4. Living Dangerously on Two Half-Quarters and Pork Amsol

Hartman de Souza


You could start like me, sweet-talking your aged mother to give you her Zen ZXI without her driver, while also meticulously highlighting your penury so that she parts with enough cash to fill both your tank and the car's.

Then you could drive out listening to Joao Gilberto sing 'Desafinado' on the stereo, the volume loud enough for you to catch the beat with your fingers on the steering and hum along with Joao, bending things by adding some more minor notes. You would hit the main road leading out of my sister's farm, just as Stan Getz finishes his solo and Joao joins him scatting as they both end the tune.

It's that kind of a sad bossa nova evening, the sun setting in a rich, dark orange glow, as if the sky merely reflects one of the five open cast mines in the area that give evidence of how mud can bleed and which you pass close enough to see every single bloody day.

It's 2009, it's August, the cloud not that thick, the weather, lovely. Maybe that's the light in the sky that's playing tricks with your head, maybe it's because you know, come October, they'll bring the pumps out, drain the mining pits, and get back to work hauling tonnes and tonnes of mud out and exporting it to feed greedy steel mills in China.

You put that aside and tell yourself that it's your monthly evening of painting the town red, dressing up, combing your hair, splashing on some cologne, and making out like you were a wolf on the prowl.

Only you know that from the year before, you've been getting up every single morning with the world's most amazing alarm clock, a 'whistling schoolboy' and working your butt off with obsessive clarity – shower, change into jeans, tees, socks and sneakers, make strong coffee, get down and dirty with your notes and newspaper clippings, and turn your computer on. Every single bloody day, putting together the shell of a chronicle on the mining in the area. You've been documenting in fact Goa's Age of Greed.

Then comes a night when you see the moon a day from being full, and you know that tomorrow you will lift your snout to the sky and bay. Maybe it has to do with a song you're listening to, maybe it's just the cruel way jazz has of finding minor notes that puncture small holes in your heart, but you know it's time to take to flight.

You walk into your mother's room one afternoon, taking her a plate of filleted fish that you've just cooked and that you know will turn her heart into putty. You marinate the fish with a paste of fresh coriander, lemon balm leaves, some basil and a green chilly, one or two fresh green peppercorns, so that both sides of the fish are coated.

You also remember your mother telling you that she's past 80 and why the hell should she stop eating salt just because the doctor said so. So brown sea salt gets the marinade and fish going just right. 

You make your griddle hot, really hot, smear it with olive oil and sear the fish on both sides so that the marinade sticks to it, then transfer this onto a plate, stylishly, like they do on TV. Dribbled over the fish, and only on one side, goes the rest of the marinade which you've already thickened after adding it to fried strips of garlic that have been browned at the edges. .

On the other side of the fish, arrange two potato rounds that have been slow-cooked in a pan with tomato and garlic and cumin and which sets off the green of the fish. In the space remaining, a crispy salad with a lime-and-olive oil dressing. Seal things off with a slice of toast that's lovingly covered with olive oil and butter that's been spiced with finely chopped, de-seeded green chillies and curry leaves and placed next to the salad.

With the first taste, your aged mother will moan with pleasure. With the second she will glow. With the third bite, a careful, almost contemplative chewing, and a nibble of herbed toast, she glows and smiles.

“You want the car tonight” she says.

“Mum,” you reply, 'How did you guess?”

All that needs to be done, just as the sun disappears behind the Timblo-owned mining pit, is groove to the music. Next, is Joao Gilberto's wife, Astrud, joined by Stan Getz again, doing 'Corcovado' and you sing along, “Quiet nights and quiet stars/Quiet chords from my guitar/Floating on the silence that surrounds us/Quiet nights and quiet dreams/Quiet walks by quiet streams/And the window lookin' on the mountains and the sea how lovely”...

You reflect on how crazy life is. There's a story that does the rounds that Astrud never knew she could sing. The band was rehearsing in her apartment, when the pianist Anonio Carlos Jobim walked into the kitchen and heard her singing the English lyrics over her husband's Portuguese words coming from the living room. “Hey”, he is reported to have told her, grabbing her arm and hauling her to the living room to join the band, “you can sing!” Of such small things is history made.

*

 

There are now, recent newspaper reports in Goa seem to suggest, about 3,500 restaurants, bars, hotels, shacks, and food carts along Goa's 90 kilometre or so coastline. Maybe far more. There are some very 'iconic' restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world, because privileged Indian tourists want Goa to be more 'international', just like the privileged areas of their own cities. You would be hard-pressed to find a place where you can take your night off with two quarters of authentic Feni and some Pork Amsol.

Add an endless stream of romantic honeymooning couples who've bought the idea that you can fall in love on a hired Kinetic; drunken men from Karnataka and Maharashtra who've taken their shirts off to lean out of the car and wave their bottles and whistle at white women tourists; Goan men showing you how macho they can be behind a wheel, and gangs of privileged professionals on swanky Harley Davidsons making believe they're Hell's Angels as they gun the narrow, winding roads leading to the sea. That part of Goa is not where you want to be on a night when all you want to do is bay at a new moon.

Along the coast, a perverse logic prevails at work. A Goan family will start a small bar and restaurant that soon becomes  popular for its food, and begins to earn them a lot of money. They get gentrified, which in Goa translates into retiring from the drudgery of everyday work to watch TV serials in the daytime, T20 cricket matches at night, and oversee their children cramming from the textbooks. They get in a manager, and two young boys from Nepal to work in the kitchen.

