First published in Food Lovers
At Home With The Braganzas
When the Food Lovers team began plotting their next foray into the home of an unsuspecting Bangalore family, several names came to mind. Of these, we all agreed that we’d most like to dine (who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?) at the home of Carlton and Gina Braganza.
Why? Well, sure, it had something to do with the fact that they serve great food at Opus, their cool Goan restaurant on Palace Cross Road. More than that, however, our rare moment of unanimous agreement was achieved primarily because the Braganzas have established a reputation for the kind of warm and gracious hospitality rarely found in today’s generation.
I’d never met Gina, but I’d heard of her (who hasn’t?). When we spoke over the phone, she warned me “not to expect too much” because she’d been “working like a dog” all week. Her strategy, she warned me, was to “pour cocktails down our throats” until we were all “too drunk to really notice the food.” Gina also offers a rather strange piece of information: they don’t own a dining table. “This is going to be interesting,” I think happily to myself.
Arriving at the Braganza home near Ulsoor lake, I find the door wide open, and no sign of our hosts. Instead, Mr. Stanley Pinto -familiar to me only through the pages of Food Lovers – is sipping a cocktail and chatting with three women I have never met before. One of them introduces herself as Marie, Gina’s mother; the others are Jean Capp, visiting from the U.S., and Mrs. Yvonne Pinto, Stanley’s wife.
Thinking I should let my hosts know I’ve arrived, I saunter towards the source of some intriguing aromas. I poke my head into the kitchen, where Gina is bustling around with three other people, putting the finishing touches to an array of dishes. I introduce myself; she doesn’t break stride as she whips a chrome cocktail shaker off the counter. “Hi, I’m Gina, and I’m mixing you an apple-flavoured cocktail,” she grins. I like her instantly.
Nosing about the kitchen, I find (in various stages of progress): tongue in a celery sauce; chicken wings marinated in angostura bitters; as-yet-uncooked Shikhampuri kebabs; and masala-smeared slices of seer fish. This is going to be one serious meal.
The kitchen itself is very neat, but everything looks well-used; Gina says she likes to be able to find things easily but can’t resist hoarding old kitchen favourites. She confesses that she “can’t throw out the old kadai and the battered saucepan.” She keeps a good stock of sauces on hand, because she feels that they provide the easiest way to rustle up a quick meal: “Marinate meat or veggies in a sauce, stick it in the oven or on a grill, grab some bread, and you’re done!”
While we wait for the rest of the Food Lovers team to arrive, Gina grabs some rusks and piles little mounds of homemade chicken liver pâté on them. She expertly tops these canapés with a couple of capers, arranges juicy, fat sausages on a platter, and fills scooped-out oranges and peppers with a creamy dip. All the while, she’s chatting with me, pouring drinks for the little group in the living room, lifting lids, and giving instructions. The woman personifies positive energy.
Which brings us to the man of the house. I had met Carlton – albeit very briefly – at a musical jam session at the home of a mutual friend. On that occasion, he was togged up in a white shirt, jeans, and a cool jacket. So I’m rather surprised when he makes his appearance wearing a singlet and a pair of very scruffy denim shorts. He greets me as if he’s known me forever, then strides purposefully towards the kitchen – only to ask Gina to fix him a cocktail.
“As you can see, our entertaining style is very casual and laid back,” laughs Gina. “Everyone pretty much does their own thing, including the guests. Carlton and I make a great team. Our roles are very clear. He entertains everyone, I get them drunk on cocktails. He doesn’t set foot in the kitchen. Together, we manage to give everyone a good time without doing too much work. He’s a natural entertainer,” she adds.
The Braganza home – or what we can see of it – is one of the few homes that manages to reflect the owners’ personalities perfectly. The living-cum-dining area comprises informal seating, a couple of beanbags, an oversized mattress against one wall, and -hold your breath – a guitar-filled, claw-footed bathtub. As promised, there’s no dining table. Quirky touches abound – a terracotta container full of musical instruments; masks on the wall; and a wrought-iron spiral staircase at the far end of the room.
Ignoring my recently injured knee, I follow Carlton up the staircase, which leads to a spacious terrace. “This is where we have our barbeques,” he tells me. The idea of Opus, he adds, began right here on this terrace. “We used to have about 30 people over every weekend. We’d sing, play music, and do the barbeque thing. Then we figured we could make a business of it,” he reveals.
For some reason, Carlton has a camera round his neck. He’s taking pictures of anything and everything, anyone and everyone. He’s also changed into a pair of very funky, loose cotton pajamas. By now, Stanley has wandered over to the keyboard-disguised-as-a-piano and is making some beautiful music. Carlton takes a couple of mood shots, then discards the camera in favour of one of the bathtub guitars. He doesn’t play it, however; just hangs it around his neck and wanders around chatting with his guests.
Someone has dragged a table into the couple’s bedroom (at the request of FoodLovers photographer Sudeep Gurtu, who has decreed that that’s where the light is best). Far from feeling uncomfortable with this, the Braganzas are happy to comply. The odd placement of the table feels somehow natural; a wide open, arched window lets in a gentle breeze and lots of light. Carlton has painstakingly stuck seashells into Plaster of Paris all along the pristine white arch that sets off the window.
Out comes the food. As someone who entertains often and enjoys excess, I have to say that Gina’s spread knocks me off my feet. I have never seen so much meat on a single table. In addition to the tongue curry, chicken wings, Shikhampuri kebabs, and fish I’d noticed earlier, there’s pork vindaloo, Goan sausage and prawn curry. The lone salad on the table looks forlorn. There’s no rice; pav and sannas complete the meal. I give in to sudden temptation and three cocktails, telling Gina with a straight face that I’m, well, a pure vegetarian. Her gasp of horror can probably be heard across the lake. “There’s some dal,” she splutters –then reaches for her cocktail and downs it in a single gulp as I tell her I’m joking.
The food is outstanding. This is one occasion where quality has not been sacrificed at the altar of quantity. Having only ever eaten it as a roast, I’m intrigued by the notion of tongue curry. “Well, I had some celery, and it looked so good that I thought I’d do a celery and pepper-based sauce,” says Gina, a self-proclaimed “impulsive cook.” Marie, her mother, claims that although Gina didn’t learn to cook from her, the family always kept an open and welcoming home. All her kids, she says, grew up in an environment where the focus was on making someone feel like part of the family rather than like a guest.
When they entertain, “it’s either a barbeque or a full spread like this one.” On a daily basis, however, the Braganzas are “pretty functional” when it comes to food. They “eat to survive,” eating lunch at home, and dining out most evenings, either at Opus or elsewhere. Gina says they “tend to gravitate towards the same restaurants because we love them,” and mentions Tai Tai as a personal favourite. Lunches are usually prepared by “The WonderMaid,” the most revered person in the Braganza household. This capable assistant also does the shopping because Gina says she “doesn’t have time any more.”
Can Carlton cook? “I can do pretty much anything I set my mind to,” he drawls immodestly as we tuck into bibinca for dessert. “I’m like a fish –I go whichever way the current takes me. Music, photography, graphic design, cooking –they all need the same basic creative skills.” As an ex-sailor, Carlton’s space is defined by the oceanic motif; paintings of fish adorn the wall, and conches and turtles in various forms are arranged artfully on the floor. Since he loves water so much, I wonder if he ever does the washing up. Gina answers, “Of course not… WonderMaid does that!”
Amen to that! And Gina -thank you for an afternoon that made us feel like we belonged in your home.