Goa reinvented: “There is no hamara-tumhara here” – A culinary journey beyond Catholic kitchens

Avinash Martins has twice been on the holy grail of his career. Attracted by the fine arts and drawing, he first developed a passion for studying architecture. Then his love for cooking took him to the Oberoi Center for Learning and Development, after which he trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and California before starting his own restaurant, Cavatina, in southern California. Goa. The first six years at Cavatina were spent cooking dishes from all over the world until one fine day he found his true calling: to cook what he had eaten all his life.

It was in 2019. After a year, the Cavatina menu had undergone a complete metamorphosis. The flavors were Goan at heart; the kitchen and the contemporary and modern aesthetics. “I come from a family of sailors. When I expressed the desire to become a chef, those close to me dismissed it as a “chef” job. But my parents encouraged me to follow my dream. Today, I live on my farm in my ancestral home, inspired by the land and traditions that surround me,” says Martins.

The melting pot of Goa
Few people know that the small state has several culinary influences that are very different from each other. Saraswat Brahmin cuisine resembles home cooking with an emphasis on vegetables and fish, which are considered “sea fruits or vegetables”, and no meat or chicken. The flavors have major influences from Maharashtra and date back to a time before the Portuguese presence in the state. The hing used is of a particular brand – very aromatic and similar to dry bark and not the resinous commercial hing commonly used. The acidifying agent can be tamarind or kokum, while Catholics in Goa use toddy vinegar. Then there is Goan Hindu cuisine, which is much spicier than Saraswat food, with generous use of red chilli. Seafood is important in this cuisine, but equal weight is given to lentils and vegetables. The Muslim Beary community may be a small section, but their flavors are big and robust.

Martins soaks up all of these influences in his cooking, also drawing inspiration from communities, such as the rice-growing Dhangars, agrarian Velips, and various regions of the state. For example, a French bisque will celebrate the fresh catch of local fishermen with flavors of xec-xec masala from Goa. Konkani solkhadi, a concoction of kokum and coconut, becomes a dressing for prawns in an Italian crudo. Goa’s famous chourico sausage becomes the stuffing of a squid stew served with mini paos. The fermented black rice pancakes, or koyloleos, come with a vegetable caldin and served with pickle aioli and cashew crumble. Chicken cafreal is reimagined as a roulade suitable for a global audience.

So why didn’t he limit himself to Portuguese-inspired Catholic cuisine? “In Goa, there is no hamara-tumhara. Everything is Hamara. For example, there is a sweet dish called neuri made from coconut and jaggery which is prepared on Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali as well as on Christmas. So when I thought of Goan food, that all the influences of my friends, family and neighbors would be incorporated, it was a no-brainer,” says Martins, who was in the nation’s capital for a pop -up to Lodhi.

A table in the hills
While Cavatina in Benaulim offers reinvented Goan cuisine, Martins has a hidden gem up his sleeve at his ancestral home in the Velim hills of South Goa. The concept, called “A table in the hills”, is aimed at a restricted audience. Reservations are required 48 hours in advance and a maximum of 12 people are entertained at a time. This is where Martins is in his element, cooking with ingredients so fresh they haven’t even seen the inside of a fridge. The products are picked or sought on his land and on the farms that surround him. Traditional cooking techniques like wood-fired ovens, old-fashioned wooden chulha, barbecue for slow roasts, and even overnight cooking in a pit dug in the dirt are commonplace.

Clearly a departure from chefs catering to “mass tastes,” Martins is also oblivious on the business front. Nothing on its menu is a nod to popular and favorite. Located in a relatively quiet part of the state, away from the touristy north, and refusing to offer naan and dal-like dishes, his words only reinforce the impression that his food has already made. “I want to stay true to my passion, cooking and cooking what I believe in.”