When the mail came, my wife and I may as well have been reading two different cards. She saw an invitation to a wedding in Goa, India; what I read was: "Please join us for four days of feasting on some of South Asia's most unique cuisine."
Nestled along a 63-mile stretch of the narrow Malabar Coast, by the Arabian Sea, Goa has long been culturally disparate from much of India. While Britain was the region's dominant power for centuries, Goa remained a last bastion of Portuguese colonialism until 1961 (14 years after the rest of India gained independence). More than half a century later, Goan culture and cuisine still combines South India with staples brought by Portuguese ships from Africa and Brazil.
Perhaps no item better symbolizes this union than the cashew. Introduced to India by way of Goa hundreds of years ago, cashew trees thrived on the region's red loamy soil and warm climate. Today, the juice of cashew apples is fermented to make the region's marquee spirit: feni. The clear liquor's strong, nutty flavor and piquant aroma makes it an unmistakable mainstay at many Goan parties. "At traditional Goan events, feni is on the bottom of every drink, even water," one of the bride's relatives told me.
Thankfully, that tradition wasn't followed at this wedding. If it had been, we might not have survived. The events were long leisurely affairs that followed the Goan custom of susegad, a Portuguese-influenced motto that's used to describe Goa's particular brand of laid-back attitude.
The festivities kicked off with the mehndi celebration, during which the bride, bridesmaids, and other women involved in the wedding are traditionally given elaborate henna tattoos, which fade away after a week or two. In this case, the women spent hours the night before getting henna'd, so that during the mehndi celebration they could dance, catch up with relatives, and dine on a family-style spread of classic Indian dishes, including pulao (similar to rice pilaf, but spicier), boondi raita (tender gram flour balls seeped in yogurt), and aloo gobi ki sabzi (a blazing hot cauliflower and potato stir fry).
It was a solid feast, but it only hinted at the marathon of eats awaiting us. The next night's event, the sangeet, was the kind of party that puts American weddings to shame. At the sangeet, women wear colorful, flowing saris bedecked in jewels, and men wear ornately patterned kurtas. Friends and relatives come prepared with elaborate dance numbers to perform for the bride and groom. Shortly after my wife and more than a dozen bridesmaids and groomsmen performed an 18-minute-long Bollywood-style dance skit, my own personal performance began.
One by one, I ate my way through 20 food options. The bride and groom, themselves food enthusiasts, had settled on an array of stands designed to give the ambitious eater a one-night tour of Indian cuisine, ranging from Goa and Maharashtra—where the groom's family is from—to a stand dedicated to Mumbai street food.
When Maharashtra's chicken kolhapuri (a thick, bold curry) set my mouth ablaze, I doused the fire with pani poori (a paper-thin pastry ball, filled with sweet water) from Mumbai. A South Indian dosa (rice batter crepe) was followed by an artfully folded paan (like a homemade breath mint, made of candied fruit and betel leaf). It was the kind of meal that might warrant a day's respite, but just past midnight, as the party was winding down, we were already setting our alarms for the next event.
The sangeet was a parade of food. The baraat, which began at 8 a.m., was a real parade. From atop a horse, the groom watched over a procession that included a small marching band and dozens of dreary-eyed yet enthusiastic guests, dancing their way toward the wedding ceremony. By lunch, the bride and groom were officially married, and a spread of traditional temple food was waiting.
Hindu temple food is eaten during religious ceremonies and varies from region to region, but there are certain common rules: the food is vegetarian, the ingredients are bathed before cooking, and there's usually no onion, garlic, or mushrooms. The dishes—including usal (beans with rice) and potato bhaji (curried potato)—were hearty and strongly flavored nonetheless.
A few hours later we were at the reception, the event that most resembled its American counterpart. More dancing, more great food—for this event, a something-for-everyone selection that included pasta and Manchurian chicken, a popular Indo-Chinese dish. As the DJ blended American and Indian pop, we drank tamarind martinis and fresh lime soda, a local favorite.
By the fourth afternoon, the late nights and endless feasts were beginning to catch up to us. Whiling away the hours with a few Kingfishers (India's beer of choice), we steeled ourselves for the finale, an intimate event during which the bride's family welcomes the newly married couple home for the first time. If the other meals were designed with the knowledge that Americans with weak palates would be among the guests, this was the event for true Goans. The state's seafood specialties—prawn and kingfish (a species of mackerel, but not to be confused with America's king mackerel)—were draped in a tongue-melting blanket of spices.
Had I eaten these dishes a week earlier, I might not have been able to get past the fiery burn to appreciate the distinct Goan flavors. But as I hiccuped from the heat of the peppery seafood, I noted how the kingfish marinade infused the thin fillets with chili and turmeric before a quick deep-fry sealed them in. And I marveled at how the prawn curry and stewed vegetable kadai seemed to adopt the terracotta hues of the serving pots, which were likely formed from the same red soil that was so inviting to the cashews upon their arrival centuries ago.
Then again, maybe I just had one too many servings of feni.