A Territorial Goan Chef Introduced Me to Real Vindaloo
Patrick D’souza, owner of Bhatti Village Restaurant in Goa, is so protective of his vindaloo that he doesn't even have a menu. “We have many awards and if [other restaurants] see the menu, they will start doing it,” he says.
All photos by Rebecca Hobson and Tom Foster.
A bull with huge, red horns is staring directly at me, blocking my path to the tiny village lane I'd been about to go down.
I stare back and gently wheel my motorbike away. It seems to work and a minute later, he saunters off; leaving me to zoom past the fields and coconut trees of Nerul, a small town in north Goa, India named after the Nerul River that runs through it.
About a kilometre or so from the tourist traps of Candolim and Calangute (think Mallorca with poppadoms), the town is home to around 5,000 people, a few hotels, and Bhatti Village Family Restaurant and Bar.
It's the last on this list that mosts interests me. Bhatti Village is known for producing some of the most authentic Goan food around.
Which means real vindaloo. Not the bum-exploding slop of British curry house fame, but a harmonious balance of sweet, sour, and spice, and the product of a turbulent period in Indian history.
The only problem is, I'm not sure if Bhatti Village actually serves vindaloo. Owner Patrick D'souza is so territorial over his menu that he doesn't even have one.
Still, the prospect of a perfectly cooked curry hasn't stopped me from making the 45-minute motorbike ride to the restaurant.
"There's no menu because I, myself, go to the customers. I convince them," Patrick explains when I arrive, before putting me out of my misery and revealing that pork vindaloo is indeed one of the restaurant's staple dishes. "Many of the hoteliers and the owners of restaurants and bars, they come over here and they see what we do. Because we are a little bit famous, we have many awards and if they see the menu, they will start doing it."
Dating back to 16th century colonisation of southwestern India by the Portuguese, vindaloo has its roots in the Portuguese dish of carne de vinha d'alhos, meaning "meat with wine and garlic." Over time, vinegar was substituted for wine and chilies were added.
Alongside their famed vindaloo, D'souza and his wife Merciana offer fish roe, balchão, and guizad—a Portuguese-Goan fish stew.
"We make this one with tiny baby, baby prawns, just born," he tells me.
But we're here for the vindaloo. Patrick however, is not so sure. For starters, it's lunchtime and the restaurant is closed.
"We don't open at lunchtime because we're very busy getting ready for the evening show," he says. "My wife does it, there is hardly any other Goan chefs—it's a very difficult job for us."
"You don't trust any other chefs?" I ask.
"No. I have employed many of them and even the Goan chefs start putting the sauces in—you know the ketchup and all? We don't do that. We do real, authentic Goan food."
So two days later, I'm back. It's 6.30 PM on a Wednesday, about 30 degrees Celsius outside, and the restaurant is empty. Merciana eyes me wryly before presenting me with an enormous bowl of vindaloo masala. In it is ground red chilies, cinnamon, garlic, onion, cloves, local coconut vinegar, cashew feni (a potent Goan liquor), ginger, black pepper, cumin, and tamarind powder.
"What are the quantities? How do you measure the ingredients?" I ask, grinning like the massive keeno I am.
She looks at me blankly: "I don't measure, I just put, put, and put and then I taste. My mother showed me."
Right, of course.
Today, Merciana is making chicken vindaloo. She finely chops a red onion and cuts two green chilies in half while Patrick cleans and cuts a chicken breast. Into a large frying pan go olive oil, chopped chilies, and onion. Nothing else.
"If you want it very spicy, I cut up the chili more," says Merciana. Despite the Anglicised recipes altered to suit inebriated tastebuds, authentic vindaloo isn't necessarily hot.
Once the onion has browned, the masala is added. It cooks for a few minutes before the chicken is thrown in.
We hover around the pan, stirring now and then, and adding cups of water. Patrick tells me it's important not to let the consistency get too thick—the meat should be in a sauce, not a gravy.
With the dish cooked, I'm instructed to sit at one of the restaurant's 11 tables and wait for it to be served with some rice and pao, the local bread.
When the vindaloo arrives, I'm not disappointed. The balance of spices is spot on: it is tangy but not tart, the sauce light yet substantial. The tamarind cuts through the red chili and there's a faint smokiness—from the cashew feni, I suspect.
Despite its award-winning reputation, Bhatti Village only opened "five or six years ago." At the start, there were just a couple of tables with the rest of the space housing a bar. But the food proved too popular and the restaurant took over.
Tonight is no different and the place soon fills up, with Patrick placing "Reserved" signs on tables the moment they're vacated. I watch, amazed, as he chats amiably with each table. Does everyone in the restaurant know him?
The two women sitting next to me certainly seem to. "We've been coming for years," one says.
"The food is amazing, it's proper Goan food," adds the other. "It's not standard."
At another table is a family of four: Brian and Anyssia Viegas and their 17-year-old twins Ethan and Amanda. They're from Porvorim, a town about nine kilometres away.
"Why do you come here?" I ask.
"Because it's authentic Goan food," replies Brian.
"How often do you come?"
"Very, very often," says Ethan sheepishly. "About once a week."
"If we don't come, we take parcel food because it's like home cooking," adds Anyssia.
I notice that many customers are leaving with "parcel food" and realise it's probably time for me to go, too. As I settle the bill, I'm eager to tell Patrick that I'll be back.
"The food was so delicious!" I enthuse.
"Yeah, yeah," he nods, barely looking up as he tots up his handwritten bills. He knows I'll be back, but he's damned if he's going to let me have another recipe.