How Portuguese provisions inspired Indian cuisine

Posted By Zoe Perrett
Tags: The Spice Scribe, Zoe Perrett, Indian, Portuguese, influence, regional, Bengali, Goan, traders, history, legacy, Vasco de Gama, food, cuisine, spices, chillies, sorpotel, Catholic, Christian, religion, missionaries, xacuti, riechard, cakes, baking, vindalho, vindaloo, bread, mishti, chenna, sandesh, choris
When explorer Vasco de Gama landed up on Goa’s shores in 1498, little did the diminutive state’s Indian inhabitants know the extent to which the Portuguese would influence the local cuisine. The tradesmen who followed de Gama did not only leave an enduring edible legacy in Western India, but also in Cochin and Sri Lanka. The Bengali kitchen also benefited from new bounty when the Portuguese hit Hooghly in 1571.

While the Portuguese did indeed arrive bearing gourmet gifts, these offerings were not altogether altruistic. From the start, Vasco de Gama made no secret of his desire to ‘seek Christians and spices’ – and his quest was a success in both respects. Chilli may now be synonymous with fiery Indian food, but historically, indigenous long- and black-peppercorns provided heat. However, the new Portuguese pepper proved so popular, Europeans were soon calling it ‘Calcutta pepper’. 

Goa bakery : ( Photo credit: lavannya / Foter / CC BY-NC)

Over time, the pungent triumvirate of chilli peppers, garlic and wine that the Portuguese presented to Goa would prove to revolutionise the region’s palate, not least yielding the famous vindaloo. The similarity of the Goan classic to that incendiary dish common to every curryhouse in Britain stops with the shared name. The etymology of the moniker comes from the Portuguese words for the spicy stew’s predominant ingredients – wine (vin - commonly replaced by coconut vinegar) and garlic (alhos).

Xacuti : ( Photo credit: spo0nman / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND)

It’s about flavour as much as fire; not excessive amounts of chilli powder and a couple of chunks of potato whose presence is so often mistakenly deduced from the suffix ‘aloo’. Talking of tubers, these also have roots in the Western world, only brought to Bengal by the Portuguese in 1780. Over time, ‘shukto’, a dish which relies heavily upon the humble spud, came to serve as a classic test of a Bengali cook’s skill.

Sorpotel : ( Photo credit: Hirsute Ursus / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND)

Where classic Bengali spicing is often subtle, Goans prefer pungent, rather robust flavours, with plenty of protein, both from land and sea. As in Portugal, pork is a particular favourite – in ‘choris’ sausage and the Christian dish ‘sorpotel’; fleshed out with meat, offal and even blood. ‘Xacuti ‘, a pungent herbal preparation, is an Indianised version of the Portuguese ‘chacuti’, whilst the name for the coconut-based ‘caldin’ is derived from ‘Caldinho’ – soup or stew in Portuguese.

But the influence does not stop with spice. Goa owes its rich tradition of rich breads and cakes to the Portuguese; their favoured treats often baked in the Western manner. Bebinca, a decadent dessert comprising many thin layers of egg-based batter, is one such sweet treat – one of the ‘kuswar’ confections that grace the traditional Goan Christmas table. 

Goa bread and sannas : ( Photo credit: fredericknoronha / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA)

Of course, all the items linked to this festival are connected to the Catholic community that came from the Portuguese conversions. Stuffed turmeric leaves are a sweet celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Baked items like baath betray distinct Western influences, along with the Christmas cake that resembles the Portuguese ‘bolo de rei’. Variations on Goa’s ‘perad’ (guava cheese) are equally popular with Portuguese-speaking communities the world over.

The Portuguese used to move with the seasons, trading in Bengal during the rainy season then returning to Goa to soak up the sun. The Eastern state has a similar sweet tooth to its west coast counterpart, although Bengali relish is reserved for sweets like sandesh (‘cheese fudge’) and rasgolla (syrup-soaked cottage cheese balls) rather than egg-enriched baked treats.

Sandesh : ( Photo credit: Mayapur / Foter / CC BY-ND)

The Portuguese did not need to persuade Bengalis to savour sweets – the national appetite for sugar is ancient, and milk-based desserts documented since the 12th century.  The common curdled milk technique used in myriad local cheese-based sweets for the past two centuries is oft-attributed to the Portuguese, along with the Bengali love for Bandel Cheese, whose production persists to this day. 

The Portuguese influence on Bengal was not pure. Having gone to Goa first, many of the new introductions were delivered with a distinct Western Indian accent, or, indeed, were dishes the Portuguese purloined directly from that small state. The Portuguese also proffered Bengal bounty from travels further afield; fruity beauties like pineapple, papaya, guava, and the lychees from the Orient.

Where Goa absorbed the influences, blending Portuguese techniques and dishes with local spices, in Bengal, many of the Portuguese-provided ingredients have retained their own clear identity. Mogh cooks soon mastered Western baking methods; displayed today in Calcutta’s prolific puffs and pastries, and perhaps also in the use of white flour for ‘luchis’ (a Bengali bread).

The Portuguese preference for preserves as ‘palate cleansers’ is thought to have given rise to the serving of chutney as a penultimate course – a custom peculiar to Bengal. Where Portuguese-introduced nuts and corn are generally eaten in their own right as snacks in East India, the Western states include them as key ingredients in regional dishes – exemplified by the Goan substitution of cashews for coconut in their firewater, ‘feni’.

Many ingredients have retained their Portuguese names, the Western language leaving a legacy on the edible lexicon on both coasts; ‘choris’ for Goa’s legendary spicy sausage, ‘ananas’ for pineapple in Bengali, and ‘batata’ for potato in Marathi. The fruit Bengalis call ‘chickoo’ actually derives its name from the stretchy gum yielded by the tree’s bark – the ‘chicle’ chomped by the Aztecs as the precursor to today’s chewing gum.

Given that Bengal’s Indo-Portuguese population stood at 20,000 by 1670, it’s little wonder that the culture had such impact on the state’s cosmopolitan cuisine; merging over time with Anglo-Indian traditions. Many Bengali cookbooks feature Portuguese-Goan recipes including kuziddo (mutton curry), temperado (coconut seafood stew), vindaloo and buffado (meat with potatoes). The East Indian inclusion of mustard oil adds a further fusion flavour to these hybrid dishes. 

Rosogolla : ( Photo credit: Nupur Dasgupta / Foter / CC BY)

Much like recipes themselves, a culture’s cuisine evolves over time; fusing, adopting, assimilating, substituting, adding and subtracting. Key characteristics endure, yet each individual cook also adds their own special seasoning in order to create a unique edible legacy. When it comes to cuisine, cultural crossovers have the potential to leave a very good taste in the mouth indeed.

Zoe PerrettI’m Zoe Perrett- also trading under the alias of The Spice Scribe. I’m a food writer, eater and cook specialising in all aspects of Indian cuisine. Based just outside of London, sharing a tiny cottage with thousands of cookbooks and spice cupboards full to bursting, I’m on a perpetual quest for edible knowledge in the form of chefs, people, restaurants, products and enterprises small and large that challenges the narrow perceptions of such a vastly diverse food culture...

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