Portuguese and Indian traditions merge in the lively cuisine of Goa, and there’s nowhere better to try it than Mandovi

By Richard Foss (richard(at)richardfoss.com)

Chef George Godinho showcases the extraordinary cuisine of his home province

One of the hottest culinary trends of the last few decades is the fusion of Asian and Mediterranean ideas, often by chefs who imagine that they’re doing something unprecedented. In reality both ingredients and techniques have been mingling since the two cultures contacted each other. The exchange of ideas goes back centuries, not decades, and has enlivened some of the world’s great cuisines.

One of the least known but most sophisticated of these hybrid cuisines is that of Goa, a former Portuguese colony in India. The fusion there takes an exceptional form that breaks the rules of the subcontinent’s other cultures; this Catholic enclave is the only place in India where pork, beef and sausages are widely eaten, for example.

Mandovi, located in a strip mall in El Segundo, is one of the few Goan restaurants in California. Chef George Godinho opened the place in 2014, which offers some standard tandoori items and curries as well as the specialties of his home region.

Goa is located on the southwest coast of India, and seafood is a specialty — often cooked with coconut, vinegar, coriander and chilies. If you like to start your meal with a spicy bang then order an appetizer of shrimp peri-peri, which uses a citrusy garlic and chili pepper sauce the Portuguese developed in Brazil. It’s hot but not explosive, and you might order some mild samosas or a cucumber salad to balance it.

Another seafood option is the “fish fry,” seasonal fish crusted with semolina for a crisp exterior and laid over a bed of vindaloo sauce. That sauce of vinegar with chilies may be listed on many Indian menus but is mislabeled — what you usually get is a brutally hot tomato sauce. In Goa, vindaloo includes no tomato and has a sweet-and-sour base. It’s still hot, but with much more nuanced flavors to enjoy.

Goans like to use butter in their cooking, and those who enjoy mild curries will enjoy the butter chicken in a delicate tomato-based sauce. If you like things a bit livelier, order the cafreal: chicken marinated in a ginger, cilantro and spice sauce, and then sautéed in butter. The result is a rich gravy with layers of herbal and spice flavors; fragrant and exciting even when you order it mild. It’s a bit messy since the chicken is bone-in, but it’s worth the effort to get every last shred of meat.

If you prefer a boneless chicken dish then try the xacuti (pronounced shakootie), a relatively mild curry that gets sweetness from toasted coconut and tartness from tamarind fruit. As with most Indian curries, no single spice dominates the flavor, but you will get hints
of star anise, fennel, poppy and cinnamon in the mix. You can also get the xacuti made with goat, which I highly recommend, or in a vegetarian mushroom version. All versions are excellent.

Mandovi has several pork dishes, including a Spanish-style chorizo sautéed with potatoes and cabbage in a spicy brown curry. This one didn’t impress me as much as most of the other items I’ve had here because the mild sausage was lost in the sauce. I do however recommend their pork roast in a curry spiked with lots of cilantro and green herbs. This sauce didn’t seem spicy at first, but as I kept eating my lips started tingling. It never got overwhelmingly hot but was interesting from beginning to end.

Goan Christmas feasts feature sorpotel, a stew that uses both pork meat and pork liver. Many Americans won’t try this stew because it contains liver, but that’s a shame — the rich, slightly funky flavor of that organ goes magnificently with the garlic, chilies, plum vinegar, cloves and cardamom. Mandovi is the only restaurant I know that makes sorpotel on a regular basis, and if you’d like to try an unusual holiday tradition this is the place to go.

The people of Goa have a drinking culture all their own, centered on a cashew-fruit based brandy called feni. If I were trying to recreate this flavor I’d mix applejack and tequila; there’s an unusual combination of fruit, smokiness and slight astringency that really isn’t like anything else. Try a shot as an aperitif, but have beer or wine with the meal because they have a decent selection at reasonable prices. They don’t serve Mondavi wines — Mandovi restaurant is named after a river in India, not a winery.

Unlike most Indian restaurants, Mandovi offers seasonal specials. And Chef George is very accessible — if you want a Goa-style dinner, he is happy to come out of the kitchen and arrange a special feast. (He does get busy at times, so presumably can’t always spend a lot of time at the table.) Whether you ask his advice or bravely order based on menu descriptions, it’s a delight to sample this unique fusion of East and West.

Mandovi, 150 S. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo (424) 220-7115 mandovila.com