Meet the Mumbai chef taking authentic Goan food stateside
Chef Hussain Shahzad of Mumbai restaurant O Pedro has been invited to New York to promote Goan food – a cuisine that may finally be having its moment in the sun
Sun-kissed beaches, lush hills, chilled vibes and an old-world charm ensure that Goa remains one of the most popular getaways in India. However, its cuisine – known to some as made up primarily of vindaloo and xacuti – has been sold short for decades, with most consumers unaware of its staggering diversity.
Thankfully, there are people such as Hussain Shahzad, 32, executive chef at critically acclaimed Mumbai restaurant O Pedro, who are not only taking authentic Goan food to the world, but also reviving dying aspects of the sunny state’s food culture. “Goan food has a massive colonial past, which has impacted its culinary culture, giving it nuances that distinguish it from other forms of cooking in India,” says the chef. “It is the only [Indian] cuisine that includes baked yeast-leavened bread and sausage-making ... so it’s a tremendous canvas of inspiration.
“Through O Pedro, we want to celebrate the story of how cuisine evolved in Goa – from the influences left behind by the Portuguese, to the coexistence of various religious communities,” he adds.
“Additionally, the techniques used in Goan cooking are what make it so unique, like fermenting, pickling, preserving, smoking, curing and making cheese, which are sadly in danger of being forgotten with the overall commercialisation of Goa.”
Born into a Bohri Muslim family in Chennai, Shahzad was exposed to a variety of flavours and dishes influenced by India’s diverse heritage, which stoked his passion for cooking and all things epicurean. “I would keenly watch my mother cook our family recipes with ingredients available on the east coast and see her use what was available at South Indian markets to create something magical day in and day out,” he says. “Growing older, this fascination with food and ingredients grew stronger.”
Shahzad graduated from the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, Karnataka, and worked with the Oberoi Group before moving to New York in 2014 to join the award-winning restaurant Eleven Madison Park as a line cook. He bloomed under Daniel Humm, the Swiss chef and restaurateur who owns the restaurant.
“Working at Eleven Madison Park has had an immense effect on my growth as a cook and, today, as a chef,” Shahzad says. “Sweating the details and striving to achieve perfection with continued love for everything food was incredible. Chef Humm continues to [inspire] and has enabled me to build a strong technique-driven approach to my cooking.”
Happy cooks make food taste better, and I believe in this more today than ever
Soon after his stint with Humm, Shahzad met his other mentor, the famed Floyd Cardoz, who has run a slew of extremely successful “new Indian” restaurants in the Big Apple. As culinary director of Mumbai’s The Bombay Canteen, Cardoz hired Shahzad as sous chef before O Pedro came knocking.
“Chef Cardoz taught me to be a better chef; being a young cook and then a chef was all about being super-assertive, loud and boisterous, and he brought about that balance in my cooking and in me as an individual,” Shahzad says. “He said happy cooks make food taste better, and I believe in this more today than ever.”
From this month and over the next four, Shahzad will serve up fusion Goan dishes to New Yorkers at Intersect by Lexus, as the hub’s fourth global chef-in-residence. A short walk from Chelsea Market in Manhattan, Intersect by Lexus hosts limited-time culinary experiences in partnership with New York’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Shahzad is not a surprising choice; he has regularly featured in hallowed lists of top contemporary Indian chefs to look out for. “We are excited for New York to taste the unique flavours of Goan cuisine complemented by chef Hussain’s ability to incorporate forgotten Goan techniques, for the first time,” a spokesperson from Intersect by Lexus tells The National.
The thought that went into crafting each dish is staggering. “By not being brought up in the community, the idea of everything Goan was extremely intriguing,” Shahzad says. “The process of ideation and creation is collaborative; it’s based on extensive research and travel. This involved eating out at restaurants in Goa to understand the commercial aspect of the cuisine, working at old bake shops to learn the art of bread-making, learning traditional and family recipes in household kitchens in Goa and taverns in Lisbon, and spending time with amazing Portuguese chefs to understand their perspective on food and their takeaways from the history of colonisation.”
At Intersect by Lexus, diners will experience hyperlocal flavours and cooking techniques that have been tailored for a global cosmopolitan palate. Various ingredients are fermented, pickled and smoked in-house, and Goan bread or poee is baked in a wood-fired oven twice every day following tradition to a T to preserve the craft. To highlight the importance of using indigenous produce, a lot of spices, pulses, oils and rice grains are sourced from local markets in Goa.
The result is a crackling menu that dares diners to step out of their comfort zone. Think purple potato and kohlrabi dangar (classically, dangar or fritters are found in Goud Saraswat households and made with leftover seafood); Alaskan king crab kismur, a brilliant take on the local fish salad; and dry-aged duck xacuti, served with toasted spice curry and a “rice roti”.
In a nod to the widely available rava-fried fish, the chef has fashioned a crispy puffer fish with a semolina crust served with a peanut and chilli aioli. There’s also a quail piri piri, spun off the galinha or chicken cafreal; historically, the roots of this preparation can be traced to the Mozambican galinha piri piri.
Signature dishes include prawn balchao, which is pickled with curry leaves, toddy vinegar and red chillies; and veal tongue, served here in carpaccio form, with pickled onions, mustard aioli and shoestring fries. Drinks also have a distinctive Goan touch, as do the desserts, such as kokum sorbet sundae and a stunning crepe cake rounded off with black jaggery caramel.
“The hope is for guests to understand the story of Goan cuisine as well as our interpretation of it,” says Shahzad. “We aim to showcase sustainable produce from around the state [of New York], and coast it with the flavours and soul of O Pedro, respectfully breaking down traditions and reconstructing them through a contemporary lens.”
In the past few years, Goan food has been slowly getting the recognition it is due as part of a larger trend of regional cuisines becoming popular among international foodies. O Pedro is one of a handful of restaurants that are bringing lesser-known dishes to the table to familiarise diners with the state’s multicultural fabric.
The restaurant has been around for just over two years now, but it’s already counted among India’s top food establishments. “It is a celebration of a place [Goa] everyone loves, as well as one only insiders really know,” says Sameer Seth, a partner at the restaurant.
“The real Goa is a way of life, and centuries of history and culture. O Pedro tells an original story from every kitchen and every street,” he says, adding that Shahzad originally came back from New York “to be able to contribute to the changing food scene in India, [because] regional Indian food back then didn’t command the respect it deserved; perhaps people didn’t consider it cool”.
Top Goan restaurants in the UAE
In Abu Dhabi, head to Konkans in Najda or Casa Goa at Hawthorne Suites by Wyndham. The former does a good crab sukha and bombil fry, while Casa Goa is known for its prawn-stuffed cigar papad, chilli fry and kochumber salad with a tamarind water dressing.
In Dubai, Eric’s at Al Karama is a must-visit, and does a mean rechae masala with various meats and seafood, plus pickled mackerel and chicken cafreal. At the Royal Ascot hotel, Goan Shack is spot-on flavour-wise; try its stuffed crab or clams and roast beef tongue. Casa Goa in Palm Beach is a favourite in Dubai, too, and is popular for its fish curry.
Bebenca is a traditional Goan dessert, and is a layered pudding made with flour, sugar, ghee, egg yolk and coconut milk.
Updated: March 8, 2020 12:56 PM