We were the crow chasers.
Armed with rolled-up newspapers and sticks, we three siblings waited on the balcão (balcony) guarding the choris (Goan sausages) that were draped over a bamboo rod perched above the ground. Inside, the family sat on the floor mixing pork with local toddy vinegar, chiles, and spices, stuffing it into a casing of pigs’ intestines. A cotton thread tied off links, forming a meaty necklace dripping with fat and staining everything red.
These meat necklaces were our assignment, and they attracted crows by the dozen. The sausages hovered over freshly sourced chiles from different villages, solam (kokum), tamarind, mangoes, and fish, all spread on newspaper or mats woven from coconut palms. The salty aromas, mingled with the afternoon heat, proved irresistible to the birds. Fighting them off on hot summer days was our main source of entertainment during this long and tedious process, and we fought bravely.
These items, after all, were important — this was our purumenth, our food for the many rainy days ahead.
Purumenth (sometimes spelled purument or purmenth) is the local Konkani corruption of the Portuguese word provimento or provisão, meaning provisions. It is, most simply, the practice of stocking up for times when food is scarce.
Goa is a small state on India’s west coast. Ruled by the Portuguese from around 1510 until 1961, Goa today is known for being a popular travel destination thanks to its distinct cuisine, cultural diversity, cheap alcohol (tax rates on booze vary throughout India, and Goa has among the lowest), and beachy, laid-back life compared to cities like Mumbai and Delhi.
It’s also known for monsoons.
India’s monsoon season follows the hot, dry summer months of April and May and it lasts from June until September. The rain is fickle, alternating between light drizzles and heavy downpours that cause destructive flooding, limiting transportation and the mobility of goods and people — and, historically, making fresh ingredients like produce, meat, and fish scarce.
“Until a few decades back, provisions for the rains had to be gathered well in advance as the rains were unpredictable, weather forecasting was unknown, and refrigeration facilities non-existent,” writes historian Fátima da Silva Gracias in her book Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food.
For decades, my family — like many others in villages across the state — would stock up for the harsh and volatile monsoon. Preparations began early, from mid-February onward. April and May, then, were months of abundance, of cheap goods and busyness. Food was procured, cleaned, sun-dried, pickled, and stored.
“The whole western coast would batten down the hatches before the monsoons came howling through,” says archaeologist and culinary anthropologist Kurush F. Dalal. “Everybody stocked things on a yearly basis — masala, dals and ghee, pickles, dry fish, salt, and pappad. It wasn’t frugality, but systematic planning to ensure the larder was always full.”
Everything had to be ready by mid-May in case of early showers. Those who were unable to prep in time by themselves could stock up at Purumentachem Fests held at the end of May and early June. These fairs were linked to the annual church feasts in the cities of Margao and Mapusa, which, since they occurred around time the monsoons began to sweep in, sold a variety of purumenth staples for last-minute shoppers.
For the most part, purumenth is the stuff of culinary history. Over the last few decades, the arrival of refrigerators to store produce, the availability of fresh goods throughout the monsoons, and increased mobility between villages and cities have made stocking up less crucial. Purumenth fairs still occur annually, and locals still stock up on dried fish, rice, vinegar and pickles, but lately they’ve been less driven by necessity than nostalgia — “preparing” less a practice than a memory, one looked upon fondly by the older generations.
But then COVID hit. On March 24, Goa, like the rest of India, went into a government-mandated lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. The announcement was a surprise and ill-planned, leaving people with no time to prepare. In the initial days, people weren’t allowed to leave their homes; shops and markets were shuttered, and there was no public transportation. In many places, people started rationing meals as supplies started to run out. For the first time in a long time, food was hard to come by.
In the villages, elders nodded their heads wisely. It wasn’t the monsoon season yet, but they knew how to deal with this enforced isolation. They had been storing provisions for years and had a diminished but stocked larder. It was our younger generation that struggled, spoiled by abundance of choice and instant gratification, and living in homes where space is too premium to be utilized for storing goods.
“Our ancestors were smart enough to live by the seasons. But we’ve become greedy, and our demands have exceeded our supply,” says Avinash Martins, chef and owner of Cavatina Cucina. “Had we to follow our ancestral cycle, we wouldn’t have taken our food for granted.”
In the olden days, Goan kitchens had a cow dung-smattered floor and an earthen stove. On a bamboo rod placed high across the kitchen hung local white onions and sausages — the smoke from the fireplace kept the insects away — and most houses had a designated storage area, a secluded corner, the space under the bed or a dark room.
