A Bluffers Guide to the Unique Flavors of Goa

If you don't know your xacuti from your baboti, here's a short guide: Spicy chicken cafreal is marinated in green herbs, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, chili, mace, fresh coriander, and garlic, and then fried. Vindaloo is a curry usually made with pork and marinated in vinegar, garlic, chilies, and assorted spices. Prawn Balchao is a sweetish shrimp preserve made with spices and coconut feni. Ambotik is a hot curry made with onion, cumin seeds, pepper, and garlic, and soured with kokum berries -- it's usually made with baby shark (although other fish can be used). The state's favorite fish, kingfish (isvon), is best sampled "recheado" -- stuffed with chilies and spices blended in vinegar; not recommended if you're unfamiliar with spicy food. Xacuti is a coconut-based masala prepared with Goan spices; baboti is a sweet and spicy ground-beef dish. Sorpotel -- not for the fainthearted -- is traditionally a spicy concoction of pork, offal (mostly liver), feni, vinegar, red chilies, and spices. Another unusual dish is the Portuguese cabidela, prepared by cooking rice with chicken and rabbit blood and meat; caldeirada is a typical Portuguese seafood stew. Uned are the small round rolls that feature on the Goan breakfast table and are traditionally delivered fresh from the bakery each morning (if you're staying in Panjim's Latin quarter, Fountainhas, you might hear the delivery man on his bicycle doing the rounds). Bebinca is the traditional layered dessert made with lots of eggs and coconut milk. Dodol is made with jaggery (sugar) and should always be accompanied with vanilla ice cream; doce is a sweet rice pudding from Portugal. Goa is famous for its cashew nuts available in many forms; get the roasted salted variety (great with any drink) from Zantye's or Kajuwala in Panjim. Kokum (fruit of a plant by the same name), served as a syrupy juice, is a delightful thirst quencher; when mixed with coconut milk, garlic, and salt, it becomes a digestive aid called sol kadi. Speaking of drinks, feni is the deceptively light alcoholic spirit distilled from the cashew fruit (or coconut); try it, but be wary.

Take It Easy, Take It Slow -- It's hardly worth the effort warning you of potentially slow service in many of Goa's small hotels and restaurants. It's the Goan way to take things easy, and waiting a few extra minutes for your meal really isn't going to spoil your vacation. You'll do far better to simply ease into the mellower way of life and savor the chef's efforts when they finally reach you. As they say in these parts: Sossegud -- Take it easy!

Mind-Altering Yogurt Drinks -- Be warned that the "special lassis" served at some Goan beach shacks may dramatically increase your amusement at the cows ambling along the shore or apparently sunbathing alongside the snow-white tourists on Baga Beach. The "special" component is bang, or marijuana.

North Goa

Beach-shack dining is one of the essential Goa experiences -- sipping feni while you feast on grilled tiger prawns or masala shark at unbelievable prices is a must. With at least 200 licensed seasonal shacks between Candolim and Baga, you certainly won't go hungry, but with names like Lover's Corner, Fawlty Towers, and Goan Waves, don't expect culinary magic. Best to stick to our recommendations, or ask around for this seasons hot picks, since shacks come and go, and some of the good chefs make a habit of relocating.

At Calangute, Souza Lobo enjoys a legendary reputation for seafood -- and deservedly so. Reserve a table on the beachfront patio and order the tandoor kingfish and crab-stuffed papad, or the expensive but excellent grilled lobster or tiger prawns (tel. 0832/228-1234 or 0832/227-6463; daily 11am-11pm; reservations taken before 8pm; after that, wait in line). While in Baga, check out Casa Portuguesa (Baga Beach; tel. 0832/227-7024; closed Mon and May-Oct), set in an old bungalow near the beach; the chicken cafreal is highly recommended. If you have a sweet tooth, Chocolatti (409A Fort Aguada Rd., Candolim; tel. 93-2610-3522) is simply irresistible when it comes to homemade chocolates and brownies.

A number of good restaurants can also be found along the stretch of road between Arpora Hill and Baga Creek, leading inland from Baga Beach: When Indian spices begin to take their toll, Lila Café (near Baga River, Arpora-Baga; tel. 0832/227-9843; Wed-Mon 9am-6pm, closed May-Sept), a great breakfast and lunch cafe (and apparently where Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Roger Moore hung out when filming Sea of Wolves), is the perfect spot (with views of paddy fields and coconut groves) to enjoy a proper coffee as you unwind with a mixed crowd. A selection of breads (including great pumpernickel sandwiches) and croissants is served with a variety of toppings; the salads are fresh and crunchy, and there's well-prepared catch of the day. Also on Baga Creek, is famous J&A's Little Italy (tel. 0832/228-2364 or 98-2313-9488; daily 6pm-midnight, closed end of Apr to Sept), where Jamshed and Ayesha Madon serve fantastic pastas, wood-fired pizzas, and organic salads in a great alfresco setting. During peak season there's always a long wait (well worth it), so do make reservations. The regalo di mare (prawns and squid in a tomato vinaigrette dressing served with pesto crostini) and crespelle coi gamberi (crepes stuffed with seafood) are personal favorites. Or try the delicious steaks or the perfect al dente pastas tossed in heavenly sauces.

