goa area further east through Ribandar. 

Perched along the Causeway with a lovely view of River Mandovi is the fairly large Hoble's River Lounge seating over 50 guests. It's probably up-market by local restaurant standards. 

The modern board (powered by marker pens, not chalk!) lists the specials of the day.  An extensive menu is also available. No need to refer to a menu card this time.

Clean and simple, service is once again friendly and quick. Maario Miranda's cartoons adorn the walls. The late, famed cartoonist Mario was Goan. A little TV usually shows Cricket or Soccer. Fans whir overhead. My choice that afternoon is the usual "Cashew" drink and the Fish Thali. 

The Fish Thali gets served in 5 to 10 minutes, so is a sensible choice when there is a plane to catch. A typical Goan Fish Thali consists of:
- Cocum drink
- a Veg dish
- Mussels in Coconut masala
- Salad
- Rice
- Fish curry with a couple of pieces of boneless fish
- a large King Fish fillet or Mackerel grilled or crumb fried. 

Yum..!! All this sets you back by Rs 100.  

Hoble's Restaurant turned out to be quite modernized, with a computerized bill that described itself as 'Non A/c Delux'.

So, let's continue our journey... 

Heading further east along the Causeway, the Ribandar area appears next, where the most prominent landmark as the road bends right is the imposing building that houses the Healthcare division of Goa Institute of Management. More about that in another post. About 200 metres down the road as you head to Old Goa stands the absolutely humble Annapurna Bar and Restaurant. Typically family owned and run, just like hundreds that you find dotting the highways and country roads in Goa. Annapurna has grown vertically around the home of the family.

A board on the foot path lists the typical highlights.

The owner runs the show. He is all-in-one. He welcomes visitors, takes orders, serves and cleans up. In between these activities, he generally pores over the day's news. He also tends to forget what has been served. So it's a good idea to remind him. He totals it up in his head, makes a note in the register and collects the cash. A few Mintis or Vicks or Polos are handed over in lieu of small change. 

Tawa fried King Fish. 

Mussels in Coconut masala.

Prawns cooked in Balchao masala. 

The humble sheet of canvas blown around by  the breeze announces some of the food that is available. I did not see any change in the wall menu over several visits. I suspect the owner has forgotten about this menu. 

Visitors are all locals. They sit around and chat in Konkani. They don't need menus and bills. Neither did I. i knew what I was after. The local "Cashew" and a variety of Seafood. This is one of the rooms of their home on the ground floor. A couple of doors and worn out curtains separate the bed rooms and kitchen from the restaurant. 

Depending on the number of guests, the section up a flight of stairs is opened up. 

The view of the river from the restaurant on the top floor is rather serene. This floor has been built on top of the home, accessible via a single, steep and narrow flight of metal stairs. Passenger ferries casually criss cross the river all day, never seeming to be in a hurry. They carry pedestrians, cycles, scooters and motor cycles. That's how I remember crossing the River Mandovi and River Zuari until the '90s, 

The sun continues its journey over the river, from right to left. The distillate from the Cashew fruit appears to arrest the time that invariable ticks by. 

There's much Tawa Fried King Fish and other food to be sampled. 

The Fish Thali is always a quick, interesting option. Rice, Veggies, Salad, Mussels, King Fish curry, Crumb fried Mackerel and the tangy, red Coccum drink that is only found along the Konkan coaslt, apparently a herbal aid for effective digestion. All this for Rs 50 only.

A row of bottle cartons are strung up across the road. I suppose these cartons are designed to house colourful light bulbs.  

Annapurna and Sri Laxmi are located next to each other. In fact they share a common wall.

Sri Laxmi is yet another family run restaurant. I noticed that the front door that leads to the room converted into a restaurant is open all day, starting from 7 AM. I parted the thin curtains leading to the rest of the home. Nobody was in sight. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked louder. Still no answer. So I stepped in and yelled. Helllooooooooo. A little girl peered out. She called an older girl. This girl in turn called a lady, perhaps their mother. I asked the lady whether they are serving any food at that time. Sure, she replied, please sit down.

