There is a little bit of Burma in Goa

No, I am not referring to the popular Burmese restaurant in north Goa, but yes, it has to do with food. More specifically, a recipe that travelled from Burma to Goa with Goans who used to work in that southeast Asian country in the last century. 

Khauk Swe is a firm favourite in my family. It might not always be prepared on special occasions but every time my mother used to make the dish; it was a special occasion. We have an aunt to thank for this. In the 1940s, my aunt’s husband was one of many Goans who used to work in British Burma. Employment opportunities in Portuguese Goa were few and far in between so many Goans left one occupied territory to find work in another occupied territory. The young couple made a life for themselves in Burma. And then the Japanese attacked. Japan had declared war on the United Kingdom in 1941 and any British territory was fair game. For Indian/Goan residents, it was a scrabble to get out of Burma. They made the arduous journey across the border through dense jungles on foot. (Click here for a detailed account of that harrowing time and the politics involved). Those who survived reached Chittagong and travelled to Calcutta, and onwards. For many Goans it was a sea journey to Madras and then onwards to Goa. 

My aunt was too traumatized about her experience to ever talk about it – during the escape, she got separated from her husband and reached Goa unaware of his whereabouts; he reached home at a later date. What she did share was Khauk Swe. It was a dish that my siblings and I relished. The recipe was shared with my mother, and was soon added to the ‘special lunch’ menu at our home. The one pot meal was also something of a novelty, as compared to our regular Goan fare. But it was by no means any less elaborate. With noodles as the base, a thick chicken gravy and an assortment of garnishing, all the flavours complimented each other to create magic from the very first bite. As children, we were tasked with helping prepare the garnishing. Peel and chop lots of garlic (to be fried just before the meal), half and de-seed lemons, slice onions, sort out sprigs of fresh coriander leaves and coarsely pound red chillies. But the secret ingredient that gave the dish its unique flavour was shrimp paste. Not just any shrimp paste but a dark, thick cake that is/was not very easily available in Goa. So anytime someone travelled to Goa from Calcutta or Singapore, they were given instructions to kindly bring back this rare ingredient. It was then sparingly shared with extended family. With all ingredients in place, we were ready to sit around the table and partake in a meal that had travelled with much love and trauma. 

Fast forward to today. Shrimp paste can be ordered online. Another online search reveals that the dish is called Un no khauk swe. Friends for whom I prepare this meal have gifted me a set of bowls specially for serving the dish. And yes, it is very popular in pan-Asian restaurants across metropolitan cities around the world, each offering their own take. I have eaten Khauk Swe in Bombay, Dubai and London. But the flavours that first embraced me in a remote village in Goa at my aunt’s home have never left me. 

Pic credit: Ella-Marie


The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – the Goan way

A piece I wrote earlier during the lockdown.

To those who commented on this post: You are entitled to a differing opinion, however, not abusive and violent reactions. Even under the shield of perceived anonymity, one cannot violate the law. Closing the comments section.

The Covid-19 lockdown in India forced us to take our conversations online and webinars became – and continue to be – all the rage. I tuned in to one that was titled Migrant Labourers and Goa’s Political Economy. During the course of the discussion, I was struck by a statement made by one of the panelists, a businessman who also holds top position in the state’s trade association. When talking about migrant workers at construction sites, he said, ‘staying conditions are not industry’s responsibility.’ He went on to complain about people who built illegal housing around constructions sites, in industrial as well as residential areas, and rent out to migrant workers. He accused panchayats of not keeping a check on this practice. The conversation moved on to other areas. Nobody countered him. I noted there was no legal expert on the panel. 

These comments stayed with me. And I had a suspicion that they were far from the truth. I looked up the laws of the land. Under the Contract Labour Act, a contractor might recruit the services of labour but the ultimate responsibility of labour welfare lies with the Principal Employer, people such as Mr. Businessman. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act provides for benefits such as displacement allowance, journey allowance and ‘suitable residential accommodation to such workmen during the period of employment’. All labour at construction sites – a booming industry up until the lockdown – in Goa come from outside the state. Often, outsourcing to contractors means that capital has very little or no clue about labour concerns. I suspect that more often than not, they’d rather turn a blind eye to these concerns. Or else they’ll have to get their hands soiled in the ‘mucky’ world of labour rights and even human rights. And I am only talking about labour that has been contracted. The migrant daily wage earners who congregate at markets squares, hoping to get picked up for a day’s wage – the lucky ones are packed into the back of pickup vans and carted to worksites – fall outside of any sort of guidelines.  

