Bebinca: The 'queen of desserts' that dwells in Goa's heart

Bebinca: The 'queen of desserts' that dwells in Goa's heart
Bebinca | Photo: IANS

As Goa wallows in self-inflicted identity crisis, triggered by rampant in-migration and a shrinking native population, the region's popular dessert 'bebinca' appears set to reclaim its indigenous and signature identity.

Traditionally, a 12-layered sweet cake, often referred to as the 'queen of desserts' in Goa, bebinca, last week, found its mention in Chief Minister Pramod Sawant's Budget speech, as one of the five native products, along with the mancurado mango, coconut feni, seven-ridged lady fingers and the kunbi sari, which should be accorded a GI-tag.

Though almost exclusively made in Goa and in some Goan Catholic homes in Mumbai, the origins of the dessert, which is popular with the state's sizeable Christian community, are mired in a variety of legends.

The most popular one suggests that the dessert was first prepared by a nun named Bebiana at the Convento da Santa Monica, near Old Goa.

She is believed to have baked her first batch of dessert with seven layers made of caramel, flour, coconut milk, egg yolk, sugar and spices and presented it to resident missionary priests. The seven layers of Bebiana's bebinca were symbolic of the seven hills of Lisbon, the legend goes.

Goa was a Portuguese colony for 451 years ending in 1961.

"The priests found the size of the pudding small for them all and advised the nun to increase its size to a dozen lawyers. After her death, the sweet was named bebinca. Or so the legend goes," says noted historian Fatima da Silva Gracias in her book 'Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan food'.

Experts also claim that the dessert may have undergone deviations from the original version, which in all likelihood may have been a layered cake. The bebinca uses thick, freshly squeezed coconut milk rather than the creamy milk used in cakes.

It takes several hours to bake a bebinca from scratch, right from the process of mixing ingredients to slipping it into a wood-fired oven to bake.

"Bebinca layers alternate between caramel batter and batter made of flour, coconut milk, egg yolk, vanilla nutmeg, sugar and cardamom. The more the delicate layers, the higher the price that the dessert can fetch," says Veronica Roy Fernandes, a home baker based in Revora village in North Goa, who specialises in baking bebincas.

Jacqueline Fernandes of 'Jacque's Bakes' in Merces, a Panaji suburb, has tinkered about with the traditional bebinca recipe. Her 'Ombre Bebinca' plays around with the gradient of the caramel in the dessert, but bebinca aficionados flipped a lid when she first introduced egg-less bebinca recently.

"It was a hit with people who do not eat egg or have allergies. But those who traditional bebinca were a bit outraged by the egg-less option," she said.

Both Veronica and Jacqueline believe that if the bebinca does get a GI-tag in the future, it would help standardise the process of making the dessert, while also giving it an international platform.

"In the long run, as we get more commercialised, then it would help us get ownership to the desert (through GI). We need to own it. We are the only ones who do it well," Jacqueline says.

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