The simple, home cooked Paav Bhaji comes in handy for a quick breakfast. I asked her whether they serve the Thali during lunch. Yes, she replied. 

On one of my drives to Dabolim airport, I had requested the driver to stop for a quick lunch. As you approach the airport, about 1 km before the terminal, lies another 'Bar and Rest', as local as they can get. This one goes by the name of Laxmi.

Formica-topped tables. Red, plastic chairs. Asbestos sheet roof. Light fixtures sponsored by Kingfisher. A small CRT TV locked up in a cage along the  wall. No tourists. The guests clapped loudly and cheered as boundaries were scored (Cricket). I guess they would do the same were a goal to be scored (Soccer). 

Service time for a drink is about two minutes or less. Service time for a Fish Thali is about five minutes. 

Thali = Veggies + Salad + Mussels + King Fish in curry + Crumb fried Mackerel + Rice. 

Cashew drinks Rs 10 each. Fruit juice Rs 20. Bottled water Rs 20. Fish Thali Rs 50. Perfect when you have a flight to catch. I did that on several occasions. Try it, you will love the experience!  

My favourite seat is on the port side of the plane. The plane takes off west from Dabolim and turns south making a great curve over the sea. The flight path generally intersects the coast over the Cansaulim-Utorda-Majorda stretch, the location of many of our family holidays and many, many, long, lazy strolls along the beach. 

My recent experiences were not about resorts, beaches and shacks (for work reasons). My experiences were equally pleasant, though, with the opportunity to explore local food and drink options in Panaji. 

I hope you enjoyed the taste of local food and drink as much as I enjoyed putting it together. There's always another reason to make a quick dash to Goa. 

Bon appetit! 

Please click here for glimpses of Panaji's colour and history.

Enjoy the journey!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Panaji (Panjim) - a walk through colour and history

In my books, Panaji (the anglicized form being Panjim) is probably the most quaint Indian city that is a pleasure to stroll in.  Puducherry (Pondicheryy) on the east coast is another contender, but I have not been there in a long time, therefore unable to visualize.  That's Portugal vs France for you. 

Panaji is pronounced Panji by local folks, sounds like PuNji, with the tip of the tongue curling up backwards against the palate to pronounce the hard 'N'.  It's like the festival of colours - Holi - being celebrated all year round.  Bright colours spanning several hues of blue, green, lavender, yellow, orange and pink peep out of the shadows in the narrow lanes.  A paint manufacturer's delight.

My teaching assignments in Panaji spanned several visits.  I was keen on experiencing a bit of life in the Portugese quarter, or Fontainhas, as it is known. Realizing that the Institute would likely not have an arrangement with Guest Houses in the area, I informed the Institute before my last visit that I would find my own accommodation.  I had met the owner of Relax Inn at George Restaurant earlier, and he pointed me to Orav's Guest House in the area behind the large Immaculate Conception church on 31st January Road.  It turned out to be a friendly, family run, budget establishment, unlike the impersonal 3-star or 4-star hotels that I had stayed in during earlier visits.  Driving in from the airport, I reached at about 08:30 AM.  The blue sky appeared more cheerful and reflected a brighter shade of blue than normal.  It's all in the head of the beholder, as the saying goes.

The streets in the area looked invitingly at me, as if to say, come on, put on your walking shoes, let's go. The sign at the entrance of Orav's indicates the presence of STD/ISD phones.  Of historical value, I guess.

My room on the ground floor turned out to be simple, clean and functional, with an attached bath.

I wondered whether I needed an hair-cut.  No, I decided, not being terribly keen on a Ronaldo type crop. Not with classes to teach over the weekend and office to get back to on Monday.

Strolling along, I made a mental note to come back in the evening and say hello to Mr Joseph. Unfortunately, I forgot, which means this is an entry in my to-do list.  Not too many signs of life here, though.  Appeared that the days here have been 'dry' here for a while. Favourite quiz question: How many dry days are there in India?

Every lane and by-lane in Fontainhas has an interesting view to offer. You would probably miss little goodies like this moss covered stairway if you ride around in a car. 

