When is a vegetable not a vegetable but a fruit? When it is a tomato, of course! This luscious red member of the poisonous nightshade family is an important ingredient in food all over the world. In India too it is an essential ingredient in so many preparations — rasam, savoury curries, sambar, chutney — you name a region and it will have a use for the tomato in its food.
This begs the question: what would Indian cuisine be if the Portuguese didn’t bring us tomatoes? The ubiquitous berry that we so take for granted came to us with the western Europeans, who also brought us potatoes, chilli peppers, refined sugar, cashew, cocoa and vinegar to name a few. They came to India looking for spices, which they found aplenty, and in turn left us a gastronomic legacy that endures till date.
Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese enjoyed dominance in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean and an important share of the trade east of the Strait of Malacca. The high point in this mercantile empire was India with its wealth of cloth, luxury goods and spices. Vasco Da Gama had found his way to India in 1498, and six years later began the Portuguese rule in India which continued in some part, till they finally left Goa, their capital in the East, in 1961.
They established important trading posts in the Indian sub-continent, including Kozhikode, Cochin, Goa, Sri Lanka and Bengal. Their main culinary legacy was the fruit and vegetables brought from the western hemisphere — Africa, the Philippines, China and south east Asia — which were rapidly and thoroughly integrated into local cuisines.
Another was the creation of Goan and Konkani cuisine, which combined Portuguese techniques and dishes with Indian spices.
Core ingredients like potatoes, tomatoes, chilli peppers, cashews, cocoa, corn and capsicum travelled the length and breadth of the country and were adapted according to regional tastes. The new dishes that emerged had no similarities to each other, save one or two ingredients and the case remains to the day. For example, aloo parantha, aloo poshto, sambar, potato stew are as diverse as can be but are joined together by the tuber the Portuguese brought.
Two dishes of note that are the crowning glory of the cuisine are vindaloo and xacuti, which are traditionally cooked with pork and chicken or lamb respectively. The name ‘vindaloo’ is derived from the Portuguese dish, Carne de Vinha d’Alhos, a pork casserole seasoned with alhos (garlic) and vinho (wine).
The wine acted as a preservative that allowed the stew to be eaten over several days. Over time the dish evolved — vinegar replaced the wine, and bright red Kashmiri chillies were added to give the dish its distinctive red hue. The vindaloo is one of the most successful culinary exports from India to the western world. However, outside of India the dish is mistaken to be an extremely hot curry, which it really is not.
On the other hand xacuti is more well-known in the western and south western states of India. It is a paste that involves complex spicing, including white poppy seeds, sliced/grated coconut and large dried red chilies. This when paired with a suitable meat makes for a delicious curry.
I would be amiss if I do not add one other major contribution of Portugal to Indian food — yeast. Thanks to them we can now bake our own breads, including appams. They also gave us the word ‘pav’, the Portuguese word for bread — the other half of the yummy pav bhaji, which I will now proceed to cook for my lunch. Out comes the kadhai or wok and in go finely chopped vegetables. If you are wondering why am I telling you all this, it is because in there lies the answer to last week’s riddle. The cooking vessel I was talking about is a wok, a cooking legacy India and China share. Now I am off to cook my lunch, and will see you in a week’s time when we complete the series on world influences on Indian food.