“Drink Feni, save Goa!” That’s what Hansel Vaz, a Goa local and the owner of the Cazulo Premium Feni distillery and tasting room, wants the official Goa T-shirt to say. It’s a departure from the classic smiling coconut with sunglasses, but for Vaz, it still captures the quintessential Goan spirit of staying true to one’s roots while having a really good time. Vaz has spent years trying to change the perception of the Goan liquor feni—usually made by double-fermenting cashew fruit or coconut-palm sap—from burn-your-eyelashes-off hooch to something truly enjoyable. He tells me he’s finally seeing a shift.
Goa, on India’s western coast, was a Portuguese colony from 1510 until 1961, when it became part of India. Just a few years after gaining its independence, the small state saw a new influx of Europeans land on its sandy shores as it became the last stop on the famed hippie trail, an overland journey that started in Western Europe, wound through the Middle East into Afghanistan and Pakistan, and swept down into India. By the 1980s, these same beaches were ground zero for the rise of the American DJ and musician Goa Gil and the Goa trance movement, marked by naked ravers and endless dance tracks. The subculture of the moment has changed often in the decades since independence, but Goa’s generally progressive outlook has remained a constant.
The latest chapter for India’s favorite beach destination includes much more than the world of feni. Goa is entering a new phase of self-discovery driven by locals as well as recent transplants who are tapping into the state’s free-and-easy ethos to embark on next chapters. Over the last few years, tired professionals have become the latest wave of seekers hoping to find solace in India’s sunshine state—its salty breezes and healing sea serving as antidotes to pandemic-induced career crises. They’re looking to cultivate susegad, a Goan concept that, like the Danish hygge, is more a way of life than a mere adjective and means something along the lines of “happiness through laid-back living.” These burned-out professionals are channeling the concept in the hopes of finally finding work-life balance or even taking a totally different tack, like opening a restaurant or starting a business. The result, as I learned firsthand from a recent week spent rediscovering the state, is a fresh energy in a place that has long embraced experimentation.
I arrive at Vaz’s plantation, Fazenda Cazulo, at dusk, thirsty after an hour-and-a-half drive from Goa’s capital, Panaji, to the southern part of the state, where Vaz has opened the world’s only feni cellar and tasting room. Here he offers intimate, immersive experiences that typically start with a foraging trek through his lush ancestral property—fragrant, biodiverse grounds where he introduces visitors to the plants behind the most familiar Indian tastes. Later, guests can use their new knowledge to build their own cocktails in a DIY mixology session. A jolly Vaz greets me and promptly blows my mind with his vast knowledge of Goa’s culinary history as he leads me through the plantation to gather ingredients. There’s nutmeg, fennel, and bay leaf, but also regional surprises like cherries, air potatoes, and the mouth-puckeringly sour bilimbi, or cucumber tree. Naturally I have to try the “floating feni” experience, in which I join a small group at a table set up in the shallows of a palm-shaded pond and feast on traditional Goan goodies like prawn patties and steamed rice cakes while sipping cashew and coconut feni. “Increasingly, we find guests reaching out to us, asking to see a side of Goa they haven’t seen before,” explains Vaz. “These are not the kind of tourists the state used to see. They’re people who really do their research, chat with us on Instagram, and truly want to go beyond the beach-and-bar experience so synonymous with Goa.” The experience is over-the-top in the best way, and Vaz’s work is done: I leave, a feni believer.
Back in Panaji, over pillowy pastéis de nata, a Portuguese egg custard sprinkled with cinnamon, Ralph Prazeres explains how Goa is literally eating out of his hands. Prazeres, a Goan local who returned home after international success, launched the bakery Padaria Prazeres last year with his wife, Stacy Gracias, in a market that takes its daily bread—from crunchy pão to lightweight poee—very seriously. While Prazeres worked at Michelin-starred restaurants across the globe, including Noma, Gracias honed her finance chops at some of the biggest banks in the world. During my visit to their cheery café, I see them smile at regulars, graciously accepting compliments for their breads and pastries. I ask for their recommendations, and they rattle off a list of new spots that weren’t already on my list.
“There’s definitely a lot happening in Goa right now,” says Gracias. “There’s been such a wave of people that have relocated here, as well as an influx of tourists from within India and elsewhere, that business owners here are placing big bets.” Parth Timbadia, the owner of Goa’s buzzy restaurants Mahé and Roboto Goa, echoes this sentiment when he tells me that the state is coming into its own as a food-and-drink destination. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Because of the new crowds that Goa has attracted over the past two years, more businesses catering to them are launching. This, in turn, leads to better vendors and suppliers—it’s a win-win-win.”