The Portugese quarter has a wide array of ancient buildings, many run down and looking unoccupied. Back in 1961 when Goa was handed over to India, the way of life was relaxed and uncomplicated. Susegaad at its prime. Windows did not have grills. Doors were not fitted with locks. Robbery was unheard of.  

The grills we see today have been retrofitted on the ancient buildings. The new fittings seem quite garish and ugly.

Peeping behind one of the old buildings near Orav's Guest House reveals the state of massive disrepair that some of these structures are in. Peeping through the doors and windows revealed an interior overgrown thick with vegetation.

Walk, walk, walk, walk. What a pleasure, particularly in the evenings after class.

Wait, here's a STD/ISD booth.  However, the phone and digital meter have vanished.  Reminded me of the '80s and the '90s, during the pre-mobile era, when these booths were the only way to call home. Not that I did. Nah!

Landing up in Goa during the pre-mobile and pre-internet era meant a complete switch off.  No need to worry about phones.  No need to worry about newspapers.  A malnourished newspaper used to show up randomly in Guest Houses, was it the Gomantak Times?  The implication was that it was rather easy to lose track of days and dates. It's a wonder I used to get back home without missing the bus.  The building with its dangling wires and row of metal pillars also seems to have lost track of time.

The Rio de Ourem (River of Gold) flows through Panaji in the vicinity of the Portugese quarter.  Overgrown vegetation and moss covered buildings convey that 'all is well'. 

Not too far from the little bridge over the Rio de Oerem stands the forlorn looking City Bar. Appears to be a result of 'lock the door, throw away the key'. Or maybe the Portugese owner took the key back with him.  

Yet another relic of the past, like the STD/ISD booths and forgotten buildings, shows up not too far from the Rio de Oulem behind the General Post Office area. This establishment once created thousands of jobs and catered to the demands of the once flourishing typewriting industry which has likely shrunk to an incredibly small size. The board even indicates a 6-digit telephone number. Prefix the number with a '2'. We heard this many years ago, didn't we? 

One of the sights in the must see list of any traveler is the massive yet elegant Immaculate Conception Church. The imposing building has flights of stairs leading to the top from where you can safely observe the traffic and people way below. 

The view at night is equally impressive, visible as you step out of George Restaurant, one of the local gems. 

Heading east along the Mandovi river, the Ribandar area separates Panaji (Nova Goa) and Old Goa (Velha Goa), the location of several churches declared heritage monuments by UNESCO. 

A heritage building appears mid-way between Panaji and Old Goa, about 3 km from Panaji, overlooking the river.  The building used to be the Santa Casa De Misericordia (The Royal Portuguese Hospital), regarded as the oldest hospital in India. It's apparently not too well known that the Portugese had introduced the Western style of medicine in India. The hospital was moved to the city and the building was converted to the campus of the Goa Institute of Management in 1993.  

The massive front doors of the ex-hospital have been sealed. Standing at the bottom of the staircase with my back to the door, this is the view of what used to be the entrance.  

The corridors and classrooms have high ceilings. The design helps maintain the temperature a little lower than the outside. 

Behind the main heritage structure is a leafy, cool campus. 

The heritage building appears majestic in the evening when I stop to look back and admire the view after class. The Institute has expanded to another campus way in the interior part of Goa. However, the Healthcare Department continues to run their programs in the Ribandar Campus. 

The Mandovi River presents a pretty sight as the sun starts to set and the lights of the city and the bridge light up. 

While several large, ugly Casino Ships lie stationary on the Mandovi River, numerous smaller party boats go up and down after sunset, entertaining visitors with music, dance, food and drink. 

Well, I've enjoyed stringing a few photographs together to piece together memories of several recent trips to Panaji. Excuse me, I mean PuNji. 

For glimpses of local food and drink, please click the link below: 

A taste of local food and drink in Panaji

Next time you get a chance, set aside a couple of hours to stroll around Panaji's Portugese quarter and the Rio de Ourem area. You are quite likely to love the experience. Don't forget to step inside one of the STD/ISD booths to call home. Convey my regards to Mr Joseph of Joseph Bar, as well. Do tell him I'll be back soon. 

-= end -=