FOODIE ADVENTURES IN TOWN PANAJI

The times, they are a-changing in Panaji, Goa…family of beggars migrated from Pune, they set up home on pavements like this one opposite Navtara; the 50% discount offer from 8am to 9am on the menu makes many turn up to avail of the discount, but the service can do better; and my perennially favorite Udipi fare for a Sunday morning breakfast: idli, medhvada, poha, upma! Of the four the last two are easiest and fastest to turn out and the Navtara poha is savory and good.

By Tara Narayan

DON’T ask me why but I’m back to buying food to take home and unhappy anew. With the easing of lockdowns many Goan restaurants are doing good, or rather their kitchens are active like at Navtara and Café Bhonsale, Café Real, Café Tato and I’ve no problems picking up some puri-bhaji, samosa or the puffy Karnataka puri called “buns” which someone I know loves to distraction.
Then there’s Rasoda where one late evening I was tempted to stop by for a spicier giant samosa but found they’d got over and Amit here said try their tikki-chola instead, I said fine “but I will eat it here if it is okay.” No problem. The tikki came terribly hard as if fried over several times and smothered in mobid looking dark chola. No frills of onion relish or mint chutney either. I ate, paid and left angry with myself one more time.
REALLY, in take home packets one never knows what one may find upon opening the packets at home. Occasionally when I’m in a hurry with some errand or another I pick up a fairly reliable vegetable pulao or puri-bhaji from Café Bhonsale and I notice that their pulao now comes in a neat white eco-friendly box, but for the rest of the stuff plastics continue to be ubiquitous. Until someone finds a cheap but friendlier replacement for plastic packaging we are going to continue killing mother earth with our vile plastics. A takeaway veggie pulao and a set of three bhaji and potato sabzi bills up to Rs190 and at home I wondered idly if there were more veggies in Café Bhonsale pulao or Café Tato pulao, or Navtara pulao or Kamat Hotel….haven’t tried pulao from the last two places yet, but will one of these days… just to compare veg pulao. (Sigh) In general I find as fares go up food too suffers qualitatively. Kamat’s seems to have closed indefinitely courtesy Covid-19 sore.
Sunday morning last I decided make the most of Navtara’s 8am to 9am 50 percent discounted monsoon time rate and learned quite a few things this time around for I’m the curious type. Hey, for the last three or four months a whole joint family who arrived from Pune for Shigmo in Goa, decided there was nothing to go back home to in Pune. So they hang around Panaji market place, parking their potli or potla here and there, begging or doing odd jobs which come their way and by 8pm take up residence on the platforms opposite Navtara for the night. Sunday morning while at Navtara I saw them and went up to speak to them, the younger woman scowled, “We are beggars from Pune stuck here in Goa…”
No, they are not doing fine, she had a bottle of tea which she was offering to someone. Then I learned that Navtara has introduced Rs40 coupons which anyone charitable may buy and present to anyone around about who they think needs it. The coupons are re-presented at Navtara for free upma, poha or tea or whatever within the sum total. In any case said Ajay in charge here at the counter, “Soon 10am the children will wake up and come here, we give them whatever food we can…buy we don’t give freely to the adults, only the children.” Well!
See, it’s easy, buy coupons, distribute them to whoever wants them for tea or snack; but then these are come lately or not so come lately beggars from Pune, put them to work and give them food, money too! The story is they prefer to beg by and large, collect water in five-liter plastic bottles, do their washing up by the roadside…cuddle up to sleep in their chaddar at night from 8pm to 8am — to another day of survival for folk with no home to call their own, except the pavements. The police tired of chasing them away. It’s a headache, said Navtara spokesperson, but…what can one do, even their manager from Maharashtra has failed to put them on a bus back to Pune! Their boss can’t be too cruel either.
FUNNY, I was earlier than usual that morning and 8am the Navtara shutters just opening, a familiar waiter warned me it’ll take 30 minutes for the kitchen to get going and for the discounted service to start. I said I wanted two plates of idli and one of medhuwada, parceled. He said medhwada will take longer time to fry up…why don’t I take upma and pohe which is always ready first? I said okay, idli, upma and pohe then, I’m waiting outside. I go outside to talk to the family on the pavement opposite.
Whiling time and with rain falling anew my New Zealand sister called to check up on me. Outside Navtara I entertained her by portraying the scene scenery around me and she scolded, “Why don’t you just go sit in the restaurant and have a hot coffee while waiting for your order to be done.” So I sanitized my hands and went into the restaurant which was filling up by then, sat at a table, my first order was ready to go, and then I asked if the medhuwada too were ready. When waiter said yes, I sat down again and ordered a plate of medhuwada to be packed up to.
SOME idle talk. How to you make your chutney? I asked the chef passing by, don’t you add coconut to the standard chutney which goes with the idli? Of course they add “coconut, green chili, ginger, putana….” Putana? Yes, putana as in roasted gram, it is like a filler. Then they add grated coconut and do phodni with mustard seeds. Hey, last two occasions, I remembered, they had only packed putana chutney for me, incomplete chutney! There was no coconut, no phodni. At home I’d pretty much chucked the entire chutney finding it tasteless and slimy. Sheepishly, the chef shrugged. Moral of the story: Don’t turn up too early to buy idli even if I love their idli on a Sunday morning.
That early it’s hard to have systems in place. Goa sleeps late but doesn’t know how to wake up early, no good public transportation. Basic problem. Anyway this is to advice you not to go before 8.30 am if you want to avail Navtara’s half rate menu, that’ll leave you with only half-an-hour’s window before the offer expires. But the offer does make the scene pack up with many wanting to avail of the discounted rate. Some get fed-up with the waiting and leave in a huff.
Only a loafer like me finds something or another to fill time with, like the family of beggars on the pavement opposite. None of them looked like they were employable and I thought perhaps they should go to the various houses of God with a capital G where perhaps they should get the primaries of life for themselves and children, maybe even a home!?
LATER at night when I recounted the story to my other sister in Chicago and quipped, what if one of these days I too find myself homeless on the pavement, “Then what shall I do with all the things I’ve collected during the good years in Goa?” The sister advised me crisply to start selling off everything I’d hoarded over the years and then I may go stay with her, “but don’t wait till you can no longer walk!”
So it went, chit chat about this and that and she said out in the US of A they have a growing number of homeless people too, “but out here there are warehouse services which the homeless may hire for space to store their furniture and other things until they find a home.” People can’t pay rents, they become poor they find themselves out on the streets. So don’t think life is hunky dory out in the USA! People work damned hard and take loans to study, spend half their lives paying off mortgages, “We were pretty poor when we first came out to the US but bit by bit…we’re okay now. It was all hard earned. You’re better off in Goa with that gorgeous climate! Has it stopped raining yet?”
No, I said goodbye to her, “Covid-19 is here too and for once I’m sick and tired of the rain!” I said goodbye to Navtara, put on my purple raincoat, my idli, upma, poha and finally medhuwada packets in dicky of bike and rode home in the near blinding rain. The hubby said, why did you buy so much food? I tell him about the beggars from Pune and he said, so you should have given them the upma, poha, since you got the medhuwada for me after waiting for so long! In any case he prefers an omlet on toast any day including Sunday.
I tell him I’d spent only Rs100 instead of the Rs200 I would have spent without the half rate from 8am to 9am. I’m practicing for the hard times ahead for us! Naturally, he wasn’t impressed. Women are like that only, like me.
Or may be not! There are women like Rhea Chakraborty too. Remember her? The Sushant Singh Rajput murder case in Mumbai is haunting me and I hope the CBI nails whoever fine tuned his murder!

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