Waking up to the sound of piglets squealing in the scrubby backyard of the Rodrigues home with the morning sunlight already hot as it streams in, a vast contentment fills me on this day in the third week of an break in Goa taken in a tiny village off Bogmalo beach, where the rhythms of the slow Goan day have remained unchanged in spite of the presence of a couple of new large five star hotels in the vicinity.
Speeding up is not an option in Goa in early winter except while driving a motorcycle through the narrow lane. Quickening the pace means rivulets of perspiration and even taking a shower must be done in a leisurely way.
In the time I have been here I have got to know most of the inhabitants of this village. The toddy tapper, the garage owner, who does repairs on local cars and scooters, the toddy distiller, Claudie from the restaurant, whose shack is filled with locals who come in mainly to watch the cricket or football match on his TV and give his restaurant an air of a business doing well.
I go to buy a litre of milk from Connie’s shop . She keeps everything from penlight batteries to notebooks to tea and red chillies in the space of a dark ten by ten room, while her son does his homework in the corner and in the shadows behind her I see her husband lying in his bed, the victim of an accident some years ago he had a head injury and cannot walk anymore and is very weak. Connie, though, is cheerful as she leans her elbows on the sill of an open window which serves as her counter and chats with the villagers who pass by to catch the bus or walk to the beach. Her shop is well placed as it is right on the main and only road of the village.
This morning I have an appointment with Silvie who is the owner of Sharon’s Store, a tin roofed shed on the corner of the lane on which I live. She sells baked goods, some sweets, soft drinks and a few pokshie, a round shaped bread with a cut in the middle and a crusty top. She is a soft spoken woman who speaks mainly Konkani with English words thrown in. Silvie is known in Bogmalo for her bebinca and dol dols. People from miles around come to order their Christmas Bebinca.
Bebinca is a favourite at any special occasion, weddings, engagements, homecomings or farewells, of which there are quite a few with young people living where their work takes them, far away from their families, to Bombay, the Gulf, Canada and the UK.
There are several myths about bebinca, one that it takes a hundred eggs, another that it is a hundred layers, and yet another that it requires a good 8 hours to make. These I heard at the home of Sheela, a Goan acquaintance in Delhi, whose house was always filled with bureaucrats and whose memories of bebinca, vociferously backed up by several other of her friends, were punctuated by loud laughter as she sincerely hated cooking and could not imagine anyone bothering taking such an age or such effort to produce a CAKE! Hers was, of course, bought. It made a good story. Much like mine about Maharashtrian Dinkache laadu which shall , however, keep for another time. Remembering that evening in Delhi I prepare myself for a long and hot day at Silvie’s.
We meet early in the morning with a faint breeze stirring the palm leaves. She has kept most of the ingredients ready on a miniscule counter in her tiny 4 by 6 kitchen. Silvie owns no kitchen tools to speak of. She takes a thin, well used metal pan into which she sifts the flour. She has kept coconut milk ready (or coconut cream as it is sometimes known), made from 3 coconuts, measured out in stainless steel glassfuls, to which she adds some nutmeg. Coconut milk, squeezed from grated fresh coconut infused in hot water, is very rich in saturated fats, and forms a sort of jellied stock after cooking and cooling. Coconut water is something else altogether…the liquid found in the centre of the coconut when broken, it is almost colourless and tastes a bit sweet. This water is light and refreshing especially when taken from a green coconut and contains only 57 calories and 12 gms of carbohydrates per cup. This is the soft drink of millions of Indians. Always cool, clean and hygienic it is one of the safest drinks to have. Found in most parts of India, it can be easily transported in trucks across vast distances without spoiling.
Silvie breaks two eggs into a pan and then with well scrubbed hands she breaks the remaining eggs, one by one, into a cupped palm and separates the yolk, letting the white of the egg slip through her fingers into a separate bowl. With a fork she whips the egg yolks and keeps it aside. Taking the thick coconut milk she pours it into the flour and mixes it with her fingers, leisurely turning her wrist to use her hand like a large whip, breaking up the bubbles of flour with her fingertips till it has all formed a smooth and creamy mixture. Then she adds the salt and sugar and finally the egg mixture. As she mixes Sylvie keeps talking . Through the open window behind the two burner gas cooker I see a grove of the most vivid avocado trees, with large big leaves a bright lemon green, branches weighed down with bunches of fruit almost ready to pick.
