I am a big fan of chef Floyd Cardoz. At his New York restaurant, North End Grill, he cooks with the utmost love for fresh, local ingredients, using them delicately in ways that pull out copious amounts of warmth and subtle spice. I was once lucky to be a guest at a meal made entirely from produce grown in the restaurant’s rooftop garden. At another dinner, we celebrated the Young Scientist Foundation, which Floyd helped establish with his winnings from Top Chef Masters. At our first interview we discovered a shared love of Goa – a city on the Arabian Sea in India with a huge Portuguese influence – where he summered as a child and where my godfather is from.
Floyd recently returned to Goa to visit his mother in nearby Bombay and to speak at an event. In a meandering conversation at his restaurant, we poured over photos and he gave me a little glimpse into the food that so fascinates him from his home. Below is his story, smoothed out just a tad, celebrating what he’s loved about India in the past and where he hopes the culinary scene heads in the future.
Return to India – Chef Floyd Cardoz Goes Home to Goa
By Floyd Cardoz, as told to Jacqueline Raposo
All photos by Floyd Cardoz, with a little love from Jacqueline
I came to the United States in 1987, when I was 27. I’ve been to India maybe six times since then, and I hadn’t been back in three years by the time I went on this trip.
Growing up, every year the whole family would pack up in a car – six kids, mom, driver and maid – and we’d travel about 600 kilometers to Goa for a month-long vacation. Going to Goa was always about connecting with the old family, especially my great-grandmother on my mother’s side who we stayed with. She had this old, ancient kitchen where everything was cooked around a wood fire. There was no gas, no running water, and no electricity, so there were lamps lit at night, and the wood fire in the kitchen would be going 24-hours. And because there was no refrigeration we’d go to the market every single day; there was no menu, we’d see what they had and then cook that.
My great-grandmother had these coconut plantations and rice paddies, so she would cook in earthen pots over the coconut husks, wood and shells, and all the food had a very strange, woodsy smell. She had her own chickens and pigs, too, so pretty much everything she grew we ate. Home was less than four miles from the Arabian Sea, so seafood was a big thing; in the morning the guys on the beach would throw out their nets and the maids would catch these small gold fish. I loved seafood, so for me it was a joy: shrimp, clams, crab, mussels, and tons of fish. I’d go to the beaches in the morning and collect small clams, and my grandmother would make cockle palau. As a kid that was always pretty damn cool.
Normally the 2nd or 3rd day we were there the fatted pig would get killed, and that’s what we ate for the week. They wasted nothing, so they would save the blood and we’d make sausage meat, cure and salt some, and make stews out of the salted pork in earthen pots. Some sausage meat would be cured with salt and then made into wet sausage, with vinegar, chilies and garlic, in more of the Portuguese style. Even the innards – the lungs and the intestines and the kidneys – would go into one stew, and the liver and the belly meat would go into a stew called sorpotel. When I got off the flight in Bombay and went home my mom gave it to me as breakfast at three o’clock in the morning. My mom’s sorpotel is always a welcome attraction for all us kids and the first thing my sons always ask me; “Did you have Nana’s sorpotel?” When I go back to India it’s the first thing I want.
Eating all those things again takes me back to why I love food, because my philosophy is, “Cook everything, waste nothing.” Because, if you go back three or four generations of every culture, no one ever only used tenderloin, or strip loin, or ribeye. My great-grandmother taught me the value of utilizing everything. She’s she was 96 when she passed away, about 30 years ago when I was still in Bombay. Then my grandmother died when she was 94, when I was in the United States.
As a child my grandmother was very strict and would not allow us in the kitchen – I started later on in life trying with our cooks at home. Summers in Goa were all about the food; the breads we’d have for breakfast were these primitive, Goan breads made with palm sap as a fermenting agent. You get this guy on a bicycle in the morning with this typical horn that he presses, the poee man. I remember the poee; I had one on this trip. I remember drinking toddy, which is the unfermented sap from the coconut palm that, once it’s fermented, is used in the bread and alcohol. I had that on this trip, too.
In Goa there are Hindu Goans, Muslim Goans, and Catholic Goans; all three cuisines are very, very different, and most Goan cuisine you see outside of Goa – the vindaloos, the fish curries – are Goan Catholic. It’s very seafood-based, being that it’s on the Arabian Sea, and the boats go on the water daily; so shrimp, crabs, spiny lobster, clams. Being that the Portuguese were long in Goa there’s a lot of pork and beef eaten, which is not very normal for most of India. You have the use of vinegar and alcohol. There are some Portuguese-style custards in the Catholic cuisine, and then there is Goan sausage – choris, from chorizo; in Portugal they grill it and in Goa we stew it with onions and potatoes or cook it with rice and make a pilaf out of it.
Some of it does not taste as good as I remember, only because people don’t use wood fires to cook anymore. That’s the only difference in the food. But it still tastes really good.