This space, while not exactly photogenic, offered a snapshot of summer bounty like cheap fresh fish, mangoes, jackfruit, chiles, and cashews. Here, too, lay all the dried, salted, and cured produce. There was kokum, tamarind balls, whole spices, masalas, and bhornis (porcelain jars) with pickles like chepne tor (flattened raw mangoes in brine). Some families had mitantulem mas — salted pork drained of its water via heavy weights and dried into a jerky of sorts. There was coconut oil and vinegar made from the toddy extracted from the coconut palms. Summer fruits like jackfruit and mangoes — including the seeds — were peeled, sliced, and dried for use in curries.
My family still lives in a small village in the north of Goa, in an old Indo-Portuguese house. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the building had a separate room dedicated to rice. The bhathachim kudd (paddy room) was in the center of the house with no direct access to sunlight, keeping it cool and dark, and had a roughly hewn bamboo structure filled with paddy — rice with husk — from our fields.
“We dried the paddy in the sun to prevent insects from eating it, and parboiled it in a bhann [a big copper pot],” says Maryanne Lobo, an Ayurvedic doctor in Goa whose family also had a bhathachim kudd. “Once boiled, we took it to the mill to remove the bran, and stored the rice in a dhond [a barrel-like container].”
Lobo learned about purumenth from her maternal aunt. “She would store jackfruit seeds in a hole dug into the floor. She used the mud from an ant hill to create a well and covered the top with cow dung mixture. This kept the seeds dry and free from insects.” Dried jackfruit seeds were cooked like a vegetable, or added to curries.
Like her aunt, Lobo still stocks up religiously every summer. She doesn’t have a storeroom anymore, so the paddy is dried in her balcony, and she stores her jackfruit seeds in sand. The traditional jars have given way to plastic bottles, and provisions are stocked beneath beds — but still, she says “purumenth was a lifesaver” during the lockdown.
There’s something overwhelming and intoxicating about the smell of dried fish — fierce, pungent, and fermenting. Traditionally, in the monsoon months fishermen could not venture out into the choppy sea, so good fish was scarce. Locally caught fish from rivers and ponds was limited and expensive. People, then, preferred eating kharem (salted fish).
Goa’s typical dried fish stock includes the common mackerel, salted and dried and pickled to become a para with vinegar and masalas; dried shrimp; and prawns — pickled into a tangy molho or balchao, or dried. In the monsoon, this fish forms the accompaniments to a simple lunch of rice and plain curry, or to the mid-morning meal of pez (rice gruel). Dried shrimp becomes kismur — a dry salad made with coconut and tamarind, for which the prawns are roasted over a flame with coconut oil and the para is fried and roasted.
Fish was high on Marius Fernandes’s summer prep this year. Known as Goa’s “Festival Man” — responsible for conducting more than 40 cultural festivals in the region — Fernandes has dedicated his life to promoting the traditional Goan way of life. On lockdown in the small island village of Divar, he spent the summer doing prep under the guidance of his 88-year-old mother, Anna. The family dried and pickled prawns and mackerel, seeds, ripe and raw mangoes, jackfruit, pineapples, and tomatoes. “The situation with regards to sourcing fresh food is only going to get worse in this current situation,” says Fernandes, who has spent much of the last few months in the family garden. “We have to start thinking about growing our own food.”
Like Fernandes, the few who never stopped practicing purumenth are eloquent about its benefits. And those who are rediscovering it now, in response to COVID-19 shortages, are finding that it fits well into the modern ethos surrounding eating. “This is the new gourmet: food that is harvested locally, is seasonal, organic, grown in small batches, with a zero-carbon footprint,” says Cavatina Cucina’s Martins, who became more conscious about his food back in 2018 when the toxic chemical formalin was found in fish and led to a scare in Goa. Today he makes and stores pickles, fish, chiles, and salt.
“Because of the lockdown, we again know about all the wonderful produce available here,” says Fernandes. “Earlier, these would go to markets and supermarkets. Now, we are getting first pick of this locally grown, organic produce.”
Today, my larder in Mumbai has a few traces of purumenth: some salted shrimp and a pack of sausages. There have always been sausages in my kitchen, my way of connecting back to my home in Goa. There’s no need to fight off any crows, though — just my dog, who is equally fascinated by fragrant links of choris.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance journalist from India who enjoys writing about food and its ties to communities, her Goan heritage, and other things that make her happy. Roanna Fernandes is an illustrator from Mumbai.