But beyond laws and regulations that holds capital responsible for labour, how does society and the individual look at labour? How does Goa view its migrant labour? Not in a very good light, I’m afraid. Goa’s supposed traditional hospitality and good cheer go out of the window and it morphs into an unrecognizable version of itself. There is lack of empathy, compassion, generosity of spirit. Am I brushing things with very broad strokes? In conversation after conversation I hear, the audacity of thought is very clear. Migrants blue collar workers are a necessary evil. 

The story of human history is the story of migration. This is something Goans are familiar with. We have spread ourselves all over the world in the last few centuries, in search of a better life. This sits uncomfortably with the disdain for migrants who come to Goa looking for a better life. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that migrants run the wheels of the state’s economy. The tourism sector is dependent on them, so is construction. And mining too, which might not be very obvious as it isn’t a very public facing industry. It’s a classic migration scenario – the locals leave for better prospects and the migrants arrive for better prospects. It’s a constitutional right. The state of India guarantees the right to move freely, reside and settle, and carry on any occupation in any part of the country. The truth of the matter is that we have reached a point that we need the migrant worker, but we don’t want to see the migrant work. If he could somehow magically disappear when not working, all would be well. As extension of that thought was apparent when migrant workers began registering for exit passes during the lockdown. Social media – often revealing more than it thinks it does – was abuzz with comments as to how we will now manage by ourselves, we don’t really need the migrants. I’m curious to know if Goans will work at constructions sites, pulling in nets at sea, as carpenters and gardeners, as bell boys and waiters – at the current rate of remuneration. Not to forget the second half of the argument when a large number of migrants registered for exit passes during the lockdown. ‘We fed them and gave them shelter; how can they leave now?’ What was unsaid was, who will clean our shit?

I recently made a documentary film about contemporary Goa, its unique local bread, pão and bakers. During the making of the film, whenever a Goan learnt about the subject of my documentary, it didn’t take long for a lament to begin about how migrant bakers have taken over the trade and that the taste of bread is not the same as before. Yes, Goans are leaving the traditional bakery trade, and migrants are filling in the void. In fact, one can argue that Goans receive their daily bread thanks to the migrant baker. There is no way that the handful of traditional bakers can cater to the steady demand for pão. In the course of my research, I met ‘native’ Goan bakers who had many complains about how difficult it is to find locals to work in the trade. Goans were just not interested in this labour-intensive work. Another common complaint was that Goan workers were unreliable thanks to the influence of that close Goan friend, alcohol. It’s not something talked about on camera. But the state’s former CM had no qualms about going on record accusing outsiders of taking over this heritage trade. Baking industry heads told me without hesitation that they are appealing to the government for sops, but only for ‘local bakers, not for outsiders’. Yes, the dark side, once again. 

Increasingly, this attitude is not restricted towards blue collared migrant workers. There is a growing disdain towards settlers in Goa – be it technicians, artists, business persons. Living in gentrified bubbles has not really helped the cause. That’s a topic for another day. As a theatre activist once said, ‘anyone who loves Goa and cares for Goa, is Goan’. 

The demographic tilt has made us Goans aware of our small fragile culture. I have heard many arguments about ‘the need for a push back’, ‘carrying capacity’ and so on. I believe we have to first decide what we want to be. Goans enjoy a slow pace of life, the afternoon siesta, the early wind-down to the work day. If that’s what we want, so be it. Let’s shape the state around it, build economic activities that suit this need. But we are also aware that we are sitting on a golden egg. And we are fast cashing on it, without any consideration for the repercussions of killing the goose. So as long as we don’t put our money where our mouth is, we will continue to show shades of the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Pão the film

Bread_EPK copy

I’d like to share with you that I’m working on a documentary film about food, culture and migration. Goa’s bread, pão tells the story of a people and a place. The film, Pão, follows three stories in and around bakeries that make pão. Stories of very real people dealing with migration, changing culture, and the ever present need to earn a living in India’s sunshine state.

I teamed up with like-minded filmmakers to make this film. Shooting is complete and we are in the process of post production. To be able to do so, we need your support. We hope to inspire you to be part of the film by joining a crowdfunding campaign towards its completion.

Please click here for details It’s an all-or-nothing campaign (if the whole amount is not raised, your money is returned) that runs for a limited period. Every contribution of any amount will make a difference, so do consider supporting the film. And please do spread the word.

UPDATED to add: The crowdfunding campaign has been a resounding success. It’s been an inspiring journey to say the least. Do check out the film’s social media page for updates.