A few months ago, I sampled the most divine crab curry. Fiery from the first spoonful, even generous mounds of rice only served to make it a little kinder. Yet, the slow heat of the curry and its unapologetic aroma have stayed with me since. My curry-experience found its way to me on a fateful evening, exactly how and where you might expect it. A whirlwind trip to Goa including but not limited to one lovely local auntie (the owner of my homestay), a dozen freshly caught crabs, one bowl of coconut milk and a tadka full of red chillies and onions sweating its way into freshly-ground spices. I had been invited to break bread with a Goan family and even try my hand at a dish that had, no doubt, been perfected over multiple generations of shell-cracking and spice-simmering in its rightful home. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned just how far this piece de resistance of Goan cooking has travelled.
In an unassuming eatery across many, many borders (plus one that’s particularly darkly drawn) a surprisingly authentic crab curry and many of its tasty cousins have found themselves on a menu in Karachi. This is the story of how it got there.
Located in the city’s bustling Clifton neighbourhood, Biryani of the Seas (BOTS) has been serving the delicious seafood dish to its Goan patrons, who have lived in Pakistan’s sea port city, for about five years now. Its affable 45-year-old owner Syed Ali Raza Abidi built this comfort empire purely out of passion and a thriving family business of seafood processing and exporting in 2010, he tells us. Yet, it wasn’t paying ode to Goan flavours right from the get-go.
In its early days, the restaurant’s menu comprised majorly of seafood with a strong Pakistani flavour. However, Mr. Abidi soon felt compelled to add its tangier Goan counterparts on a friend’s suggestion. “She taught us Goan crab curry with mud crabs and blue crabs, along with Goan shrimp and chicken curries. I started including these items one by one. Besides, a lot of Goans had begun shifting from Saddar area to Clifton, given the several churches here,” he tells me over a phone interview. Thanks to them, BOTS now has a loyal customer base that visits the restaurant regularly – especially after Sunday mass – to relish the food that transports them back to the beaches and shacks of Goa.
As interesting as this confluence may be though, perhaps wanderlust is in this curry’s genetic code though. In truth, the dish is not local at all–it actually made its way to India almost 500 years ago as a food of the Portuguese invaders. Together with their lasting control, the Portuguese brought countless spices to the coastal town, mostly for their own consumption. Chilli peppers were as foreign to India as the Portuguese dialect, as was cilantro that is now central to garnishing throughout India’s culinary fabric. Over the years, these foreign recipes were given a desi twist, and the Portuguese Caril de Caranguejo, that was originally a dish without any hint of coconut milk, was reborn as the Goan crab curry.
Later, in British-ruled India, service of the Goans (already familiar with the European ways of living and eating) proved extremely beneficial. So much so that, weary of the Portuguese regime in Goa, its natives moved to the nondescript town of Karachi in big numbers in the mid-17th century. Viewed as a prudential spot for trade and commerce by the rulers, owing to its marine proximity, Karachi became home to these migrant Goans. And with their suitcases, they also brought their food. However, they were stumped by the fact that Karachi was unknown to using ingredients such as coconut and tamarind in the local food. These had to be sourced from across the border when the craving for a Goan Crab Curry set in.
Today, a community of as many as 10,000 people of Goan ancestry call Karachi their home. Several things bind them together, including the challenge of preserving the authentic Goan food palette. However, for the moment, Mr. Abidi does not plan to expand the Goan selection on his menu “at least till I find a Goan cook who can prepare authentic dishes. Most Goans who I know prefer cooking in the private space of their home-kitchens, unless they own the restaurant. There were several popular Goan eateries in Karachi around forty years ago, but they shut down as the community shrinked in numbers. If a restaurant with an exclusive Goan menu comes up here, I believe that it will do extremely well,” he says.
With regulars like vindaloo and sorpotel now being cooked only during festivities and celebrations, the Goans of Karachi prefer cooking and eating Quorma or Biryani, the ingredients for which are easily available, says journalist Andrew Basil. “I was born in Karachi. My parents have been living here since my mother’s family moved from Goa sometime after 1947, and my father’s parents, a long time before that,” he tells me over email. “We cook fish and chicken curries along with vegetables, but all of them are divorced from the ‘Goan’ way of cooking now. The chicken curry contains some Goan ingredients - ground coriander and mint leaves - but no coconut, chillies, or sour ingredients,” he explains about the food cooked at home. Coconuts in Karachi are imported from Sri Lanka, and cost around 200 PKR, which is exorbitant for an item on a household grocery list. The essence of Goan cooking lies in home-ground masalas and plentiful additions of coconut milk. “Basic ingredients were, and are, available in Karachi,” Mr. Abidi tells us . “But coconut isn’t a part of the local cuisine and so isn’t locally grown. We buy the imported stock.”
Part of Mr. Abidi’s restaurant menu is certainly a thread of assurance to upkeep the presence of Goan food lore in Karachi. Hopefully, though, this long journey of Goan crab curry will continue to inspire an exchange of culinary experiences between India and Pakistan that share both a border and an ardent passion for food.
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