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Goa’s grand culinary fusion has western and eastern roots

Goa’s traditional restaurants have been part of Goa’s unique culinary fusion

Amongst all the Colonial powers that established rule in India, the earliest to arrive and the last to depart were the Portuguese in Goa. Vasco da Gama had found a new way to India independent of the Mediterranean route dominated by Arabian traders, via the horn of Africa, when he arrived in Kochi in 1498. 

 With that began a new era of imperialism and globalisation, as European seafaring countries colonised Asia, Africa and America, the last discovered by Columbus just a few years before. The large-scale transfer of human beings, plants, animals and even diseases between Europe, south America, and Africa and Asia is now known as the Columbian Exchange.

This Columbian Exchange displaced large chunks of humanity from the Asias and Africa to the Americas (where local civilisations had been decimated by the Europeans) to keep the wheels of colonialism going round. But it also resulted in a globalisation of taste, as ingredients, ideas and cooking techniques reached distant parts of the world from others.

At the beginning of the 16th century, even before the mighty Mughals were a presence in northern India, the Portuguese conquered Goa, establishing their colony or “estado da India” in the then “Govapuri” with Alfonso da Albuquerque defeating the sultan of Bijapur in 1510.

Goa became the headquarters of the Portuguese colonial presence in not just India but South East Asia (Timor, Macao), Arabia (Muscat) and Africa (Mozambique and other parts) as these were administered for various lengths of time from Goa.

With this, Goa became the entrepôt through which many ingredients that the Europeans had discovered in South America and cultivated in Africa started arriving in India, changing Indian culinary history. Chillies, pineapple, cashew nuts, sapota (cheeku) were some of the most foods that came to India via the Portuguese in Goa.

Then, there were techniques. Baking was not common in the Indian kitchen, where frying and shallow frying were preferred methods and foods cooked in ghee or oil were considered to be ritualistically pure. Leavened bread was also unknown as most wheat or other grain based rotis, pooris and papdi were fresh and unleavened.

Breadmaking with leavened dough came with the Portuguese and various kinds of “pao” (generic bread in Portuguese, but also, alternately, thought to connote “pav” or feet from Hindustani, since the dough was kneaded with feet) were invented using local palm toddy to leaven. Pao was later to find popularity in Mumbai too, a harbour given to the English as the dowry of Portuguese princess Catherine Braganza who married Charles II.

Baking, using woodfired ovens, to make cakes and puddings using egg yolks (the whites were used to starch clothes), was popularised in the newly established convents and many Goan desserts from the Bebinca to the pastel de nata were a result of Portuguese ideas and traditions adapted by Indians—these have cultural resonances all over south east Asia too, from the egg tarts of Macau to the unlayered bebinga of Indonesia, as ideas flowed between the various colonies.

By the time the Portuguese were finally forced to leave Goa—via a campaign of the Indian armed forces on Dec 17-19 1961, who defeated the Portuguese and liberated Goa and the Subcontinent finally of all colonial presence, more than 400 years after it had first established its rule on Indian soil—Goan, and Indian food had assimilated a wide number of ingredients, ideas and techniques that arrived in the Subcontinent via the west. But these were assimilated into ancient Indian cooking traditions so seamlessly that today when we look at the resulting fusion dishes, we see all the hallmarks of Indian cooking such as bold and complex spicing, the use of hyper local souring agents in gravies, and frying in fat to yield pucca khana completely transform what may have been European influences or ingredients.

Goan food, which is a vibrant mix of Saraswat Brahmin cooking, the food of the Catholic community influenced by Portuguese, and other traditions retains its oldest flavours despite 400 years of fusion, and also incorporates into its fold Western influences. The result is immediately identifiable as Subcontinental, unlike in many other culinary cultures of the world, where older practices died out or were replaced by primarily western tastes and trends.

Author, food consultant and authority on Goan food Odette Mascarenhas has in fact studied “Goan” food historically and broken it up into the foods of four communities of Goa—the Saraswats, other Konkani-speaking Hindu communities, the Muslim community from the time of the medieval Bijapur sultanate, and the Catholics, whose cooking is a confluence of local Konkani and Portuguese influences.

While some dishes of all these communities are similar, there are differences in nuances in the way each is cooked. Saraswat food can be discerned by the taste of turmeric, the use of tamarind instead of vinegar, the best quality fish and seafood cooked with bhajjis (clams with cabbage et al), and also sharper chillies. Catholic community may cook the same fish curry but a little differently, with a different chilli such as the less pungent and bright orange Kashmiri, and vinegar plus the local Konkani dried kokum as souring agents.

