Goan cuisine is a tantalising fusion of Portuguese and South Indian flavours. Goans tend to be hearty meat and fish eaters, and fresh seafood is a staple: the quintessential Goan lunch of ‘fish-curry-rice’ is fried mackerel steeped in coconut, tamarind and chilli sauce. Traditional dishes include vindalho (a fiery dish in a marinade of vinegar and garlic), xacuti (a spicy chicken or meat dish cooked in red coconut sauce) and cafreal (dry-fried chicken marinated in a green masala paste and sprinkled with toddy vinegar). For dessert try the layered bebinca cake.

The Basics

Goa offers a full range of dining opportunities, from Goan specialities and Indian staples to Western dishes and the ubiquitous seafood. Bookings are only necessary at upmarket restaurants.

  • Beach shacks A Goan institution, the beach shacks are erected from November to May and specialise in fresh seafood, along with music and cold beer.
  • Restaurants Goa's restaurants can be divided into local places serving Goan and Indian food, and international restaurants, serving everything from Thai curries to pasta and pizza.
  • Street Food Though not as common as elsewhere in India, you'll find street food carts near beach entrances and in main towns.

Goan Cuisine

‘Prodham bhookt, magi mookt’, say the locals in Konkani; ‘You can’t think until you’ve eaten well’, and Goans take the sating of their appetites extremely seriously.

Staples & Specialities

Given Goa’s seaside location, it’s little wonder that the local lunchtime staple is 'fish-curry-rice', crisp fried mackerel steeped in a thin coconut, tamarind and red chilli sauce and served with a mound of rice; you’ll find it on any ‘non-veg’ restaurant's menu, and it’s a cheap and tasty way to fill up for lunch.

Aside from seafood, chicken and pork are popular meat dishes in Goa, and the latter makes for a local lunchtime favourite, served up in the form of a piled plate of Goan chouriços. These air-dried, spicy red pork sausages (similar to Spanish chorizo) are flavoured with feni (liquor distilled from cashew fruit or palm sap), toddy (palm sap) vinegar and chillies, and strung in desiccated garlands from streetside stalls.

Another delicacy you won't find anywhere else in India is pork sorpotel, a spicy masala dish combining chillies, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cloves and a dash of feni; it's often served at Christmas.

Sauces

Uniquely Goan preparations include xacuti (pronounced sha-coo-tee), a spicy sauce combining coconut milk, freshly ground spices and red chillies. Chicken and seafood are frequently served basted with rechead, a spicy marinating paste. Dry-fried chicken might otherwise be served spicy cafrial style, marinated in a green masala paste and sprinkled with toddy vinegar. Meanwhile, the original vindalho – far from being the sole preserve of British curry-house lads – is a uniquely Goan derivative of Portuguese pork stew that traditionally combines vinho (wine vinegar) with ahlo (garlic) and spices.

Spices

Head to one of Goa’s divinely scented spice farms to find evidence of the sought-after spices that kept conquerors coming back to Goa for centuries. South India still produces the very best of the world’s black-pepper crop, an essential ingredient in savoury dishes worldwide, while locally produced turmeric, coriander and cumin, combined with garlic, chillies, tamarind and kokum (a dried fruit used as a spice) form the basis of many a Goan curry. Other locally grown spices include cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, curry leaves, ginger and nutmeg.

Rice

Rice is by far the most important staple in southern India, providing most meals for most people throughout most of their lives, and India is one of the world's largest rice producers. Apart from being boiled or steamed, rice is cooked up to make pulao (pilau; aromatic rice casserole), or a Muslim biryani, with a layer of vegetable, chicken or mutton curry. Naturally it forms the basis of the Goan staple 'fish-curry-rice'.

Dhal

Vegetarian or omnivorous, Christian, Hindu or Muslim, India is united in its love for dhal (lentils or pulses). In Goa, you’ll find three types of dhal: thin, spicy sambar, served with many breakfast dishes; dhal fry, which is yellow and mild with the consistency of a thick soup; and dhal makhani, richer and darker, spiked with rajma (kidney beans), onions and another handful or two of some of the 60 types of pulses grown in the country. Various other pulses, including kabuli chana (chickpeas) and lobhia (black-eyed beans), also turn up regularly in that delicious Goan breakfast staple, bhaji-pau.

