Starved as I am of things Goan here in South Africa, I latched joyfully onto a cookery book by Mrs Nujmoonisa Parker, titled Kokni Delights. It was the word ‘kokni’ that tugged at my memory strings and was, subsequently, to transport me into the vaporous realm of taste memory. That is an experience I owe not to Mrs Parker, however, but to Dina Simoes Guha. The difference in the two surnames will alert anyone with similar taste memories to the fact that kokni delights were not to be mine.
I do not speak the language of my forebears, which is Konkanim. There was a time in my father’s life when he spoke only Konkanim. Through years of disuse, he retained an affection for the language and could remember telling a class of Estonian students that ‘my language Konkanim’ had declensions like Latin and French and, further, could give them examples: Ao ditam; tum ditai; tho dita; amim ditao; tumim ditat; the ditat. I give; you give; he gives; we give; you give; they give.
My parents could communicate secrets in front of us in “their” language Konkanim, the sounds of which are so familiar to me that I have an illusionary sense that only a thin veil separates me from understanding the words. So far that veil has proved impenetrable.
Konkanim is the language of the Konkan coast from which Mrs Parker’s and my forebears hail. There are diverse spellings for the language and the region – ‘Konkani’ is widely used in the English language today (with the 'a' not pronounced too strongly). Also used are ‘Konknni’ and ‘Concanim’ (especially in earlier times). ‘Kokni’ is another rendering of the same word, which refers both to the language and the region along the west coast of India.
Mrs Parker is an erudite cook, the sort of person I love, but it was soon apparent that there was more to divide than to unite us. One thing that I suspect she and I have in common, however, is a process known as language shift, which has rendered most South African Indians incapable of speaking ‘their’ language, be it Hindi, Tamil, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Telegu, Urdu or Konkani.
Another point of connection and disconnection for us is the preservation of culinary traditions, in her case deliberate, in mine sadly negligent. Mrs Parker worked for two years to compile and publish recipes that capture ‘the essence of traditional kokni foods’. Kokni Delights contains recipes for brinjal curry, fish curry (called ‘aatoni’), semolina plain cake (‘rhot’), semolina biscuit (‘naan kataai’), baked milk almond pudding (‘duhri’), boiled rice cake (‘sandhan’), among others.
It was the ‘naan kataai’ that captured me.
I remember, the build-up to Christmas, when my mother would create trayfuls of Goan ‘sweets’ that included these grainy semolina biscuits and others with names like ‘neoris’ and ‘kulkuls’ and (delight of delights!) ‘chonichidos’. Does anyone recognise these names? I never saw any of them in written form although my Mummy (a word quaint-sounding to me now) worked from recipes, some so precious that it clearly cost an effort to share them.
When I recognised ‘naan kataai’ in Mrs Parker’s recipe book I thought I had at last found my people in South Africa. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have not met a single Goan in this country other than those who in some way or another are connected with my past and have made an effort to visit me -- in the course of a tour in more recent years and, earlier, by surmounting the obstacles presented by apartheid. If there are Goans living in the country, they are hidden from me. One reason for this may be that Portuguese surnames here invariably turn out to belong to Portuguese people who, apart from their historic connection with the coast of Africa, came in their thousands to South Africa in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa.
Parker was a mystifying surname to me. Other Konkanis had surnames like Dawood and Mukkadam. E Nordien Mukaddam arrived in South Africa in 1888 from the village of Dignee, Taluka Sangmeshwar. He was self educated and by 1908 owned several shops in Cape Town. Mr Balu Parker, another prominent member of the community, was the main force behind the opening of Cape Town’s Habiba Primary School in 1946.
I owe this information to Nujmoonisa Parker who, apart from her wonderful cookbook, has written an online article for the Konkan Tribune on Konkanis in Cape Town. There are, she says, 40,000 Capetonians who trace their origin to the ‘rugged and beautiful section of the western coastline of India from Thane District to Goa’. Her family comes from the Ratnagire area, situated near Chipplun and her in-laws hail from Kalusta and Kotwal. The recipes in Kokni Delights stem from Kalusta, Sakhroli and Falsonda villages, passed down from generation to generation.
According to Mrs Parker in the Konkan Tribune
The Konkani Muslims are a seafaring people and their main sources of livelihood are farming and fishing. The Arabs had been trading with the Coastal Indians long before the coming of Islam and in time a trading relationship was established. By the time the Arabs preached the word of Islam in Arabia, links between the Konkanis and Arabs were centuries old. The Konkanis retained their rich cultural heritage and continued to live in peace and harmony with other communities.
