This is the first installment of a 2-part series.
The cafés of Panjim are part of its living heritage and inspire deep affection from its residents. Although called cafés, they are nothing like their counterparts in Europe. These are modest eating houses that serve breakfast and small meals throughout the day, and where the beverage of choice is chao (tea). The mains consist of bhaji-puri and curries of legumes accompanied by Goan pão. Rounding off the menu are waist-expanding, soul-enriching sides such as samosa, batata-vada (potato fritter), and mirsang (batter-fried hot chili pepper), all distinctively Goan in flavour. The food prepared at the cafés is vegetarian.
Our cafés have been good social levelers. Here, one’s position on the socio-economic totem pole is of no consequence. The menial worker, the doctor, the fisherwoman, and the mining robber baron frequent the same cafés, and share – sometimes jostle for – a table at peak hours. These establishments are owned by Goan Hindus, and the Catholics count among their most fervent patrons.
The earliest cafés of Panjim – Shivramachi Brahmani, Café Puna – no longer exist. For the past several decades, Café Central has been considered the primus inter pares of the city cafés, and is the subject of this post. In Part 2, we will survey the best of the rest.
Atmaram S. Gaitonde opened Café Central in 1932 on the ground floor of Residênçia Fátima, the (now-demolished-and-replaced-with-third-world-concrete-rubbish) building near the Municipal Garden, across the lane from another city institution, Clube Vasco da Gama. Today the space is occupied by Mr. Baker and the Jesuit House. A word on pronunciation: “Central” is intoned Portuguese style, with a long ‘a’ and trilled ‘r.’
The bhaji-puri was not invented at Café Central but it was perfected there, and in time came to be regarded as the gold standard, pronounced so by Goans as well as the resident Portuguese gentry of the day. Accounts of the zeitgeist invariably figure Café Central, the attendant bonhomie, and the bhaji-puri. Several other traditional delights emerged from the café’s kitchen bearing a unique interpretation, and the secret formulae at the heart of these delicacies have survived to this day.
In 1971, Café Central shifted to the premises it occupies today, less than a kilometre away. With this move came a major change in business model, one that dealt a blow to its devotees: both the bhaji-puri and the café’s sit-down operation were retired. From then on, Café Central would recast itself as a conventional store, stocking in-house bakery goods and signature treats. The sublime bhaji-puri is gone but many of the old classics still line the shelves – such as the world’s finest samosa, the bread toast (‘fatio’ in Konkani, from the Portuguese ‘fatias’), and the award-winning batata-vada, all made fresh every day, year-round. (Batata is the Portuguese word for potato, a crop first introduced in India by the Portuguese.)
The popularity of Café Central remains undiminished. It is now run by Ravindra Gayatonde (founder’s grand-nephew) and his partner Kedar Bandekar. A few jewels from the icon’s culinary collection are displayed below. I was given unfettered access to the cavernous interiors of the very busy kitchen attached to the store. In an environment thick with flour particulate and sputtering oil, wielding the camera was a bit of a challenge.
This is the Panjim of my childhood – elegant and uncrowded, a far cry from the swamp it has now turned into. The arrow points to the original location of Café Central. The structure on the left of the frame has given way to today’s hideous Velhos & Filhos building.
All the posts in my ongoing series on Panjim‘s heritage are consolidated here.