One year, as I sat with Odette and ate through the different historical thalis, from different periods of Goa’s culinary history, the evolution was more than apparent. You could taste the difference between the hooman, the turmeric-laced fish curry of the Saraswats soured by tamarind that has stayed intact despite 400 years of fusion, underneath the now generic “Goan fish curry” you may encounter in restaurants not just in Goa but all over India and internationally too.

That some Goan dishes such as the fish or egg curry or Xacuti (from the Saraswat Shagoti, where spices are pan-roasted) are even known globally is because of the prowess of Goan cooks, who were the first Indians to work in the European food sections of hotels such as the Taj in Mumbai and were in demand internationally too in Europe and on international cruise liners. Eventually, some of their own food seeped into the western menus they served.

One of the best examples of how Goa made global ideas and ingredients distinctly its own can be seen from a dish like the chicken cafreal, that you may taste on your Goa holiday. The cafreal is in fact an African influence on Goa — but it is very different from the grilled galinha a cafreal of Mozambique that inspired the Indian dish.

In Mozambique, as the Portuguese used local lime, chillies, and garlic along with their Mediterranean olive oil to season grilled chicken, this dish was born —cooked “in the way of cafirs” or foreigners, as the locals dubbed.

In Goa, the cafreal is a completely different entity. The green masala is essentially Konkani chutney—green coriander, mint, capsicum, green chillies, onion and a pinch of sugar — to coat the chicken, which is pan fried. Goan vinegar, made from palm toddy, is the souring agent that is added too.

Again, if you see how the Goan peri peri masala—a base for its best known fusion dishes such as sorpotel, vindaloo and used to flavour the Goan sausage, choriz—is made, you will realise how different it is from the Portuguese style peri peri sauce the rest of the world knows.

The small African birds eye chillies (called that because birds apparently played a role in the seed dispersal) called “peri peri” by the Portuguese arrived in Goa from Mozambique. The Goan peri peri masala combines these with Indian spices such as cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric as also garlic, onions and Goan vinegar.

In fact, the cult of the chilli may have arrived with the Portuguese but the way Indian cuisines adopted it has made the chilli so distinctly “Indian” that most people around the world mistakenly assume Indian cuisines as synonymous with “hot” or chilli (when what is perhaps mean is “spicy”, meaning cooked with various spices).

All sorts of chillies—native to South America, and discovered there by the Spanish—made their way to India via the Portuguese presence in Goa. As they started being cultivated in large quantities in parts of Karnataka bordering Goa and became more cheaply available than expensive black pepper from Kerala, they replaced pepper as the spice providing pungency to Indian food, which was cooked according to the principles of Ayurveda and a combination of sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent flavour profiles.

It is surprising, however, that till well into the 18th century, the use of chillies may have been restricted and even accounts by travellers such as Manucci, who worked for Dara Sukoh and Aurangzeb and stayed in Goa for a few years, do not mention the chilli at all.

In a chapter titled “On What Happened to Me in Goa” in his Storia Do Mogor, Manucci writes that Goa “is a place with a climate suited to men from forty up to old age; but it is very unhealthy for young men”!    He obviously suffered ill health—and stayed in a convent run by Italian Carmelite priests for six months,to recover.

But he writes more favourably of the fruits of Goa: “Among these is the mango, the best flavoured fruit in India. In Goa, the gentlemen are very particular about having good kinds of this fruit. They give them special names taken from the first person to have good mangoes of that kind. Thus they speak of the mangoes of Niculao Afonco, which are the largest and the best, Malaiasses mangoes, and Carreiras mangoes”.

Manucci also mentions the banana, the jackfruit and so on but never the chilli. Similarly, Mughal recipe tomes such as the Nuskah e Shahjahani, from the 18th century, also have no mention of the chilli. Black pepper along with cardamom is sprinkled on top of dishes to provide heat and fragrance at the end of cooking.

That mirch—from hari, lal, Kashmiri, Bedgi and even Shimla—became so pervasive in Indian cooking is testimony to the assimilative and inventive power of Indian imagination, culture and cooking. This winter, when you eat some spicy Goan food, there will be food for thought too.

Also Read: The monsoon magic of Chai Pakoda—did the British East India Company trigger the fusion?