Food has shaped our world and in return food is also shaped by our world. Given the complexities of the rich, ancient and varied Goan cuisine, food has always been a prominent marker of the Goan identity. This tiny land mass on the Indian west coast, surrounded by the Arabian Sea to the left, was ruled by various powers. And yes, East did meet the West at the dining table. All these dynasties left their legacies behind on the parts of Goa they ruled.
Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India in 1498 and the invasion and conquest of Goa in 1510 by Afonso de Albuquerque turned the Goan motherland into a centre of all Portuguese colonial activities in the Orient. The Portuguese ruled Goa from 1510 to 1961, and highly influenced the Goan lifestyle and its cuisine. After the Portuguese conquered Goa in 1510, they ruled only a small area of today’s Goa, consisting the talukas of Tiswadi (known then as Ilhas), Salcete and Bardez. These areas were the old conquests and were more influenced by the Portuguese culture, including its food. Goa’s geographical boundaries expanded when the Portuguese conquered the new conquests in the eighteenth century, thus defining the map of Goa as seen today.
One of the main reasons for Portugal to conquer Goa was its need for spices, among other factors one being to convert people to Christianity. The Portuguese left their culinary imprints on the Goan cuisine. They brought about a major change in the Goan food culture by introducing new plants, food stuff, recipes and food habits. Undoubtedly, one can say that practically every Goan dish has a culture and a history of its own. Goa having a 131 kilometre long coastline gets its main food components from the wealth of the sea. Normally in Goa, if one neighbour encounters another, the topic soon changes to food in no time. The question generally asked will be, “Nusteak kitem aslem?” which can be literally translated as ‘What was there for fish, today?’ Coconut, being another important item is also easily available. The Portuguese used these and many more components as a blend to create new dishes and innovate existing ones.
The ‘Indo-Portuguese cuisine’ came into existence because of the significant Portuguese influence on the Goan Christian food. This is a fusion of many cuisines, including from the areas which once were Portuguese settlements and trading centres.
Portuguese and other food influences brought about new ingredients, recipes and a great revolution in the Goan cuisine. The Goan cuisine is not only influenced by the ones who ruled it but also by trends which were introduced by Goans themselves from the world outside. Goan food consists of a variety of dishes and cooking techniques with a plethora of combinations. Important items like fish, veggies and meats are fried, baked, grilled, roasted or used into gravies with an abundance of flavourful spices. Goan cuisine uses a familiarly south European set of ingredients: meats and chicken, seafood and spicy sausages, besides the entire gamut of vegetables. But the end result, i.e. delicacies like the Pork Vindalho and Sorpotel, Chicken Xacuti and Cafreal, Prawn Balchao, Caldinha & Recheado, are nothing like the mellow flavours of the Mediterranean or the Iberian Peninsula!
Food brought the coloniser and the colonised closer. Intermarriages between the Goans and the Portuguese played a crucial role in the Christian Goan cuisine and culinary art. Portuguese preparations were altered to suit the local palate. The Portuguese had a good influence to build the then existing local variety of food. They brought in the ingredients and some methodology that today is appreciated by all. Due to the Portuguese influence, Goan cuisine has gone through a series of adaptations, assimilations and “Westernisations”. The political control that the Portuguese had on the state of Goa, enabled them to introduce changes easily. Very little was manufactured locally in Goa. Food especially was imported first from India and then from the then ruling country, Portugal.
As the time passed by, the Portuguese brought goods and commodities to India for their own consumption, for trade and as part of their varied culture. “The Portuguese brought their delicacies for us. Olives, and the famous Olive oil too; bacalhau (dry cod fish); canned sardines and tuna; chouriços (pickled pork); cheese; butter; wines and preserves like marmalade were brought inland by these explorers.