On this trip we went to the markets just to see everything: radishes, amaranth, sweet potato, baby jackfruit, plantains, cucumbers, cluster beans, Chinese okra, Indian carrots, and elephant foot yams. That’s the way they sell things in the street; just piles of vegetables and live chickens that they kill right there for you. I saw new things I’d like to try and apply here. I saw a grain– jowar – that I had never seen green before, only dried; it’s very nutty and different, and you could almost eat it sautéed like peas or edamame. I saw rat-tailed radishes that taste so much like radish. I was very surprised by all the different types of rice in India. There is so much. You never hear about it though, so who’s using them? Why are we only eating basmati rice? I couldn’t believe how many they have. When I was a kid I didn’t want to eat other kinds either, like the fat Goan red rice, which as an adult I love. I guess when you see something so often you kind of lose the love for it. It got me thinking about doing a rice and clam dish as an appetizer here with a different rice than we use in the risotto.
There is something I’d die for; a fish called Bombay Duck that I always want to eat many times when I go to India. It’s a lizard fish, and extremely soft when you catch it, almost like a jellyfish. It has bones in it you can eat, but the way they figured out how to eat it is to crust it with semolina, so it’s crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. It’s a sweet fish, almost like hake, but softer. In the north they grill whole fish on skewers or batter and deep-fry, but in Goa it’s not the culture to deep fry, so most of the fish in Goa is pan-fried, or sometimes dried and used in stews.
Then there are tadgola, from the big borassus palm tree. In Africa the elephants eat them and the fall and they grow, but in India they’re harvested when they’re young. We used to call them “ice apples”. You peel the skin and the inside is like a clear gelée, almost like a lychee but clearer, and the center is filled with water. The smaller ones have a slight sweetness to them, but they’re all about the texture.
Another palm makes the toddy sap that you get by “toddy tapping”, where you go up the tree and pull the sap out. You make a liquor out of it: the first distillate, which is not that potent, makes orak, which you drink with Sprite or lime soda in the afternoon. The second ferment makes feni, which is stronger and more potent. It’s never aged – I don’t know why – and you have it over ice. It’s sort of like a tequila, like an eau de vie. They manufacture and sell it, but you don’t normally buy it if you’re in Goa because everyone knows a guy who does it. Sadly no one’s toddy tapping anymore and the art is dying away, and people are forgetting how to use toddy in their food.
I went to four restaurants on the last day I was there – a Japanese restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Portuguese restaurant, and a French-inspired restaurant – and it was really inspiring for me in terms of seeing that India’s going in the right direction. All of these places cooked me something that was Indian-inspired from their menus. With the Japanese restaurant they had red snapper sashimi, with this really fresh red snapper, a spicy oil on top and a citrus on the bottom, almost like a ceviche, which appeals to the Indian palate. They also had a steak topped with a yuzu and soy, with a little more ginger than it should have had to, again, appeal. At A Reverie restaurant they called something a taco, but it was a roti with fried fish in it, and another with yogurt, like a soft, creamy paneer cheese. And they have a choris pau, where you take a Portuguese-style bread, stew the Goan sausage and make a sandwich with that. So it’s from the Portuguese, but looking at it a little differently.
What I felt bad about was that everywhere in the world you go chefs accept ingredients that are grown in their own country and apply it to whatever cuisine they’re cooking. There are still not enough chefs in India doing that, and I felt a little disappointed because I believe India is such a big country with so much flavor and ingredients that these chefs should be embracing – the green jowar, the rat-tailed radishes, the amaranth! I love the green amaranth.
Also, kids are not learning from their parents because they go out to eat and so don’t need to cook. I wish I had kept recipes of my grandmother when I was young, because there are some things she made that I can’t even remember the names of, and so when I talk to people about them they don’t even know what they are. In Goa I spoke to a couple of people and said, “Take your kids, write your recipes down, and video tape them, and keep them.” We need to let those things go on.
One thing I bought back with me is the realization of how good we have it here in terms of sustainability and how we grow things; a lot of time we chefs take that for granted. It makes you want to be an advocate for your own country and spread that word. I’m going to be writing another book and I know for sure that’s going to be a part of it; it helps to do things right, because if you do things right here those practices will be taken to other countries. Fifty years down the road you want there to be enough food for everybody. You don’t want to run out of wild striped bass; thank god we’ve taken care to sustain them. But there are fish in India and Africa and China that people are not paying attention to, and they will get wiped out, and we need to focus on that and do more of what we can do. They’re not following sustainable practices or thinking about how they can keep things going, so that was the saddest thing I saw. There are many people who care, but they don’t know how to go about doing it. That, for me, was the biggest takeaway from this trip. They have to embrace that, and it’s important that they do. They think it’s really cool to embrace western ingredients; why are they using zucchini when they have a long squash that’s very similar? Utilize what you have. Teach people about what you have and how it’s done. People in the United States and France and Italy and Japan are doing that. We need more people in India to do that, too.