Time Out talks to chef Urbano de Rego at Goan Food Festival
The silver shores of Goa are an alluring destination to escape the suffocating heat of Dubai in July. Sadly, not of all of us have the time and money to jet off to India’s most prosperous state, but at least we can content ourselves with the Taj Palace’s forthcoming Goan food festival, which kicks off on July 19. Celebrity Goan chef Urbano do Rego will be flying in to host the festival, as well as tend to the chef’s table at Handi for the duration.
‘Xit kodi in Konkani’ is to Goans what fish and chips is to the English or pasta is to the Italians – a sweeping stereotype, maybe, but this simple combination of curried fish and rice has been served at Goan dinner tables for centuries. Of course, the dishes have evolved over time and Chef Rego is set to showcase a combination of classic and contemporary dishes over the course of the 12-day festival.
It’s strange to think that one of Goa’s top chefs had no real interest in cooking when he was a boy. In fact, he wanted to play football and, even if he does say so himself, he was pretty good at it. However, Rego’s aspirations were undermined by a damaged ear drum (admittedly not the most obvious of sporting injuries) and, inspired by his mother’s culinary prowess, he took a job as a chef garde manger (preparing cold foods), which he says allowed him to demonstrate his artistic flair in the presentation of salads and cold meat dishes. He soon learned to apply these skills to traditional Goan recipes, many of which he borrowed from his mother.
As Rego developed his flair in the kitchen, he looked to the wave of Indian chefs who were pushing the boundaries of the country’s already diverse culinary traditions. ‘I greatly admire Chef Mascarenhas [known as Chef Masky], the legendary executive chef at the Taj Mahal Mumbai, who specialised in continental cuisine in the early 1970s,’ he says.
However, staying true to his roots, he found it difficult to stray too far from Goan cuisine, which differs to food in other regions in India in that it’s lighter (and healthier, according to Rego). ‘Goan food uses less oil and is based on fresh ingredients, particularly seafood, which is a staple ingredient in the cuisine,’ he explains. ‘The food uses fresh spices ground by hand, whereas other Indian cooking incorporates spice powder.’
While other Indian chefs may beg to differ, it’s hard not to be taken in with Rego’s enthusiasm for his home state’s food. ‘Goan food is simple but packed full of flavour,’ he continues, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. ‘And, being on the coastal belt, we have the freshest seafood. I will be using authentic ingredients in the preparation of my dishes [at the food festival].’ Goan food is also unique in that it features European influences from when the state was a Portugese colony from the early 1500s until the mid 20th century.
According to Chef Rego, the most common ingredients in the region’s food – aside from freshly ground spices – are coconut, vinegar and kokum (a fruit native to Goa). Cooking methods include grilling, frying, braising and baking, though the latter is predominantly used for preparing traditional desserts such as the coconut-based bebinca.
This visit will be Chef Rego’s first, and he’s well-informed of Dubai’s reputation for authentic Indian food. ‘Dubai is blessed with a number of first-class Indian eateries as well as some good Goan restaurants – I’m hoping to get the opportunity to visit a few of these,’ he chuckles. However, it’s hard to imagine there will be much time for Rego to venture too far. Not that we’ll be complaining if he’s confined to the kitchen. Taj Palace’s Goan food festival runs from July 19-30. Lunch noon-3.30pm; dinner 7pm-11.30pm. Handi, Taj Palace Hotel, Deira (04 211 3020).