It is variedly called the Queen of Goan desserts, or the Emperor of Goan confection. It is a treasured food souvenir. It is a dish that showcases Goa’s multi-cultural culinary history. And recently, bebinca got a Geographical Indication (GI) tag from the Geographical Indications Registry in Chennai.
Bebinca is a layered cake/pudding made with flour, coconut milk, and egg yolks. There is ghee for moistness, palm jaggery for colour, and salt and nutmeg for flavouring. It is baked one layer at a time. It joins a list of other GI tagged Goan food products like mancurad mango, cashew feni, Khola chilli, Harmal chilli, Moira banana, and khaje.
Bebinca is truly Goan and has a fascinating, if highly contentious, history. Legends are enfolded in its layers.
The GI story
The All Goa Baker’s & Confectioners Association applied for GI status for bebinca in 2021 where they called it an ‘authentic Goan delicacy that completes the menu of any traditional [Catholic] celebration in Goa’….and a distinctive dessert ‘truly unique to Goa’. They hoped that there will be standardisation of the sweet, the making process, and ingredients, and benchmarks for its quality.
Goa has two main bakers’ associations that are responsible for upholding this newfound GI status. Bakers have to register with the All Goa Baker’s & Confectioners Association or with the All Goa Association of Bakers (AGAB) to get the GI stamp on their bebinca.
At a time when Goa’s old bakeries are closing down, this GI status could help bring the spotlight on these bakers. “It will help in maintaining quality and price and ensure that cheap quality stuff isn’t sold. Anything gets sold as bebinca these days,” says Agapito Menezes, president of AGAB. “Now manufacturers who want the GI tags on their products have to register with us, so customers know the stuff is genuine.” In his words, a genuine quality bebinca should use local eggs and coconut.
Livelyn Manuel has been taking orders for bebinca since the pandemic. She believes the GI tag would be beneficial because “there will be more interest from people who have not heard about it or tried it”.
It is widely believed that this sweet was an innovation by Sister Bebiana, a nun from the Convento da Santa Monica, a cloistered Augustinian convent in the old city of Goa, back in the 17th Century. In my trusted food bible, the Cozinha de Goa by Fatima da Silva Gracias, I learnt that many Goan sweets, called doces conventuais (confectionaries from the convents), were heavy on eggs because of these nuns. They would starch their clothes with the egg whites and started making these sweets as a way to utilise the leftover yolk.
Sister Bebiana created a seven-layered cake — seven to symbolise the seven hills of Goa and Lisbon. She used coconut milk to replace the more expensive almonds. This cake found its way to the nearby missionary-priests, who found the size too small. So, it gained 12 and even 16 layers. The sweet came to be called bebinca after its founder. Bebinca could have also come from the colonies — for example, the Philippines has a coconut-rice cake called bibingka.
Earlier, baking a bebinca took over half a day, as people did it layer by layer on tizals, makeshift earthenware utensils. Back then, recipes called for 40 eggs, which were beaten by hand, and had 16-20 layers. Before the appearance of the OTG (oven toaster grill), these tizals were used as ovens — heated using coconut husks and shells and sand.
Interestingly, bebinca has many different variants, made with sweet potatoes, milk, potatoes, and only with egg whites.
Only in Goa
Over the years, bebinca has occupied pride of place in Goan Catholic homes, particularly for weddings and parties. It is still served at for Church feasts, family celebrations and most certainly at Christmas.
At Manuel’s home, bebinca is part of every celebration but the first time she made it it “was a mess; from oven to bin”. Her uncle, Maurice Braganza, used to take orders for bebinca and agreed to teach her on the condition that she would keep the recipe within the family. Now Manuel makes anywhere between 8-12 layers, spending at least eight hours on it. “Bebinca is one of my favourite sweets. You enjoy it more when you know the hard work that goes into it,” she says. “It is a dish that is made with love and served with pride.”
Yet, bebinca remains one of the most hotly debated sweets in Goa. People either love it or dislike it, with passion. Purists will say the more layers, the better. Opinions will differ on the best way to have it — with ice cream, toasted in the oven or on a pan. Some take a bite out of the whole slice, while some will eat it layer by layer. Interestingly, the GI application request notes ‘bebinca can be eaten at any time of the day. It can be eaten by putting in chapatti and one can have it for breakfast, with ice cream or alone as a dessert.’
The most unanimous fact about this sweet is that the best ones are found, not in a package, but at a neighbourhood aunty’s home. Villages may have more than one, and every family has their favourite ‘bebinca aunty’. In Cansaulim, I am told, there are two aunties that vie for this title. Luckily, they both make a bebinca that is different — one is round, the other square.
There is good bebinca to be found in Goa. Soon, it will come stamped with a GI label.