Sylvie tells me if the cake mixture does not seem smooth enough a maximum of a ¼ cup of water can be added. She takes an aluminium pot and heats it till smoking, then pours in 2 large ladlefuls of the mixture. This she cooks over a very low gas fire. She swirls the mixture around in the pan from time to time and it starts to brown on the edges and separate from the sides of the pan. As the mixture dries she takes it off the fire. It has taken about 15 minutes.
The sun is rising high in the sky when she opens the back door and walks down the few steps into her garden. She takes three bricks and forms them into a platform onto which she places a large aluminium pot. In an earthenware pot she fills fistfuls of newspaper on top of which she heaps coconut husks. And under the shade of the tall coconut palms Sylvie lights a fire in the earthenware pot. She puts the cake pan into the larger aluminium one and then tops it with the earthenware pot.
I notice now that the garden is full of coconut husks gathered untidily into a big heap under the kitchen window. The smoke curls up and becomes wisps of silver back lit by the sun’s rays. A large black pig wanders lazily by. After 15 minutes in this rustic oven the top of the cake has developed several brown spots. Then Sylvie adds a tablespoon of ghee to the top and pours in another two ladles of the cake mixture. She returns the cake tin to the oven. The second layer takes 25 minutes to brown .The process of adding the ghee and then the mixture is continued till it is finished. Depending on the size of the tin and the size of the ladle, this could be 3-5 layers.
While the cake is cooking outside we sit in the shade near the shop counter and chat with the customers who drop in. A few chairs are always placed invitingly near the door and someone invariably flops into one for a cold drink and a visit. The women are in simple dresses usually patterned with flowers. They are interested but not inquisitive about me. That is one of the nicest characteristics of the Goans. They neither stare nor laugh at the unfamiliar. Many of them, in spite of tough lives and few opportunities to earn, never try to make a quick buck off strangers, nor do they appear bowed down by sorrows. On the contrary there is a readiness to laugh and make the best of the day.
I figure it takes about 2 hours for bebinca to be made. Not the legendary eight. The myth of a hundred layers comes from the appearance which is like puff pastry in the number of layers formed from swirling the mixture around in the pan as it cooks and the story of a hundred eggs…well.I dont know where that comes from.
The caramelized taste lends itself to being teamed with a dollop of ice cream. It makes a perfect desert. And one cake will serve at least 12 people. Besides it keeps well and can be made well ahead of time. All good reasons to try making bebinca at home.
Here is Sylvie’s recipe for Bebinca adjusted for cooking in a normal oven: Preheat oven for 10 minutes at 200 degrees. Take a 7” cake pan and grease it.
- Flour-1 cup.
- Thick Coconut milk- 1 litre made from 3 fresh coconuts.
- Ground Nutmeg-1/2
- Hydrogenated fat-200 ml.
- Sugar-1/2 kg.
- Salt 1 tsp.
- ¼ cup water if required.
Take 2 whole eggs and 5 yolks and whip will thick. To the sifted flour add the coconut milk and nutmeg. Mix well. Add salt and sugar and then the eggs. Mix thoroughly. Heat the cake pan on the fire till smoking. Add 1 cup of the cake mixture and swirl around till it looks like a thick omelette . Cook over a low fire, swirling the pan frequently till cooked and fairly dry on top. Transfer to oven and let it cook slowly till browned on top. Remove from oven add a tablespoon of fat and 1 more cup of the cake mixture. Return to oven and grill till brown. Repeat this procedure till all cake mixture is finished. When it has cooled slightly, the cake will shrink from the sides of the pan. Invert slowly on to a serving dish. The top should be a nice toasted brown colour.
Bebinca should be served in thin slices. Delicious on its own, out of this world with a dollop of icecream or a dash of liqueur.