Goan Nuts

Coconut palms are thick in Goa and a vital part of the local diet. Coconut flesh, known as copra, gives flavour and substance to almost every Goan speciality dish, savoury and sweet alike, as well as providing oil for use in other sorts of cooking, soap manufacture, hair oil and cosmetics. The hairy outer shell of the coconut is spun into water-resistant coir rope, and used by Goan fishermen to secure their boats.

Coconut sap, known as toddy, is collected by toddy tappers, who shinny up their swaying trees two or three times daily. It’s fermented and distilled into coconut feni (distinct from the more popular cashew feni). While feni is safe to drink, there have been cases of people being mildly poisoned by adulterated palm toddy in South India, so make sure it's fresh.

Seafood

Seafood is plentiful, fresh and delicious in Goa, though not cheap compared with other dishes. Among the most famous Goan fish dishes are ambot tik, a slightly sour curry usually accompanied by shark; caldeirada, a mild seafood stew with vegetables flavoured with wine; and the Portuguese-inflected recheiado which sees a whole fish, usually a mackerel or pomfret, slit down the centre, stuffed with a spicy red sauce, and fried up in hot oil. Another regular on Goan menus is balchão, a rich, tangy tomato and chilli sauce, often cooked with tiger prawns or fish.

Dairy Products

Goa abounds with milk products. A small pot of glistening white dahi (curd) is served with most meals, most traditionally in an unfired clay pot; paneer (cheese) is a godsend for the vegetarian majority; lassi (yoghurt and iced-water drink) is popular in both sweet and savoury forms; ghee (clarified butter) is a traditional cooking medium; and the best local sweets are made with milk.

Recently Goa has also seen a rise in the number of European-style cheeses on offer. Maia Cheese, based in Palolem, and Happy Cow Swiss Cheese in Siolim, were founded by Russian and Swiss expats respectively and produce tasty mozzarella, feta and brie among others. Kodaicanal and Auroville dairies, both in nearby states, have also branched out into cheesemaking; their products can be bought at grocery shops statewide, and are found gracing many a beachside pizza.

Sweets

Look out for bebinca, the most famous of Goan sweets, a rich 16-layer coconut pancake-type cake, whipped up with sugar, nutmeg, cardamom and egg yolks. Also be sure to sample batica, a squidgy coconut cake best served piping hot from the oven; doce, made with chickpeas and coconut; and dodol, a gooey fudgelike treat, made from litres of fresh coconut milk, mixed with rice flour and jaggery.

Celebrations

Goan festivals and celebrations are synonymous with feasting. Weddings are occasions to indulge gastronomic fantasies, and often include dishes such as sorpotel, a combination of meat, organs and blood, diced and cooked in a thick, spicy sauce flavoured with feni. Seafood also features at feasts. Desserts might include bebinca and leitria (an elaborate coconut covered by a lacy filigree of egg yolks and sugar syrup).

Hindu festivals, too, are big food affairs. Karanjis, crescent-shaped flour parcels stuffed with sweet khoya (milk solids) and nuts, are synonymous with Holi, the most boisterous Hindu festival, as are malpuas (wheat pancakes dipped in syrup), barfis (fudgelike sweets) and pedas (multicoloured pieces of khoya and sugar). Pongal (Tamil for ‘overflowing’), the south’s major harvest festival, produces a dish of the same name, made with the season’s first rice along with jaggery, nuts, raisins and spices.

Where to Eat & Drink

Goa’s eating-out options are divided into the ‘local’ and ‘nonlocal’ varieties: the local serving up Indian or Goan cuisine of one sort or another, and the nonlocal encompassing everything from Tibetan kitchens and pizza restaurants to French fine dining.

The simplest local restaurants, often known as ‘hotels’ come either in ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’ varieties, and are the best places for a cheap breakfast or a filling lunch.

Midrange Indian restaurants generally serve one of two basic genres of Indian food: South Indian (the vegetarian food of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) and North Indian (richer, and often meatier, Punjabi-Mughlai food). The final (and rarest) type of local restaurant is that serving Goan cuisine itself.

