It’s one of those standard questions when you meet someone new and they realise you are from Goa, or from a place deemed foreign; “Oh! Do you know where one can get the best Goan [insert appropriate location] food in Lisbon?” The question is annoying on so many levels. First, there is this manner in which one gets turned into an information hub on the exotic. The next thing you know, they will be asking you if we use elephants to go to school. The other reason for annoyance is perhaps because until recently I just did not know where I could find the best Goan food in Lisbon.
It is not as if there are no Goan restaurants in Lisbon. There are quite a few, and a good number of them are in fact not bad. For example, I think fondly of Sabores deGoa, tucked away in the appropriately named Bairro das Colónias. But no matter how satisfying the meal, there was always something missing, and I could not quite place my finger on what this missing element. What I did know is that the absence was not the lack of authenticity that one finds in ‘Indian’ restaurants. Of course, there is no such thing as ‘Indian food’. The food that is so often passed off as Indian is the food inspired from the cuisine of the Punjab and other parts of the North western Gangetic plains. This is but one part of the nation-state of India. As is to add insult to this injury, most of the restaurants that offer this Indian food, may have a dozen or so offerings on their menu but the taste varies between three to four flavours. Shocking! It is for this reason that most often I steadfastly refuse to go out to dinner at an Indian restaurant. “If I wanted to eat food from home, then I would eat at home” I protest pedantically. “In any case, the food they offer is not what my mother would cook, and neither is it very good.” Mother, clearly, always trumps!
Some time ago I realised that what really bugged me about eating out, whether in an Indian, or a Goan, restaurant was the lack of an etiquette. Take a couple of European examples as illustrations. When one dines out in Portugal, there are invariably three courses that occupy the meal, soup, main course, and dessert. If one went the Italian way, one has the antipasti, primi piatti , secondi piatti and of course the dolce, the desserts. Each of these culinary traditions has managed to articulate a etiquette such that there is an internal logic to the meal. One comes away having a full and complete meal, satisfied with the final product.
This has not been my experience with the Indian, and Goan, meals that I had in Lisbon. If I manage to bully my companions into addressing the meal my way, then we ensure that we get a couple of bowls of rice, and a variety of accompaniments. But invariably, possibly due to the fact that we are addressing not an internal logic of a culinary tradition but individual preferences of a variety of people the result is still less than satisfactory.
My search for the best Goan food in Lisbon, however, ended recently when I discovered that Lis Goa, the newest restaurant in town, had added a fish thali to its offerings. Those who have been in Goa will know of the immense popularity of the fish thali, whether for visiting tourists, or office-goers. The thali consists of the basic combination of rice and fish curry, with an accompanying vegetable. Subsequently, one can elaborate on this basic offering by adding fried fish, shell fish, dal, a variety of vegetables. The list of possible additions is mouth-wateringly endless and it is rice links all these various flavours together. Despite the elaboration, this is a peasant meal. There is no fuss to it, it is honest, and it works within the logic of the cuisine. Perhaps this is the reason for the fish thali’s almost universal appeal to Goans who eat out. And perhaps this is why Lis Goa figured that if they were going to represent Goan food, this is the one method through which they could do so best.
I have to confess that I was sold on the idea even before I arrived at the restaurant. This was the afternoon I was going to kill all homesickness with a lunch I could pretend I was having in Goa. There have been times when I have built up expectations and been woefully disappointed. This was not the case, however. This time round it was spot on. Lis Goa did not in fact disappoint.
It is not as if the offerings on the thali were exquisite. They didn’t need to be. The fact is that they were not bad. And they worked together. It offered one a full meal linked around the most basic elements of food in Goa and along the west coast – rice, fish, vegetable. My search for the best Goan meal in Lisbon had ended.
(A version of this post was first published on 5 July 2015 in The Goan Everyday)