When I was growing up in a village in India’s then-smallest state, Goa, my family had a Sunday tradition. We love to eat and we have the hips to show for it.
Located on India’s west coast, Goa is known for its sun, sand and beaches. A typical Goan meal is xitt-koddi-nustem (rice, curry and fish). A long coastline meant a lot of wealth came from the sea; an easy availability of coconuts meant they often found their way into the food – which, like all aspects of Goan life, is heavily imprinted by four-and-a-half centuries of Portuguese rule.
Our breakfast, after early morning Mass and catechism classes, was an elaborate affair. It was a mix of local food and imported (‘tinned’) foodstuff. The dining table would be loaded with tinned cheese, butter, beef roast, omelette, tea, coffee, jam and fresh poee (Goan flatbread). The piece de resistance, to us children anyway, was kalchi koddi, a dish that literally translates to yesterday’s curry.
Kalchi koddi was usually made of fish curries inflected with coconuts – either grated coconut ground into a paste or coconut milk. The beauty of this simple dish was that it made leftovers exciting on their own. Yesterday’s fish curry, minus the fish, was just warmed over a low flame till it condensed and thickened. This was then eaten plain or topped with an egg.
When we were children, visions of that perfect kalchi koddi were enough to ensure that we ate a little less fish curry the night before. Reheated, the orange gravy thickened to a point that enhanced the flavors of coconut and various spices; it was an exciting new way to eat our staple curry.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, the dish was born out of necessity. “The Goans have always been a practical community. They never wasted anything. If a pig was cut, the entire animal, from snout to tail, found its way into different dishes,” says Odette Mascarenhas, a Goan food critic and author.
Refrigeration didn’t become commonplace in Goa or much of India until much after independence in 1947. Even then, only the affluent could afford to buy one. So food had to be cooked fresh daily. Whatever remained “was eaten the next day or just fed to the pigs,” says Mascarenhas.
“When fish curry was cooked, only the required pieces of fish were added – usually one per person. If this curry remained, it would be kept in the kunddlem [an earthen pot] overnight over the burning embers so by morning, it would thicken and coat the sides,” she says. “This was then scraped out using hot poee.” She recalls her mother-in-law serving her kalchi koddi made out of sorak (coconut curry made without fish).
If not for breakfast, kalchi koddi was eaten with the mid-morning meal of congee or pez (rice gruel) in most Goan homes. In her book, Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, Fátima da Silva Gracias writes, ‘In the past, people ate congee with the previous day’s condensed coconut curry, to which they at times added leftover ambot-tik (translates to sour-spicy) curry and a little sugar before placing it on the fire. This was called kalchi koddi in Bardez (or North Goa) and atoilolem humon(translates to condensed curry) in Salcete (South Goa).’
The pez was plain and watery, so the accompaniment had to be tasty and mostly dry —- like pickle, dried fish. Those who worked in the fields – Goa and much of India back then was largely an agrarian society – would rely on this healthy meal to sustain them till lunchtime.
Ask any Goan and they will tell you kalchi koddi tastes best when made in an earthen pot. “Each dish had its own pot for cooking, and fish curry was always made in the kunddlem and served with a dhoilo (coconut shell spoon),” says Gracias. The taste probably was enhanced by the fact that these utensils, in essence, came from the soil of the land.
Over the years, this dish has seen its fair share of variations. Any curry that has coconut in it, but no souring agent, can be turned into kalchi koddi. These days, people have leftover xacuti (spicy chicken curry) or caldin (a stew made with coconut milk) heated the same way.
Old-timers will tell you these new versions don’t quite taste the same. It could be the shiny copper and steel vessels that have replaced earthenware, the stove top that’s replaced firewood furnaces or the fact that curries are now refrigerated and then reheated the next morning. There’s some romanticism still attached to the act of sneaking into the kitchen as a child with a piece of poee and scraping the sides of the kunddlem for a taste of that thick gravy.
This curry has the distinction of being one of those rare dishes that has inspired a song. In ‘Kalchi Koddi’, the (late) Goan singer and actor Alfred Rose sang about how the dish added flavor to his rice or pez and how he didn’t need fish or anything else as an accompaniment as long as there was kalchi koddi. Sing this song to a Goan and chances are they will either rhapsodize about the breakfast staple or serve you some (if available), giving new meaning to the phrase, sing for your supper.
But, for a taste of that delicious leftover curry, I would sing like a canary.
[The story was first published in NPR’s The Salt as An Ode To Leftover Curry on March 11, 2018.]