Many plants and roots that produced luscious fruit and vegetables that enrich our diet came from the Portuguese. Some of them include the potato, which is also an important component in the Portuguese diet; the tomato; cashew nuts, which are now exported overseas from Goa and its apple juice extracted and then fermented to make the famous drink called Feni and also caju urak which has medicinal and culinary applications; pimento (chilli); papaya; passion fruit; avocado; pumpkin; a variety of aubergine; pineapple and guava. Cilantro (coriander), has added flavour to the Goan cuisine, especially in the Hindu kitchen was also one of the foods brought by them to Goa.It makes food more aesthetic when used as a garnish.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced the port-style wine and the production of fortified wines soon spread to the other regions of India. Vinho Verde, a type of wine suits the Indian taste very well due to its characteristics of being light, fresh, young and aromatic, and pairs very well with Goan food and the climate.
The newly introduced foods changed the lifestyle of people, sometimes subtly. Many food producing plants altered the food habits of Goans, thus giving a boost to the economy. These plants become an integral part of the local flora. For example, the Jackfruit is a fruit generally served for the festival of Sao Joao, which is a festival to commemorate the birth of St. John the Baptist. The fruit and the festival both were brought into Goa by the Portuguese.
The king of all fruits i.e. the mango was brought to Goa by the Portuguese too. The names of a variety of mangoes in Goa have its roots in the Portuguese language and were adopted from surnames and the names of Christian saints and kings. Afonsa, Fernandina, Colaço, Malgessa, Malcorada, Monserrate, Secretina and Xavier, are a few famous varieties of mangoes in Goa.
Certain Goan dishes, now famous worldwide have its basic roots anchored in the Portuguese language. For example: ‘Fish Recheado’– Recheado means stuffed in Portuguese. The tangy recheado paste with a Pomfret or Mackerel tastes heavenly. Another famous dish of luscious red masala and vinegar laced pork; also coming from the Portuguese is ‘Pork Vindalho’. Vin stands for vinegar and Alho means Garlic in Portuguese.
Chicken marinated with a spicy green paste and then later cooked with vinegar and rum till the chicken turns tender, is yet another dish which is very much heard of in Goa, called Chicken Cafreal. This dish originated in the Portuguese colony and hence takes a Portuguese name. The famous dish, Sorpotel is a Portuguese inspired dish and is cooked for various occasions in almost every catholic household. It is then relished with Saana, which almost resembles an idli in appearance but makes use of toddy, commonly known as sur in Konkani, during preparation. Saana can be called the Goan Idli.
But the influence does not stop only with spices. Goa owes its rich tradition of rich breads and cakes to the Portuguese; their favoured treats often baked in the Western manner. A number of Portuguese recipes found their way into this Konkan cuisine in their original form, especially sweets.
Rulers, merchants, missionaries, Portuguese married settlers in India, exiles and slaves played various roles in introducing new food, knowledge about different food habits and in circulating a variety of recipes in the state.
One of the famous Portuguese sweet and now a delicacy of Goa is Bebinca. This delicious dessert is carefully layered to perfection. It is prepared using coconut milk, eggs, butter, and most importantly, jaggery. Each bite of this cake makes the next one seem even more exciting and one certainly cannot say no to it. Another sweet dish which also has a Portuguese origin is choneachi doce, which is appears to look like a burfi and contains jaggery, coconut and grams as its core components. One can call it the Goan burfi.
A highly diversified menu is put forth for different occasions and festivals. Feasts celebrated during the Portuguese regime and even now bring different communities together, be it Hindus, Muslims or Christians. Goa absorbed the influences, blending Portuguese techniques and dishes with local spices, thus enjoying every bit of these grand festivals.
Food habits differ between the Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and the Portuguese in Goa. Well-to-do Goan Christians followed Portuguese food etiquettes and still continue to do so. Bar and restaurants were popular among the Portuguese living in the state.
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. The dishes brought in by the Portuguese shouldn’t be forgotten by the generations to come. Therefore; written work, journals, recipes, etc. should be well preserved.
Five hundred years ago, Portugal discovered the world and now the world is returning the favour. The Portuguese and Portuguese-inspired foods are gaining more recognition globally. In India itself, the Portuguese not only influenced the Goan cuisine but it highly influenced the Bengal cuisine too.