She traces the arrival of Konkanis in Cape Town to the end of the 19th century, when ‘… the stories of Cape Town and the mining boom in South Africa were heard from Konkani sailors working on British vessels. The Cape was a British colony and this facilitated the emigration from Konkan to the shore of Cape Town by several Konkanis escaping the social and economic situation in Konkan. Though initially many Konkanis worked as manual laborers and hawkers, as soon as they were capable, however they went into business independently or worked as shop assistants’.
This version of history neatly sidesteps the two major waves of Indian immigration to South Africa -- to the east coast in the 1860s as indentured workers on the sugarcane plantations and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, as slaves imported by the Dutch to the western Cape from Malaysia and India, among other countries.
It was soon apparent to me that differences in geography and religious background separated me from Mrs Parker and the community of Konkani Muslims to which she belongs. The Konkani Muslims possess, in her words ‘most of the important attributes of an ethnic group. Like the Maplas of Malabar, they are the progeny of Arab immigrants and Indian women; they speak the same dialect of Konkani language, and marry among themselves, in anthropological terms they are generally endogamous […] They frequently have fair skin and light eyes’.
In South Africa, Konkanis continued to maintain ties with their villages of origin and to contribute to the welfare of the people they left behind. Unlike diasporic Goans, with whom it was a point of honour to build the best and largest house they could in their village back home – uninhabited houses often that people had to be paid to occupy -- the South African Konkanis used their wealth to help build schools, mosques, waterworks and roads in their villages. During the late 1950s nearly every big Muslim village in the area had a high school for which a considerable contribution was made from welfare societies formed by Konkani Muslims abroad.
Not surprisingly, Goan cuisine is, as Mrs Parker puts it, ‘quite a bit different to the original kokni dishes’. She says this on the basis of having ‘often seen recipes that come on TV from Goan chefs’, recipes that no doubt reflect that aspect of Goan cuisine described as ‘a reality of historical and geographical happenstance’. In other words, the eclectic Goan cuisine that my forebears transported to and further evolved in East Africa and other countries.
The above quote comes from an extensive essay on Goan cuisine by Dina Simoes Guha published in a commemorative booklet to mark the Goan Food Festival held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi on Saturday 30 November 1985. I found this booklet in one of the four black trunks that my mother had shipped to Cape Town when she came to live with me here over two decades ago.
Like a palimpsest, native Konkan food took on Portuguese hues, Chinese elegance; and even their names quite often. Into this Hindu land, once part of the kingdom of Vijayanagar, came the Muslims with their conquest of men and minds. Then in the fifteenth century came the Latins with their impress. They added to the confluence of cultures by being the agents of the Chinese food habits from Macao and Malaccaa – to their Christianised cuisine [sic]. They brought new ingredients, particularly from Brazil. So the pilaus got dotted with cashew nuts and raisins, and the hog became a favoured meal.
My biggest find in this essay was a Goan delicacy that I have not tasted in half a century, have never attempted to make, and appear to have spelt incorrectly all my life: ‘chon chen dos’. Dina Simoes Guha describes it as one of the paler halvas, which ‘may have been offered to Durga the Good and Great Mother Goddess, who is still very popular in Hindu Goa’. This delicacy is served in its softer form as a hot pudding called ‘channa dal payasam’ at Hindu weddings. Hardened, it’s the Christmas sweet that I remember, a mixture of ground chick peas (‘channa dhal’) and coconut that Simoes Guha accurately describes as ‘scrumptuous’.
Another discovery was the meld of Goan Christian and Hindu traditions, apparent even in the conjoining of Simoes Gupa’s surnames. Hindu Goans, in her description, serve chick peas with grated coconut, spiced or sweetened, at christening parties; we Christians took the same, the coconut slivered not grated, to friends and relatives six days after a child was born. It is so long since this has occurred in my life that I have wondered whether it was not a figment of my imagination.
‘Kunjee’ certainly is not. We were given this watery rice gruel when we were ill, without the addition of even a little piece of pickle (not the gherkins that Westerners know as ‘pickles’ but what I have learned in South Africa to call ‘achar’). In Goa, it seems, ‘kunjee’ is generally the basis of a ‘Sopa Grossa’, a first course in a meal and a Western adaptation. It is known all over Southeast Asia, according to Simoes Gupa, as far away as Japan, where ‘it is served as a mark of respect to honour a visiting guest’. She describes ‘kunjee’ as a breakfast dish in rural Goa, eaten like a porridge with a relish of salt fish.
I was entranced by seeing these names in written form. I recognised the ‘delectable tangy pickle called balchaun’, made from dried prawns and preserved in spices and vinegar (and oil for the passage from Bombay to Mombasa, no doubt in those very trunks that eventually landed in Cape Town). I knew the importance of vinegar, introduced by the Portuguese, in ‘Goan Christian cooking’. I didn’t know that the Portuguese also introduced the cashew nut, new varieties of mangoes and the ubiquitous chillie pepper, which became a cheap substitute for black pepper and could easily be grown in people’s gardens.
