A Goan Catholic Lunch with Azon Linhares

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we visit Azon Linhares in his sunny home in Indiranagar, where he whips up a Goan classic, Tambdi Bhaji.

goya_illustration2.jpeg

Oil pools into a warm pan, and the air fills with a rich, nutty aroma. “We’ve switched to using some really excellent coconut oil,” Azon says, as he twists the bottle cap closed. Sri Lingam Coconut Oil, made in Tamil Nadu, 100% Pure and Natural.

Azon and Aakriti eat most of their meals at home, cooking from scratch. That can't be easy living in Indiranagar, we remark. The chic neighbourhood has a new restaurant or bar opening every week. "I'm tired of eating out. I’ve done that so much, and I'm usually always disappointed. I leave thinking, I could have done that better at home. I realise this makes me sound like my grandmother, but I've made my peace with that." 

“What I can't believe is that Azon's making a veg dish today," Aakriti interjects, sipping on a frothy cup of Kumbakonam Degree coffee that Azon has just handed her. Their kitchen opens up into a sunny living room, and there are flowers everywhere; palms fronds and a fiddle-leaf fig rustle gently as white curtains billow inward.  A philodendron rests on a restored jeweller's table, rescued from discarded pile in Malleswaram. Classic vintage sofas have been carefully reupholstered in camel. "Azon has a really good eye. He loves finding these old pieces and fixing them up," Aakriti says, taking us out to the balcony where Fernando the Japanese koi swims in a pond of lilies, and two miniature chairs are tucked between the foliage. “Our friends make fun of us, but we actually sit in these chairs every morning,” she says, fitting her slender frame into the tiny cane chair.

444B9551.jpg
444B9492.jpg

Azon and Aakriti also work together. Trained as psychologist and counsellor, Aakriti started Kaha Mind, a digital mental health platform designed to make therapy more accessible, and Azon handles the business end of things. “We try never to cook together, though.” She shakes her head. “Azon doesn't like to measure when he cooks. I like to have everything prepped and ready beforehand. I’m the kind of cook who cleans as I go; I need to taste throughout. He never tastes while cooking,” she laughs.

Azon learnt to cook with his father, happy to tag along on trips to Crawford Market, picking out cuts of meat at the butcher’s. "We cooked a lot of steak, liver, brain, that sort of thing." Azon is Goan Catholic, and Tambdi Bhaji that he is cooking for us today, is a staple in the community; unique because it is the rare vegetarian dish that doesn’t use coconut, he smiles. Made with red spinach, tamarind, and dry red chillies, it is a watery stir-fry that is simple, nourishing and comforting. He loves his meats, but this one he cooks for Aakriti. 

Azon's kitchen is the kind that has your eyes wandering, taking in all the colours and cooking equipment. A rack of condiments is stocked to mind-boggling variety — “From Aakriti’s Indonesia days” — a bag with green baby mangoes soaking in brine; in another, red Goan Reachado masala — “You have to smell it!” An ammi-kal rests large and ponderous by the kitchen sink. "I haven't worked up the courage to do wet masalas there yet," he says, washing the purple-red amaranth leaves. He discards the thick stems, and pulls out a thin, bendy knife that he sharpens quickly. "This one's my favourite. Although I sometimes wish it had a bit more weight to it," he bends it back and forth, its light body dangerously flexible. "A month ago, I sliced off a bit of my finger." It whooshes through an onion effortlessly.

444B9642.jpg
444B9790.jpg
444B9746.jpg

In the pan, the onions glisten as they soften slowly in coconut oil. Azon pulls a handful of dried red chillies from a bag, and tears them roughly. Pale yellow seeds scatter. "You know the Portuguese brought chose chillies to India?” says Aakriti, referring to the state’s long history as a Portuguese colony. “They used them as a decorative species; they’re beautiful when in bloom. But when Indians tasted it and like the spiciness, chillies travelled inland. And now look where we are.”

From time to time, Azon moves back to the stove to check on the greens simmering in the pan. Spinach stir-fries usually come together in a matter of minutes, but he promises that a slow cook will make all the difference. "Everything turns out better on a low flame." He gently nudges the leaves and they pull apart easily. When he tastes the tamarind pulp soaking in a bowl of warm water, he winces, his shoulders reaching up to his ears. "Just a teeny bit,” he says, pouring in a few drops. “Tambdi Bhaji is spicy and sour, from the chillies and the tamarind. With just a bit of sugar at the end, to bring it all together."

444B9565-2.jpg
444B9551.jpg
444B9506.jpg

RECIPE: AZON’S TAMBDI BHAJI

Ingredients
1 bunch of red spinach or amaranth
2 onions, sliced fine
8-10 garlic pods, chopped
8-10 dry red chillies, roughly torn
1/4 tsp jeera
Pulp from 1 ball of tamarind, soaked in warm water
1 tbsp coconut oil
Salt to taste
Sugar, a pinch

Method
Wash the amaranth leaves thoroughly, to remove any mud.
Roughly chop the leaves; discard thicker section of stems.
Pour coconut oil into a hot pan, and add in the jeera.
Allow it to roast lightly, then add in the onions.
Cook on a low flame till the onions soften.
Now add in the garlic and red chillies.
Cook for a minute until aromatic, then add in the amaranth leaves with 1 cup of water.
Allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
Now add in the tamarind water, and salt to taste.
Cook covered for another minute, or until the amaranth leaves can be torn apart gently with a fork.
Uncover, add a pinch of sugar.
Serve with hot rice and ghee.

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by  Maegan Syiem.

ALSO ON THE GOYA JOURNAL