MAPUSA: Madalena Saldanha wheeling her laden trolley to her roadside gaddo is a well-loved sight amongst foodies in Duler, Mapusa. Her snack cart, ‘Maggie’s food on wheels’, is one of the most popular eateries in the area, best known for its crispy chicken cutlet-bread, and the plump chef’s welcoming grin and jolly demeanour. However, very few of her regulars are aware of her inspiring back-story story of tragedy, and resilience.
Born into a family of six siblings in Anjuna, Madalena faced her fair share of challenges from an early age. Her father toiled as a cook in Bombay, struggling to provide for the family with too many mouths to feed. Despite the odds stacked against her, Madalena was the sole family member to pursue education, making it up to the eighth standard.
Madalena’s mother was a 'randpeen mai', a skilled cook who would be called to prepare food for special occasions. Madalena accompanied her mother from her early teens, helping her prepare elaborate Goan feasts for birthdays, wedding events, baptism and housewarming parties and even funeral gatherings. “My ancestors had deep roots in farming, so when there was no cooking to be done, we toiled in the fields, caring for cattle and tending to crop,” she recollects.
After her marriage in Duler, Mapusa her life took an unfortunate turn when her husband, a taximan, met with a road accident. “The car was completely wrecked, and my husband was severely injured. He never really recovered and has been housebound and close to bedridden since then,” she says. With two young boys to look after and limited options on her plate, Madalena found work as a domestic help, travelling between houses in Caranzalem, Nerul, and Mapusa, earning a meagre Rs 75 a day. Balancing the responsibilities of motherhood and being a wife became increasingly challenging.
“I realised I could not pay much attention to my children and my husband also needed care. I decided to stop commuting for work, and put my cooking skills to use,” says Madalena.
Madalena ventured into selling snacks outside a local school, where her older son would assist her. Their menu included delectable items like chops, croquettes, and cutlets. “The famished school children would eagerly buy my snacks, and in less than an hour, all my food would be gone. However, the earnings were modest at best as I could not make large quantities, and could not price the snacks too high, considering my customer base,” she explains.
Fate intervened when a compassionate teacher recognised Madalena’s culinary prowess and asked her to cater for a birthday party with 75 guests. Soon after, another teacher requested catering for a 21st birthday bash attended by a whopping 300 people. Initially unsure of how to handle such large orders and maximize her profits, Madalena embarked on a journey of learning the intricacies of catering. “I was willing to cook anything on order, even Portuguese dishes that I did not know how to prepare. My older son would look up the recipe, and
together, we would manage to make a tasty meal,” she recalls with a wistful smile.
Tragedy struck when her elder son, who had harboured dreams of pursuing a career in hotel management, was killed in a road accident. He was only in the ninth standard. Devastated, and having lost her biggest ally, Madalena realised she had to muster her strength and carry on with her catering business.
As time marched on, Madalena’s health began to falter, particularly her knees. She transitioned to cooking food on a made-to-order basis, though she could only manage pickup orders. Nevertheless, she persisted in preparing beef and chicken dishes with a focus on quality that became her hallmark, and soon began receiving snack orders from hotels, bakeries and restaurants, who were looking for a supply of authentic Goan food. She also prepares hand ground Goan masalas, to be used as the base for Xacuti, vindalho, xec-xec and fish curry.
“I spend my mornings preparing and sending out my snack orders, with my younger son’s help, and my afternoons prepping for my food cart business,” she says. Around 6 pm, Madalena wheels out her trolley brimming with her delectable snack foods and walks to her food cart. It’s no surprise that by 8 pm, her entire stock is usually sold out.