Arguably one of the hottest (and most expensive) places this side of Panjim is A Reverie (next to Hotel Goan Heritage; tel. 98-2317-4927), an extremely fancy (and quite beautiful) restaurant with extravagant modern European cuisine -- reports are up and down, however, with many people (even those who've loved the food in the past) complaining about fallen standards. In nearby Dando, between Aquada and Calangute, Shiro (Sinquerim Beach, Candolim; tel. 0832/665-3366) is Goa's first real Japanese restaurant (although there are a few dishes from other Far Eastern nations as well). Besides sushi -- with a strong seafood bias -- there are fusion items, too, but the sashimi platters are certainly what should draw you here. Shiro is housed in a vast beachside premises, with contemporary minimalist décor that helps with the venue's transition into a club later at night.

Heading north, to Anjuna, Sublime (near the football field; tel. 98-2248-4051) offers fusion food and presentational styles that are quite difficult to classify, even for American owner Christopher (for example, he uses a French recipe for fish, which is accompanied by traditional Indian green lentils and an Italian sauce!). A reasonable, well-established alternative is Xavier's (near the flea market, Praia de San Miguel; tel. 0832/227-3402; daily 9am-11pm) -- it has a lovely ambience (with additional seating in the garden), and the seafood is always fresh and the lamb chops excellent. But perhaps the most reliable place in Anjuna, this time good for delicious pizza, is Basilico (D'mello Vaddo, near Casa Anjuna; tel. 0832/227-3721; daily 11am-midnight). It's run by an Italian, which explains the authenticity and subtleties in flavor so often lacking in the many knockoff Italian joints.

Panjim & Old Goa

While you can eat heartily and comfortably at Panjim Inn, it would be a shame not to sample the produce of a few other kitchens in Fontainhas. Besides Viva Panjim and Horseshoe, you can enjoy an atmospheric evening at Luiz D'Souza's Hospedaria Venite (31st January Rd., Fontainhas; tel. 0832/242-5537; daily 8:30am-10:30pm), a tiny upstairs restaurant in a 200-year-old building where you can sit on the balcony and order wonderful Goan specialties (or try the delicious shrimp salsa and stuffed crab). The restaurant, which has been going for over 50 years now, features a floor made from wood salvaged from a wrecked Portuguese ship, and in one room the walls are thickly covered with decades of graffiti, amateur artworks and assorted paraphernalia, making this feel like a seriously boho hangout. You can also head across the Mandovi Bridge to Povorim where O'Coquiero's (near Water Tank; tel. 0832/241-7271) has been churning out traditional Goan food for decades (try the squid masala or chicken cafreal).

Down the road from the Goa Marriott Resort (which, incidentally, has a very decent seafood restaurant, Simply Fish, overlooking the bay) is Mum's Kitchen (Martin's Building, D. B. Marg, Miramar; tel. 98-2217-5559). It has a laid-back Mediterranean atmosphere (some call it middle class) and does wonderful crab xec-xec (cooked in thick, spicy coconut gravy), prawn curry with bimley, Bombay duck, and pomfret recheado (fish stuffed with hot spices and pan-fried); the fried cauliflower is especially good. The owner, Rony Martins, not only invites you to examine his kitchen for standards of hygiene and his fish for freshness, he is on a mission to revive authentic Goan cuisine. He sources and adopts old "grandma" recipes and has started "A Cry of Goa": an exercise to save Goan cuisine. Definitely avoid the fries, though.

To sample traditional Goan sweets while wandering Fontainhas, pop into Confeitaria 31 de Janueiro, one of the oldest bakeries in the state (31 January Rd.; tel. 0832/222-5791).

The Central Coast

Another downside of staying at the resorts -- besides being totally cut off from the world you've come to visit -- is that you'll invariably be dining in-house. Not necessarily a bad thing, only you'll miss some of the alternative culinary diversions on offer. So, if you are holed up at one of the big luxury pads, make a point of leaving the compound at least once in order to savor a meal that's more down-home, perhaps, but more than likely a better match for authenticity.

Majorda, Utorda & Betalbatim -- A little south of Majorda is the tiny stretch of sand known colloquially as "Sunset Beach," but officially called Betalbatim. The little village is probably best known for its famous beachside restaurant, Martin's Corner (Binvado, Betalbatim; tel. 0832/288-0061 or -0413; daily 11am-3:30pm and 6:30-11pm), where Martin Pereira's widow, Carafina, runs the kitchen with an iron fist. She began cooking wonderful dishes for this family restaurant back in 1994, when it opened with only two tables. Now Martin's sons operate a successful and extremely popular courtyard establishment, surrounded by mango, coconut, and jackfruit groves. Order snapper recheado, butter-garlic prawns, or pomfret caldin made with a coconut milk curry. Carafina makes a mean homemade masala, prepared according to a secret family recipe with fresh Goan spices. After dark, things can hot up as popular bands really liven things up.

