The Goan ethos is one of living the good life. Food plays a big part. Goan cuisine is rich with the flavour of produce found in abundance locally, like kokum (sour fruit), coconut and spices.
Any celebratory Goan meal or for that matter, a reference to Goan cuisine is incomplete without lingering awhile over Goa's best known dessert, Bebinca.
Bebinca is essentially a layered dessert that tastes of the tropics. There's a hint of coconut and a suggestion of ground nutmeg in the wholesome sweet layers, not to forget some caramelisation and finally, rich clarified butter that harnesses all other flavours. The texture is firm enough to retain the layers and soft enough to melt in the mouth. The term, 'comfort food' comes nowhere close to describing this calorific feast. Any wonder siesta is taken so seriously in Goa?
There are many recipes and method variations to making Bebinca depending on the baking apparatus at hand. Essentially, a batter of maida (all-purpose flour), eggs, coconut milk (extracted from coconut flesh), nutmeg powder and sugar mixed in a specific proportion is prepared. A portion of this is poured onto a deep pan greased with clarified butter. Once this layer is slow-baked, clarified butter is spread on it and batter for another layer is poured. This slow baking process goes on for 16 layers, but more often, it is 7, 8 or 12 layers thick. Once it is fully baked, Bebinca is best served by itself or teamed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Bebinca is also found in other former Portuguese colonies, although, different in texture and flavour. For instance, in Philippines, it is called Bibingka, made with rice flour or cassava and served with grated coconut. Filipino Bibingka is also a delicacy in Hawaii. In Macau, it's called Bebinca de Leite and, owing to the cornstarch that's a key ingredient, it is more a custard or a pudding rather than its almost cake-like Goan counterpart. Funnily enough, Macau submitted the name of this dessert to refer to two tropical cyclones, the Typhoon Bebinca and the Tropical Storm Bebinca.
Although Bebinca, the dessert, is best tasted at a celebration like Christmas in a Goan home, it is also available in some restaurants and stores in Goa. There is also a brand called Costa's available in most shops that stock household staples. In fact the brand is available in the snack stall just before the boarding gates in Goa's Dabolim airport, for last minute shoppers to redeem themselves among gift-hopeful friends back home.
Pic by author
An edited version of this article was published in the September 2008 issue of At A Glance.