When I discovered the origins of the word “vindaloo” in a scholarly journal several years ago, the delicious taste of vindication washed over my tongue.
For as long as I can remember, I’d been told that many of the delicacies beloved of my Catholic family from Goa and Mumbai were “Portuguese influenced”. Five hundred years of Lusitanian colonialism in the subcontinent had profoundly shaped our culinary traditions, we’d been led to believe, and the journal provided spicy corroboration of this. The vinegar-laden vindaloo, it stated, was a contraction of the Portuguese phrase vinho de alho, or garlic wine.
Suddenly, etymological evidence of the Luso-Indian culinary connection was to be found everywhere: At breakfast, we ate pao, as the Portuguese call their bread, and many of our other meals included chunks of batata, as Iberians know their potatoes. Since then, I’ve been delighted to find the dishes and flavours of home in other former Portuguese territories too, served up with the ingredients and predilections of those specific regions.
Consider, for instance, the dessert my grandmother in Bandra, Mumbai, made when the milk curdled. She would blend it with sugar and crushed cashew nuts to make rekijao. I ran into its sibling one afternoon in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre: A sign outside one food stall advertised a creamy cheese preparation called requeijao. In Macau a few years earlier, seasoned with turmeric, coconut, and chillies that could have come from a Bandra aunty’s kitchen.
All this convinced me, not unreasonably, that if I ever had the opportunity to visit Portugal, the cuisine would be immediately recognisable and instinctively appealing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. When I finally got to Portugal a few months ago, most of the main courses tasted completely unfamiliar. This, I realised, was proof that the European power had completely failed in its mission: In 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, he is said to have declared that he was seeking “Christians and spices”. The co-religionists he sought were the subjects of Prester John, a king who, Europeans believed, ruled over a vast Christian empire in the East. The spices of India were more valuable than gold, the key to building the fortunes of an ambitious European country. Da Gama was to find that Prester John was a mere myth. Though the spices helped Portugal shore up its cash reserves, India’s pepper, cinnamon and turmeric, I was to learn, had failed to make any great impact on the food eaten by his countrymen.
Not for the Portuguese the fiery bite of the chilli, the smoky taste of black cardamom, the subtle bitterness of fenugreek seeds. Though it is located in the Iberian peninsula, Portugual’s food—unlike that of Spain next door—is an expression of Atlantic restraint rather than Mediterranean exuberance. To my Indian taste buds, it was bland. Everything we ordered seemed to be a slab of meat or fish, grilled without any seasoning, accompanied by an uninspiring salad of lettuce and tomato drizzled with olive oil.
The bread seemed different too. I poked my head into several bakeries across three cities but all the loaves were crustier than the soft-topped, rectangular pao of home. Even the pork in the chouricos was unsullied by zesty condiments, unlike the turbo-charged bites of sausage from the subcontinent.
Still, eating my way through Portugal wasn’t an entirely futile endeavour. Among other things, it proved an excellent way to get an education about the country’s history and folklore. In the northern city of Porto, for instance, I tucked into a steaming bowl of tripas a moda do Porto—a stew of tripe and white beans. The dish is thought to have its origins in the battles Henry the Navigator fought in the Moroccan town of Ceuta in 1415. The generous citizens of Porto are believed to have slaughtered their livestock to keep the troops well supplied with meat, keeping only the intestines for themselves. That’s when they invented the dish that has become their city’s signature dish and acquired a new identity: residents of the commercial centre are still known as tripeiros, or tripe eaters.
In Lisbon, I queued for 25 minutes at the legendary Pasteis de Belem bakery, founded in 1837, to sample their egg custard tarts. These treats, like creme brulee in a cup, are said to have been created by monks in the richly ornamental Jernimos Monastery next door. They used egg whites to starch their robes and to clear hazy wines. The leftover yolks were used to make the pasteis de nata, which have since become popular around the Lusophone world—everywhere, it would seem, except for Portugal’s former Indian colonies.
I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I still enjoyed Portugal. Lisbon is among the most beautiful cities I’ve seen, especially in the soft light of the evening. I almost went into debt buying quirky, urban handicrafts in Porto. I spent two evenings soaking in the melancholic fado songs of Coimbra. But if I ever have the opportunity to visit the country again, my luggage will definitely include a tightly sealed dabba of “Portuguese-influenced” vindaloo.
Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “Spice Odyssey”.