Friday morning Gail and I met with Master Chef Urbano de Rego. Chef Rego grew up in Goa and although he has travelled the world and cooked many types of food, Goan cooking remains his specialty and passion. Semi retired after a 41 year career with the Taj Hotels, he still consults. He has cooked for such dignitaries as King Hussein of Jordan, Henry Kissinger, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Shah of Iran, George Bush Sr., and of course an enormous list of India’s jet set and politicians. The man himself is as humble as can be and he readily sat with a couple Canadian foodies and imparted his knowledge upon us.
We sat outside at the Beach House, the restaurant that serves Chef Rego’s Goan food. He showed us a traditional earthenware pot, still used today in Goan homes for cooking over fires of coconut husk, twigs and wood. A coconut shell spoon is used for stirring.
It was clear by listening to Chef Rego that he regards Goan cooking and Indian cooking very differently.
- Uses fresh spices, ground with a hand grinder, not a machine. Indian cooking uses spice powder.
- Is cooked the authentic way in clay pots on charcoal. Fresh water from the well is used, not the tap.
- Seafood is bought fresh and put straight into the curry; it is often not even put in the fridge and never into the freezer.
- the thickening agent is coconut. Indian cooking uses cashew nuts, tomatos, and onions as some of the thickening agents.
- uses a lot of palm vinegar. Indian cooking uses tamarind and kokam.
Chef Rego says, “Anyone can become a ‘food wallah.'” It is “25% God’s gift, 75% hard work.” Never having been to cooking school, Chef Rego had to work extra hard. He started out as an apprentice at the Taj Bombay and rose through the ranks emerging as one of the foremost experts of Goan cuisine.
The Portuguese left a lasting influence on Goan cuisine. Chef Rego went into detail about the foods that were introduced with the Portuguese – in particular pork, beef, chicken and mutton (in that order). The word vindaloo comes from ‘vin’ for vinegar, and also from ‘albo’ which is Portuguese for garlic. A fiery Pork Vindaloo is a favorite. We were surprised to learn that salted tongue, pork and homemade sausage are readily served in a Goan household.
The Portuguese bread “Poie,” leavened with toddy was another important contribution. The Portuguese brought with them a recipe for Galinha Piri-Piri (Chicken Piri Piri) from Mozambique. The Goans substituted some ingredients and fried it rather than grilled it and it became Galinha Cafreal (Chicken in Toddy Vinegar), a Goan specialty. Even dried red chilis which are now a staple in Indian cooking came from the Portuguese via the Americas.
From his mother’s kitchen Chef Rego learned the tastes and traditions of Goan cooking. Throughout his career he incorporated her recipes into his own creations. Cooking should “come from the heart, cooking is an art,” he says. Still, his favorite place to be is in the kitchen teaching and working with food.