Regardless of what young Nepali boys learnt from real Goan cooks on the ground, they arm themselves with a round red plastic container, in which are smaller round compartments, into each which are filled various ground masalas of various colours and fragrance, none of which necessarily match and one of which has to be aji-no-moto. With the flourish of Banarasi chaat makers, they stand in front of their kadais and fire a series of thick pinches of masala into a base of chopped onion and chilly, and ginger and garlic paste.

Regardless of what you order, everything tastes the same. Fish to Foul. The tourists love it. Isn't Goan cuisine wonderful, they say to each other.

*

Always ask to taste the Feni before you decide on which authentic Goan village bar and restaurant you choose to bay at the new moon. And get some practice before you do this. The day you get Feni that comes like a quick but very quiet fire, spreading along your cheeks and evaporating in your breath even as it courses down, you've touched base.

Avoid a bar where the village proletariat is watching T20. Choose a bar, where, through the door behind the bar counter, you can see the woman of the house cooking. Sit there if there seem to be a couple of tables with regulars who nod their heads at you politely. If it's got a nice sound system that accepts your pen drive, this is definitely the place to be.

Order two 'half quarters' of the owner's brew, which is what it exactly entails, a quarter bottle that is filled half way with feni. Two bottles of ice cold soda, some lemon and sugar in a shot glass, a slice of lime, lots of ice. This translates into four long drinks - one large, one small, one large, one small. It helps if you change this to count with your feet. Left, right, left, right, then it changes to a foxtrot, slow, slow, fast, fast.

With your first drink, you light a cigarette, order the Pork Amsol, and ruminate on the vicissitudes of life till the man of the house brings it to your table, waiting for you to taste it which you must duly do. If your instincts have been right, you will ask him to compliment his wife which he will do and she will come to the door and smile at you and Madam, you'll say, this is absolutely delicious, knowing she’ll simper.

When you’re on your fourth drink, a mild one with the last of the half-quarter, it’s time to live dangerously. You ask for the stereo to be turned up. It’s Leon Redbone and you sing along with him, taking those notes that turn tunes towards sadness:

I want to be se-duced/I want a wom-an to take me out to din-ner for two/I want to see her eyes get-tin’ mood-y/Flirt-in’ with the thought of what flirt-in’ can lead to/I want to act real cool, have her think a-bout get-tin’ lit-tle me in bed/Have a chat a-bout Mag-na Chart-a, or Puer-to Val-ler-ta, or some-thin’ Gan-dhi said/I might de-mur po-lite-ly, fal-ter slight-ly, if she starts to fon-dle my knee/But I’m rel-a-tive-ly cer-tain I’d com-pro-mise if I know me/I want to be se-duced/ I want a wom-an to talk to me sug-gest-ive-ly/I want to hear her say she’ll be with me to-morr-ow morn-ing/Drink-ing hot jas-mine tea/I want her to make me laugh, make a point of touch-ing me when she talks/Leav-ing all the jeal-ous guys in the joint to mum-ble in their beer and gawk/I know it on-ly hap-pens, when I’m nap-ping, nod-ding in my rev – er-ie/That I ev-er find a wom-an who would-n’t mind se-du-cing me/I know it on-ly hap-pens, when I’m nap-ping, nod-ding in my rev – er-ie/That I ev-er find a wom-an who would-n’t mind se-du-cing/Start-ing from the mom-ent that we’d been in-tro-duced/That I ev-er find a wom-an who would-n’t mind se-du-cing me…

And then, you lift your snout as if trying to smell the sea, and bay at the moon.

*

Recipe for Pork Amsol:

I'll give this to you in the simple, no-faffing way a woman cooking it in one of my favourite haunts told it to me:

"So simple it is to make. First you take the pork and cut it in small pieces that will come on the fork easily. I always tell the fellow who gives me the pork  to make sure he shaves the skin. I don't like the pig's bloody hair on it. I shout at him if he brings it like that...

"Now put oil in the pressure cooker, and put some spices in it, some coriander seeds, some clove, elaichi, cinnamon, some black peppercorns, and some red chillies and burn these little bit, then put a spoon of sugar and burn it till it almost turns black, then put slices of onion, and some capsicum, and some ginger and garlic paste and fry this till the onions turn clear like, then add the pork and fry it on a high fire till the onions start turning brown, then add little bit of vinegar and fry some more, then I add some stock I have made from boiling pork bones and put the lid on and gave it one whistle on a high flame, three whistles on the low flame...

"For the Pork Amsol, first I put oil in the frying pan, and fry some onion that I have cut in nice squares, some chopped garlic and ginger and green chilly, and put in the kokum, at least five or six nice juicy pieces, and sprinkle some pepper, and my secret, which is to take some curry leaves and chop them so small you can't even see them. I fry this for a little while till everything is sticking to the pan, then add some of the stock from the pressure cooker and cook till the kokum juice comes out from the skin, then I add the pieces of cooked pork till the curry becomes nice and thick and coats the pieces..."

 

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Hartman de Souza has a background in theatre, journalism and education. He is the author of 'Eat Dust - Mining and Greed in Goa', recently published by Harper Collins. He lives in Pune, India when he's not travelling with his backpack. Two of the several reports he has written on mining in Goa are here and here.  

Food photos courtesy: Phoebe Pereira

Mining photos courtesy: Andrea Pereira