Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern: Goa, the spice of life

From the first shot of Goa in this week’s episode of Bizarre Foods, I could smell the aromas. And that’s a good thing. Although Zimmern said that the food in Goa is different than many parts of India, in New Delhi where I lived for two years, every spicy, sweet and sour taste that Zimmern mentioned could be found. That’s because New Delhi was filled with people who started out somewhere else. For those who like taste variety, India is heaven, and Zimmern once again showed how.

What I liked about this episode is that anyone heading to Goa can find the food that Zimmern ate without spending much money. He went to simple places in each location he visited. And, although he did touch on the unusual foods, it was mostly the cooking methods and not weird ingredients that carried the episode. Goa became an inviting backdrop for eating pleasure. Instead of thinking, “Oh, gad!” I wanted a bite– or twelve.

In Goa, a state colonized by the Portuguese, and described by Zimmern as a hippie hangout in the 60s and 70s that still teams with tourists, Zimmern walked through Mapusa Market as the camera panned and periodically lingered on sacks of spices followed by piles of various fruits. Along with the variety in the smells and flavors of the bounty is a vibrant color palate which is probably why camera shots of spices were popular throughout this episode.

First up– a lesson in curry. As Zimmern pointed out, curry is a blend of spices that goes much further than what Westerners know as curry powder. In India, curry is called masala. When the tasting started Zimmern honed in on a couple of dishes that make Indian cuisine unique.

Pickled mango was one of them. Mango, a usually sweet fruit is turned sour by being kept in salt. One of my favorite relishes, mango pickle is often found on restaurant tables similar to how a bottle of ketchup is a condiment in the United States. My favorite Indian restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I lived there was the Indian Kitchen. There was always a jar of mango pickle at the ready. I’d eat it like candy.

For his market grazing, Zimmern also sampled bora berry, a small light brownish-yellowish fruit, about the size of a grape that he said was “slimy goo, sour and disgusting.” Must be an acquired taste. As the guide who was showing Zimmern around said, children love them. Passion fruit Zimmern liked.

At a sausage seller, he sampled chouricos, a sausage made of pig meat that includes organs and is mixed with hot spices and stuffed inside pig intestines. Instead of intestines, Zimmern said guts. Using pig intestines as sausage casing is actually not that unusual. Say guts and it sounds gross.

The next dish, mackerel soaked up to a year in masala sauce, is unusual. Zimmern offered to eat it raw, but the guide told him absolutely not. It’s fried first and she sent him off to Republic Noodle, a small restaurant near the market to be cooked before he became sick for sure. “This could have been my last Bizarre Foods,” he quipped.

The cooked mackerel wasn’t fabulous. “This smells like lime soaked in ammonia,” he said before taking a bite. “Wow. That’s sour and fishy. You can’t even cut this thing with a knife.” Sounds like a food to stay away from unless you’re really, really, really hungry. Still, for people who live through monsoons, this method for preserving foods comes in handy.

In Panaji the capital of Goa, the architecture reflects the Portuguese colonial influence–so does the cuisine. Vindaloo, a signature dish of Goa, reflects the influence. I’ve eaten chicken vindaloo many times, but didn’t know it came from the Portuguese. Vindaloo, as Zimmern pointed out, is a way of preparing a sauce that includes vegetables, various spices, vinegar and red hot peppers, making it one of the hottest dishes in Indian cuisine. He ate his version at the restaurant in the Hotel Venite. “Spicy. Tomatoey. Strong vinegar backbone. Boy, that’s some serious warm heat,” he declared. Vindaloo can be made with pork, fish and beef as well.

Zimmern’s meal also included hilsa fish roe. The roe–fish eggs–were in a ring that had been steamed, chilled, sliced, and rolled into corn flour. “This is absolutely the definition of dry mealy food,” said Zimmern before he ate a bite of vindaloo as a chaser. Throw some mango pickle on the roe and it might be good?

At another restaurant, Mum’s Kitchen, there is the concept of making Indian food as Indian moms might make it. The idea is to “make sure the right way to do something doesn’t disappear” by adding a mother’s touch into the dishes.”

Here chicken can’t get any fresher. The chicken is killed on the spot and is plucked, cleaned, cut up and cooking in minutes. Zimmern pronounced the dish, chicken xacuiti delicious. Since it’s from marinating chicken in a masala mixture of cumin, curry leaves, coconut and red chilies, I’d second that. It didn’t sound weird, and besides, moms cooked it.

Even the most unusual dish on the menu, Bombay Duck, was tasty despite sounding awful. The duck isn’t duck, but a type of soft boned fish with lizard qualities. The story goes that the name comes from the British who said the fish’s smell reminded them of a crowded train car of the Bombay line.

Next on Zimmern’s Goa jaunt was a trip to Calangute Beach. Here, wood-fired tandori ovens are used for cooking which gives meat and bread a smokey flavor. At one simple restaurant, 100 yards off the ocean with jet skis in the background, Zimmern ate tandoori-style fish after mentioning that there are miles and miles of beaches in Goa, so fish is a-plenty.

Zimmern’s eating at this beach made me want to head to the Asian food store closest to my house to buy a bag of Indian snack food. After eating a chick pea sandwich, Zimmern sampled a snack mixture of puffed wheat, chick peas raisins and spices.

As he said, “Even the simpliest food are seasoned so well. You feel like the most humble foods have been transformed.” If you’ve never eaten Indian snacks, buy some, but be careful about the hot factor. The packaging will say if a food is hot or mild. If it says hot, believe it.

Another tasty treat with a wicked kick was the deep fried chili fritters with chili puree on top. Don’t do what Zimmern did and glop on the puree. “That was a really dumb idea. In a little while I’ll have to peel my taste buds off that cloud up there,” Zimmern said about his mouth explosion.

To get away from the tourists, Zimmern suggested Arambol Beach where you can sunbath with the cows. With white sand beaches and the ocean offering a place for relaxation, shack-like restaurants were the setting for Zimmern’s fish feast. Fish is cooked up on a propane grill.

The flat spiny pomfret that Zimmern ate is a white fish variety that is cross-hatched before it is grilled so that will come apart in pieces making eating it with ones fingers easy. The king prawns were also grilled. At this point, I’m thinking, shoot yes, that I’m hungry.

Next stop was Sahakari Spice Farm where there are at least 100 different types of plants. This section was a great lesson in where the ingredients in spice bottles come from. As this section illustrated, in addition to jazzing up food, spices also foster good health.

The man giving Zimmern the tour said that black pepper acts as a laxative and cinnamon takes care of cholesterol, for example.

The farm was also a place for highlighting the labor intensive harvesting practices, like when the guy shimmied up coconut and betel nut trees to get the good stuff.

To get to his next eating place, Zimmern took a ride in a rough hewn wooden boat on the Mondovi River where sand bars makes travel tricky and in spots crocodiles infest the waters.

In a private home, Zimmern ate sorpotel, a dish common to weddings. With pork as the main ingredient, it was cooked in a large pot over an open fire nto a dish flavored with Kashmiri chili, onions, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Yum. (Except I could do without knowing that blood is used for a thickening agent.)

The last part of this episode was my favorite and worth its own post. Stay tuned for Andrew Zimmern’s trip to the Ayurvedic Natural Health Center which made me laugh out loud. It involved oil, heat, a broken chair and cow’s urine.

(photos of market and Zimmern from Bizarre Foods Web site.)