Street Food

Street food carts are not as common in Goa as elsewhere else in India, but you will find them around markets, at Miramar Beach in Panaji and at the main beach entrances to Calangute and Colva. A good rule of thumb is that if locals are eating at a streetside stand, it’s a pretty safe bet, but make sure it's freshly cooked – don't eat anything that looks like it has been sitting around for a while.

The Most Important Meal of the Day

Breakfast is an excellent meal in which to explore the delights of South Indian cuisine. A favourite is the classic bhaji-pau, a white bread roll (pau) served ready to dunk into a spicy side curry (bhaji).

Masala dosas (thin pancakes of rice and lentil batter, fried and folded, and often served with masala-spiced potato filling) are another breakfast staple, as are the other southern specialities of idli (round steamed rice cakes often eaten with sambar and chutney) and vada (also spelled wada; potato and/or lentil savoury doughnut, deep-fried and served with sambar and chutney).

Vegetarians & Vegans

South Indian cuisine is some of the best in the world for those who abstain from fish, flesh and fowl. Vegans might face some challenges, since it’s sometimes hard to work out whether food has been cooked in ghee (clarified butter) but look out for the words 'pure veg'.

Food Glossary

ambot tik – sour curry dish made with meat or fish and flavoured with tamarind

balchão – fish or prawns cooked in a rich, spicy tomato sauce

balchão de porco – the same as balchão, but made with pork

bebinca – richly layered, pancake-like Goan dessert made from egg yolk and coconut

cafrial – method of preparation in which meat, usually chicken, is marinated in a sauce of chillies, garlic and ginger and then dry-fried

caldeirada – a mild curry of fish or prawns layered in a vegetable stew

caldin – mild meat or vegetable dish cooked in spices and coconut milk

chai – sweet, spiced tea

chouriço – spicy air-dried pork sausages, fried up and served for lunch

dhaba – basic restaurant or snack bar

doce – sweet made with chickpeas and coconut

dodol – traditional fudgey Christmas sweet made with rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery

dosa – paper-thin lentil-flour pancake, eaten for breakfast

feni – Goa’s most famous drink, a liquor distilled from coconut-palm toddy or juice of cashew apples

fish-curry-rice – Goa’s staple dish, a simple concoction of mackerel in spicy, soupy curry, served with rice

kokum – dried fruit used as a spice

sanna – steamed rolls or cakes made with rice flour, ground coconut and toddy

sorpotel – pork liver, heart or kidney cooked in thick, slightly sour, spicy sauce and flavoured with feni

thali – a selection of curries, salad, pickle and rice, served on a metal platter, making for a cheap and filling lunch option

udupi – vegetarian cafe or canteen, selling South Indian–style snacks and thalis; also known as an udipi

uttapam – griddle-fried rice-flour pancake

vindalho – hot and sour curry, usually using pork, spiced with chillies, vinegar and garlic; completely unlike the Western curry-house killer, vindaloo

xacuti – spicy sauce made with coconut milk, lemon juice and plenty of red chilli

Goan Cookbooks

  • The Essential Goa Cookbook – Maria Teresa Menezes
  • Savour the Flavour of India – Edna Fernandes
  • Goan Recipes and More – Odette Mascarenhas
  • Goan Cookbook – Joyce Fernandes

Food & Drink Online

  • www.goanfoodrecipes.com
  • www.hildastouchofspice.com
  • www.thegoanfoodie.com

Sidebar: Cooking Classes

Cooking classes are gaining popularity in Goa. You'll find them at Vagator, Palolem, Patnem and Siolim.

Sidebar: Curry

According to linguists, there’s no such thing as an Indian ‘curry’ – the word, an Anglicised derivative of the Tamil word kari (black pepper), was used by the British as a term for any dish including spices.

Sidebar: Eating with Hands

In typical South Indian restaurants, rice and curry dishes are often eaten with the hands. Try to eat only with your right hand; the left is considered unclean and for the purposes of ablution only. If you’re invited to dine with a family, always take off your shoes and wash your hands before dining.