Adding Zing to your Food
By Pantaleao Fernandes
The Goan taste bud is fine tuned to appreciate the spectrum of the sour taste to such an extent that even the least deviation from the precise taste in the food immediately draws the remark, “Ek pont amotsaan uni” or “ek pont amotsaan subjeb” (Just one bit less sour or just one bit extra sour). That’s because we are spoilt for choice by the number of souring agents that are available to the Goan kitchen, each adding that extra zing to the food.
And that was way before the arrival of packed masalas and taste makers and bottled pastes and flavours on the market shelves. Yes, the Goan mother had her own assortments of jars, packed with garnishing agents. More often than not, she had children numbering at least half a dozen and keeping them well fed and healthy was her passion and obsession.
My mother of six children was fortunate to have a little garden that aided her in cooking mouth watering delicacies to put on the dining table. Two very old bimbli trees grew, on either side of the house. These were short trees with numerous branches. The tree has compound leaves, with tiny leaflets growing on a long spine.
Bimbli produces beautiful, tiny, pink flowers which have a tangy taste. When they turn into tiny fruits, they too taste terrific. The acidic taste that spreads in the mouth made me pause and savour the flavour. The berry then matured and grew up to the size of the middle finger. When ripened they tasted good too.
Since there were no bimbli trees in the neighbourhood, our bimblis were in hot demand. Though prawn curry is an all time favourite, garnishing it with the bimbli enhanced the taste by several notches and had one lick the fingers after finishing the meal. They were cut vertically into as many sections as feasible and and tossed onto the prawn curry. I remember preferring the bimbli slices to the prawns and not a single grain of rice was left behind on the plate. Bimbi were also used to prepare a super pickle – balchão – which also used dried prawn powder a major ingredient and the combination was simply terrific!
Sollantulem is a very local pork delicacy named after Bindachim sollam (kokum peels) that are a zingy seasoning used to render a specific sourness. Not found on most hotel menus, Sollantulem is a well-guarded secret preparation found occasionally on the Goan dining table.
Red kokum berries dot kokum trees found in hilly areas as well as plains. The kokum berries are plucked and peeled. The seeds are dried and the oil extracted – bindel – is also used for a variety of purposes.
The peels are processed and dried before being sold in the markets, in demand for the unique flavour it rends to mackerel and sardine curries besides the uniquely Goan amot-tik (sour & spicy) curry. The sol-kody, an exotic digestive drink served after a meal is also prepared using the juice of the kokum berry. Unfortunately, the once commonly found kokum trees are now a rarity as not many farmers grow this tree.
Tamarind is the most commonly used souring agent in Goa. Tamarind trees which grow tall and thick and outlast the life span of a human once thrived all over Goa. Till today one comes across wards and hamlets that are named after the tamarind tree, but unfortunately the trees are on a decline with hardly anybody planting one.
In the blazing summer if one walks in the shade of a chinch – tamarind tree – one is sure to find chinché botam – tamarind pods lying on the ground. The pods actually resemble fingers and hence the name. Whether raw or ripe, these are quickly picked and nibbled – the temptation is irresistible. If raw they taste very tangy. If ripe the taste is sweet and sour. The seed can be roasted and crunched.
The pods are shaken off the tree with a large pole and collected and dried. The hard shell is then flaked off along with the seed and other fibrous matter. The resultant tamarind is then dried and salted and make into balls to be stored for future uses as it lasts the whole year.
Another souring fruit which is popular among the forest dwellers is the otamb. These trees grow abundantly in the forests. The locals simply pluck the fruit when raw and after slicing and drying store it to flavour their food.
Most of us remember golden mango for the sweet taste that makes the hot summer season bearable. But then there are many trees that produce sour mangoes and therefore not edible. These mangoes are plucked when raw and cut into slices.
Even the seed is saved and the lot salted and dried. Fresh slices of these raw mangoes are used to prepare the amto – a prawn curry that is simply irresistible. When dried, the ambea sollam can swing a mundane meal of dry prawn curry towards an unforgettable feast!
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