The cuisine of my youth included ‘a celebrated brown coconut gravy dish called Xacuti’ and ‘the festive Sorpotel […] a haggis of pork made primarily with the giblets and blood of the pig’. Sorpotel is a dish I have attempted to duplicate in South Africa despite the rarity of pig blood. Simoes Gupa says that when it is made with a suckling pig it is called ‘Cabidela’. Both these dishes do not use coconut.
I recognized ‘neurois’, (pastry crescent moons filled with raisins and nuts (‘called ‘karnajias’ outside of Goa’) and ‘kulkuls – ‘a fried shell pasta, or curls rolled on the fork, and dipped in sugar icing’. We rolled them on old combs and fought over who made the finest shapes. I knew ‘bibic’ – Simoes Gupa’s ‘lavish many layered pudding, bebinca […] a slice of divinity, as if carved from some celestial planet’. I knew of marzipan made from cashew nuts and called by us ‘cashew rock’. I knew, though I could never have said it, that ‘sweetmeats are churned out by the shakti or female- force in great variety, displaying the Latin and Asian influences in the puddings, fudges, halvas, pies, cakes, pastries – either steamed, deep-fried or baked’.
Life wasn’t only sweets. We ate fish curry on Fridays, including the yellow fish curry called ‘Kaldinho’ (the ‘o’ at the end came as a bit of a surprise). I knew that Bombay duck was a fish. I had heard of ‘assad’ – ‘Assado’ in Simoes Gupa’s rendering. I even knew ‘shek shek’ – ‘Shaik Shaik’. I had thought it was any old mix; she says it is ‘a beguiling curry made with vegetables like eggplant , okra and crabs or prawns, [and] can be quite red and pungent with red paprika peppers’. I was familiar with Goa sausages and their dubious origins in the long drops of Goa – Simoes Gupa speaks of a bacon and lean-meat mixture marinated in wine and vinegar and hung in loops from hooks and bamboo rods.
She projected a very different image of pigs from my unsavoury one, which was indeed the stuff of nightmares until I worked out that the traditional toilet habits of Goans and the dietary habits of pigs did not occur in direct proximity. Simoes Gupa talks of ‘the dear little suckling, especially the 1 1/2 month-old’ which is ‘easily lashed up into several dishes for the gourmet lovers fancy’. She says that one should not be surprised to find many a mother-pig ‘zealous about feeding her large and frequent litter on the edible scraps that come from the kitchen, such as watermelon and bananas, a gruel of bran, and rice’.
It is little wonder that, although I am a duffer at remembering lines of poetry or words of songs, these lines from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes persist in my mind: The animal I really dig / Above all others is the pig. It is undoubtedly my Christian Goan heritage.
I admit to never having heard of ‘Vindahloo’ in my youth – a shameful admission as I am inclined to believe Simoes Gupa when she describes it as ‘the best known Goan curry’, which is ’ now listed in the menus of Indian restaurants abroad […] said to have come from the words vinho for wine and alhos for garlic’. I am familiar, however, with the ubiquitous and detestable ‘bhendi’, namely okra, which ‘Anglo-India called “lady fingers” for want of a better word’. This vegetable of the south is supposed to have come to Goa from Africa and to be a favourite in the Creole cooking of New Orleans and in the West Indies, ‘where ‘it is known as gumbo’.
To sum up, it seems to me that it is in SImoes Gupa’s ‘cornucopia of vegetables and fruit’, still evident in Goa, that we can find a commonality:
The land of Goa is said to be virgin soil. This is fast disappearing. When the Portuguese left their eastern colony, development in the form of industry came in, and so too the effluents. However, it is still a cornucopia of vegetables and fruit. The strict vegetarian diet is always Hindu, and among high caste Brahmins. When the Christians cook vegetables, they add seafood to it. But the Hindus enjoy their dry-split legumes, made into dals, uncooked coconut juice with kokum in it, and the wafer thin breads or pappadums. The Goan cuisine of vegetables and fruit is similar in most ways to the rest of the Konkan region. Spinach on the vine, gourds, the fruit of the vine such as cucumbers, pumpkins, gherkins, zucchini, okra, cluster beans, long tree beans, chick peas, pigeon peas and eggplant all grow in profusion in a riverine vegetation
It is in this delightful mix and muddle of names, here among the fruits of the earth, that we come together -- Mrs Parker, Simoes Gupa and I -- and where I can find a home for my nostalgia for the community of which I was once a part, in a country not so far from this. One where, despite divisions of caste and class and club, people looked similar and dressed in similar fashion, spoke with a recognisable accent and went to the same schools and churches, and, above all, ate the same foods.
My people, as they say. But, as they also say, who are not?