Benaulim, Varca & Cavelossim -- You can probably forgive yourself for choosing to sample at least one of the near-legendary eateries at the Taj Exotica. Alegria (daily 12:30-2:30pm and 7:30-10:30pm) is where the most delicious home-cooked Goan, Portuguese, and Hindu Goan Saraswat meals are prepared. Mainstay dishes include arroz de chorizo (traditional Goan pulao of locally made spice pork sausages), sungtache koddi (prawns in a fragrant gravy of coconut milk and mild spices), sungtache peri-peri (pan-fried farm-fresh prawn marinated with red chili and toddy vinegar), and kombdiche xacutti (succulent chicken morsels simmered in a blend of roasted spices with coconut). Upstairs, Miguel Arcanjo (same hours) makes some of the best pizzas in Goa. And that's not all -- for starters try the shrimp glazed with honey and garlic or the Lebanese mezze accompanied by horiatiki salad, followed by delicious double lamb chops or duck roasted with dry cherry sauce. Even the oven-baked snapper is irresistible. Finally, but most atmospherically, Lobster Shack (daily 7:30-11pm; dismantled during off season) enjoys a rather romantic setting by the sea, right on Benaulim Beach, where the venue does a good-spirited job of emulating a typical Goan beach shack, albeit with an upmarket buzz. With the crash of waves and polite band setting the ambience, choose your fish from the display and watch as it's prepared in the open kitchen. Even better than Lobster Shack, though, is The Leela's superb Susegado, reviewed below.

Just outside the entrance to the Radisson in Varca, Pereira's (tel. 0832/277-2413, 0832/277-2603, or 989-071-1363; closed June-Sept) is the more authentic (and good-value -- although by no means cheap) option, where Goans and tourists (including guests of the Radisson) are catered to with one of those ridiculously eclectic and far-reaching menus -- stick to the Goan seafood.

Feasts with a Nostalgic Twist -- In the village of Raia, is possibly Goa's finest restaurant, lorded over by celebrity-status chef Fernando de Costa, who has converted part of his own home into the warm and traditional Nostalgia (tel. 0832/277-7054 or -7098 or 982-210-3467 or 982-215-1296; daily 11am-3pm and 7-11pm). The name is in part to do with the decor -- filled with antiques and carefully sourced objets -- but also refers to the revival of Goan dishes that are quite forgotten in other parts. Expect to pay no more than Rs 700 for two people getting stuffed on delicious, authentic Goan dishes, prepared according to two different traditional Goan styles, either Saraswat or Catholic. Good Goan bands belt out vibey, soul-stirring tunes, and the atmosphere is quite smart. Besides many of the signature Goan curries, it's well worth sparing a thought for the desserts, many of which are seldom prepared elsewhere. For an even more intimate and personal experience, call ahead to Palácio Do Deão (across from Holy Cross Church, Quepem; tel. 0832/266-4029 or 98-2317-5639; www.palaciododeao.com; daily 10am-6pm) and ask if the hostess, Celia Vasco da Gama, will prepare a meal for you -- served in a belvedere behind the beautiful renovated heritage house owned by herself and her husband, Ruben. A charming couple, the Vasco da Gamas serve delicious, home-style versions of traditional Goan favorites -- fofos do queijo (cheese balls) and peixe com molho (whole fish filled with green masala) among many more -- polished off with authentic-tasting bebinca. Lunch here costs Rs 400 per person.

The Far South

Although it's only open in the season, Agonda's Turtle Lounge is surprisingly stylish and hip. It's also probably the best place to dine this far south. If you're spending the day on Palolem's increasingly crowded beach, it's worth diverting your attention at lunchtime for some peace and quiet at Bhakti Kutir's unpretentious little health food restaurant, Aahar, where you're served inexpensive, delicious local and organic meals under a giant cloth draped from the surrounding trees -- try the dal and red spinach, served with organic rice, coconut chutney, and fresh, nutty hummus; or sunflower seed and moong (mung) bean-sprout salad with steamed spinach, toasted nuts and seeds, and tofu, served with homemade whole-wheat rice-bread. The fish curry, served as part of a thali, and the only nonvegetarian meal here, is light and not too spicy, made with coconut gravy -- wipe up the juice with the millet chapatti provided. Wine is available and you're able to sample tribal liquors here. Elsewhere in Palolem, you'd do well to stick to whichever beachfront restaurants are pulling a crowd this season -- standards are generally up and down. However, we've never had a really bad meal at Droopadi (tel. 98-2268-5138; daily 8am-10pm, closed June-July) where you sit on cushioned cane armchairs at tables in the sand; there's recommendable fresh seafood (the day's catch is chalked up on the board), and even the pasty is fairly tasty; best of all, though, is the nonstop action on the beach, and it's a fine place to take in the sunset. On Agonda Beach, look no further than the slick Turtle Lounge.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.