Bettina's Gera's second-floor flat in Caranzalem, a leafy suburb of Panaji, the capital of Goa, might seem an unlikely place for a cooking class. The small south Indian state is known, these days, more for its crowded beaches, pulsing nightlife, and flocks of backpackers than for the eponymous curry that adorns the menus of Indian restaurants worldwide. It took about an hour to drive from the quiet stretch of spare white beach where I was staying in north Goa down to Panaji, but it's a scenic trip: we passed kilometres of lush green rice paddies, and wound our way through little towns dotted with dilapidated old villas, corner shops housed in 200-year-old buildings, and crumbling 18th-century churches - a reminder that Goa had been a Portuguese colony, and remained so until 1961, 14 years after the rest of India became an independent nation.
As we entered Panaji, the taxi squeezed past the cows, motorbikes and rickshaws that clogged the road. When we pulled up in front of Gera's building just before noon I was hungry and close to an hour late. But my host, a small talkative woman with short wavy black hair, dressed in blue jeans and a pink T-shirt, was unfazed. We sat down for a cup of hot tea and a chat in her living room before the cooking got underway.
I had come to Gera to learn the basics of Indian cooking. From her flat, an airy three-bedroom with rust-coloured tile floors and a corner cabinet that houses her collection of bells from around the world, ("there is one from Egypt, many from Britain, even one from Barcelona," she tells me) Gera teaches cooking classes four days a week during the "season", which runs from October to March. Her classes are intimate and personal: she refuses to have more than four people at once, because she wants to keep things small, and besides, her table couldn't seat many more. But finding her is not easy - to say that she is off the beaten path is an understatement. She is not listed in guide books and her business has grown by word of mouth. These days most clients come from two boutique hotels nearby. I was staying at one of them, a secluded collection of colonial houses on a spit of quiet beach, called Elsewhere.
Owned by the Indian fashion photographer Denzil Sequeira, whose family has had the property since 1886, Elsewhere is an improbably placid escape from the crowds elsewhere in Goa, and when I asked the manager to recommend cooking classes, she put me in touch with Bettina Gera. At her flat, Gera can teach you how to make just about anything, and she will take you to the market in nearby Mapusa to shop for ingredients - in the event that you, like me, cannot identify bitter gourd, that mysterious long bumpy green vegetable, or tamarind, a staple of Indian cooking.
The market is a hectic scene - big and dusty and filled with locals hawking everything from vegetables and spices to the giant green glass bottles that the Portuguese used to transport liquor to Goa a century ago. (The empty bottle that I purchased caused much consternation at customs upon my departure a few days later.) Bettina advises me against buying anything that comes from an open bin and instead points me towards a cluttered shop that sells spices in containers and little packages of ready-made curry paste.
As our lesson began in the kitchen, small plastic bowls of moist chopped onions and bright green chilies were laid out on the counter and a clean frying pan sat on the small electric stove. Bettina had done all the prep work before we arrived, making the process seem deceptively easy. "Of course we are known for our prawn curry," she says as we get started. And that's what I'm here to learn how to make, on this unseasonably hot day in late October. It's the most popular dish for Gera's students, she says. "Mostly people want to learn to make curry or fried fish."
But, Gera continues, Goa is also known for its vindaloo and chicken cafreal, and today we'll also learn how to make the latter. She slathers the chicken in lime juice and salt and sets it aside to rest. "Everybody does it differently," she says when I tell her that I'd eaten chicken cafreal at a restaurant a few nights earlier, a dark and narrow place with a distinctly European feel that's been serving travellers in Goa for decades.
She nods and grinds up the ingredients for the chicken marinade until it becomes a fine green paste. She stops and asks me to have a good look. Then she slathers it all over the chicken and moves it to her small refrigerator. Now she turns her attention to the prawn curry. We begin with the masala - the paste that flavors the curry. She mixes together freshly grated coconut, red chilli peppers, coriander, cumin, garlic and peppercorns, pulses them in a small blender, and then pushes the resulting mash through a plastic sieve, talking all the time. She stops and tells me to smell the mixture. It is potent. She repeats the process several times until we have two cups of a liquid that looks a bit like Pepto Bismol - this is the base of the curry.
As we cook, she lays on wisdom of the sort not found in a cookery book but passed down within families. "Without tamarind your curry will be flat," Gera says as she holds up a small mixing bowl in which sticky brown tamarind pulp is dissolving in a cupful of water. She stirs the brown liquid furiously and continues to dole out advice. "You can not substitute it with anything," she says. "Turmeric is a must in all our cooking," she continues, as she adds somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon of powder the colour of sunflowers in the small bubbling pot of prawn curry. "And it is an antiseptic."
Now that the tumeric is in, she brings the curry to a boil. Then she reduces the heat to low and dumps in two big handfuls of prawns and the tamarind. "Never put a lid on it," she says as she stirs the curry. "You will ruin your prawns." She turns her attention back to the chicken cafreal which has been marinating for half an hour. She heats a few tablespoons of oil in a big frying pan and browns the chicken. Then she adds the marinade and leaves the meat cooking on the stove.
Gera makes everything look easier than it is - a trait of any experienced cook - and when I leave her house I know I will think that making a prawn curry is as easy as a salad. As we sit at her dining room table waiting for the big fragrant pot of deep red curry to cook, Gera offers us a glass of guava juice and we move back into the dining room. She explains why food in the south of India is so different from that of the rest of the country. "All our curries are coconut-based," she says, and asks whether I have noticed the coconut trees. Indeed, coconut palms are everywhere in Goa. Back at Elsewhere, we see them on the marshy ground around our little villa. "It's only southern India that is coconut-based; even when we do stir-fried vegetables we add coconut."
As we sit chatting, Gera tells us about her past. She was raised in Uganda but left when the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled the country's 50,000 Indians in 1972. She went first to the UK before eventually making her way back to her ancestral home, Goa, in the 1980s, where she worked as a travel agent. She was never trained professionally as a chef but she knows her way around the kitchen: in the 1990s, she ran a restaurant in Goa, the Soft Rock Cafe, which she said served a kind of "fusion" of Indian and western cuisines.
Though she likes to make traditional Goan food, she says "fusion" is her speciality - according to Gera, when her son's friends come for dinner on Sundays, they always want roast chicken. "Aneesh's friends like my roast chicken, which is not made the Goan way." As we sit down to eat, Gera's two small dogs, Toto and Titch, emerge looking for table scraps. She shoos them away as I reach for the prawn curry and rice.
"You should eat the Goan way," she says. "You have chicken and vegetables first, and then you have curry and rice. "Since you are in a Goan house, you should do it the traditional way." To book cooking lessons with Bettina Gera, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 0091 832 246 5264