Nicknamed by a friend as the “Kenyan farmer,” Joe Fernandes did grow up in Kenya, but his family is originally from the state of Goa in India. As he explained, Goa is the smallest state in India and was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s.
“We were cradle Catholics,” he said. “That started when St. Francis Xavier came to evangelize in Goa in the 1500s, so we Goans have been Catholic for over 500 years.”
Despite his family’s Goan roots, Joe Fernandes (Portuguese spelling of Fernandez) grew up in Kenya from the age of 5.
“My father first went to Zanzibar for work and later to Nairobi, Kenya, when he was joined by the rest of our family,” he said. “He was a machinist by profession, making parts for East African Airways in Nairobi. Since, as an airline employee, my father was eligible for discounted airline tickets, we were able to make several trips to Goa during my childhood.”
In Nairobi, Joe attended both primary and secondary Catholic parochial schools run by Irish priests, the Holy Ghost fathers, also known as the Spiritans. After attending college in Kenya and teaching for three years there, Joe emigrated to the United States to Washington, D.C., where one of his brothers was attending Georgetown University. He attended George Mason University in Virginia, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental biology.
“I became a biologist and later a clinical engineer at a major health system in Northern Virginia,” he said.
During those years, Joe and his wife, Sharon, and their four children were living in Northern Virginia, where they were parishioners at St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly. It was there that Joe became noted for his cooking skills that he had learned from his mom, who used a cookbook from 1917.
“When my parents retired and returned to Goa, on our visits home my mom would give my three brothers and me cooking lessons: a pinch of this, a pinch of that, a little bit here and there,” he said. “I still have her recipes and converted her pinches to teaspoons.”
Joe not only assisted in the cooking classes at St. Veronica — called “Cooking with the Saints” — he and a Goan friend gave a class on Goan cooking honoring St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa. They prepared the students to cook a typical Goan menu: Biryani (chicken, rice, potatoes and tomatoes); Goan green beans with grated coconut; vegetable samosas; and a Goan mango salad with lime juice, red pepper flakes and cilantro.
Clearly, Goan cooking is ingrained in his food memories. As Joe noted, “There is a large Goan diaspora in the Washington, D.C., metro area that annually celebrates the feast of St. Francis Xavier every December. It’s always a family event that begins with Mass, followed by a dinner of delicious Goan cuisine and dancing. My wife and I moved to Austin, Texas, five years ago to be close to two of our children and grandchildren, but those many years of celebrating this feast often bring back so many fond memories for our entire family.”
Joe also tended the organic garden at St. Veronica, used for raising vegetables to donate to the needy. Once again, he cites his mother as a gardening inspiration.
“I learned from my mom,” he said. “In Goa, she grew 15 varieties of fruit trees, plus she had her own vegetables, ducks, chickens and goats. We had fresh eggs every day and pigs provided the meat. Her coconut tree provided so many coconuts that besides having enough to cook coconut curry for rice every day, she was able to sell many of the extras to locals.”
Now retired in Austin, Joe volunteers many hours every week at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center where he is part of a team that surveys, photographs and catalogs insects and other wildlife. He and his wife attend St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church where, Joe said, “Our pastor, Father Pat, strongly encourages community through its many ministries, frequent Bible studies and doughnut Sundays. Our parish is also very fortunate to have an inviting, well-furnished café that is available to all after daily Mass.” The cafe is also large enough to host frequent potlucks to celebrate special events like feast days and holidays, with Sharon noting that Joe’s rice pilaf is always a huge hit.
At home, of course, Joe still prepares Goan food for the family.
“I cook dahl, which Sharon loves to eat with tortillas, and I often make chicken curry and rice pilaf (see recipes below),” he said. “For special occasions, I also make both meat and vegetable samosas, a longtime friends-and-family favorite. Our food is now a mix of American, a little Indian, and, of course, some Tex-Mex.”
Recipe: Mai’s Chicken Curry
Serves 4 to 5
- 3 pounds boneless chicken thighs or chicken breasts
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1-1/2 large onion, peeled and diced
- 1 green chili, cut into pieces
- 3 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 1/4 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
- 4 yellow potatoes, cut into quarters
Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with the salt and set aside for at least half an hour. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and lightly brown the chicken pieces. Remove the pieces and set aside.
Sauté the diced onion until browned. Add the chili pieces, garlic, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and cloves. Mix well and cook, stirring. Add the chopped tomato coriander and sauté. Add the potatoes and mix together well.
Add some water to the cookpot for making gravy, then add the chicken and the remaining ingredients. Cook over low heat until all the ingredients are well combined.