Written by Amruta Jejurikar
March 14, 2017
Is it Po-tay-to or Po-tah-to, why debate it when the correct answer is in fact, “batata”? The Portuguese rulers may have been a lot of things, but the world must thank them for bringing Potatoes every which way they went.
In 2016, we happened to visit 3 new countries – Brazil, Sri Lanka and Maldives – and incidentally, the Portuguese at some point or other ruled all 3 of them. We also managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Goa, India, amidst all the chaos, and it was divine as always. I guess “go where the Portuguese went” was our [accidental] motto that I am just about realizing! Among all the regions the Portuguese ruled, you definitely see the similarity in the architecture, the décor, use of stained glass and wood…
…the humidity, warm weather and proximity to large bodies of water…
…but most of all, its in their key food ingredients! And as people who hold food above everything else, that’s what we’ll sink our teeth into! Honestly speaking, give or take a few details (outfits of the fisherman, for instance), these pictures could be from any one of the 4 countries. No prizes for guessing that these pictures are from India’s beautiful and picturesque western coast!
While many different rulers and conquerors have ruled the countries mentioned above (including India), Brazil is peculiar in the sense that it is a completely Portuguese speaking country. Trying to speak [my very broken] Spanish there was a lot like trying to speak something other than Marathi in Pune – people mostly just ignore you. When we were visiting Brazil last year, I saw this packet of chips at one of the restaurants in São Paulo airport.
I was amused to see the word “batata” on that bag of chips outside of India (or Maharashtra, for that matter), and I chalked it up to completely ridiculous reasons including but not limited to: proximity to India, carb cravings, my affinity for potatoes, and travel fatigue, but moved on without thinking about it too much. Figuring I just needed something to wake me up, I started looking at the beverage menu, to find that tea is called “chá” in Brazil, and bread is called “pão”! “Whoa, just like in India” I exclaimed, thinking this was too much of a coincidence and wondering if, and how, they got all these words from India, only to be set straight by my dear then-future mother-in-law, that it was India who got the words from the Portuguese language.
We went on to find many such words and were amazed at how little we knew about the foods we grew up eating in India and how they got there. It’s like Michael Franti says in one of his best songs to date (“Say Hey”):
Seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know.
Travel has that humbling effect on us, and most of the times, its comforting to know that there is still a lot that we don’t know. Take the samosa for instance – a baked or fried pastry snack with a spicy meat and/or vegetable filling, sometimes including nuts. We had beef samosas in Brazil called “pastéis” in the local Brazilian (Portuguese-speaking) restaurants, but called “empanadas” in the Columbian (or rather Spanish-speaking) cafes, which are sold as “chamuças” (pronounced “cha-moo-sa”) in Goa and other Portuguese colonies. The humble potato is called “batata” in Brazil just like it is in Maharashtra and Goa, and so is the pineapple: “ananas”. “papai” (Papaya), “kaju” (Cashews), the list goes on and on.
It takes a lot of hard work to get those buttery, creamy cashews into your snack bowl, or to become Feni (cashew liquor):
Probably the most common, simple, homely “potato curry” made all over India, owes almost all its main ingredients to the Portuguese: potatoes, tomatoes and chilli! The divine “sabudana khichadi” we conveniently (and somewhat ironically) eat under the name of “fasting” owes its key ingredient to the starchy tuber “Cassava”, which the Portuguese brought to India (and of course, the potatoes that go in the khichadi too).
But nobody goes to Goa to eat potatoes! Well, unless the potatoes are fried with some delicious sausages, in which case it is just the place to go. A common snack in Goa which is very much Portuguese in its origin, is the “Chouriço Pão”, which translates to “Chorizo sausage and Pao”, or Goan Sausage bread. This snack or light meal manages to bring together all the best things the Goans have inherited from the Portuguese: Chorizo [spicy pork sausage], Green Chilli Peppers, Pao [buns] and occasionally, Potatoes. I am not proud of how excited the prospect of trapping the delicious Chorizo drippings in between two slices of bread makes me, so lets just say that the thought of writing about it made me want to eat it (the hardship is real, folks!) and so I made it!
Unfortunately I don’t live in Goa, so I couldn’t get the authentic Goan spicy pork chorizo sausage. But fortunately, I have access to the mother ship that brought said sausage to Goa – its slightly less exciting Portuguese cousin: Hot Linguica!
“See? ‘Silva’ even sounds Goan” is what I said to my husband who was just excited to be allowed to eat any red meat at all. I’m not sure if there’s one authentic “Chouriço Pão” recipe, so this is just my riff on it – the simpler version that you can eat an hour from now if you have Chorizo in the fridge and Pão on the counter. You can read the detailed version of it on my blog, but just to give you a hint, it looks like this when it is just about done:
Pile high on a soft, fresh Pao with a squeeze of lemon, and you are good to go:
There are many more such dishes, which have come to Goa and become Goan by way of the Portuguese, such as the “Prawn Rissoles”, which is kind of like a crescent-shaped, seafood Samosa. It is totally weird to think about sweetened, shredded coconut right now, but it kind of looks like a savory “Karanji”! It can be viewed as the miniature, hand-pie version of its more dressed up and formal older sibling, “Apa de Camaro”, or Prawn Pie, which is a much more elaborate affair. Both have a similar prawn filling: a basic Bechamel sauce (flour cooked in butter, then steamed milk) with some melty cheese coats the prawns before they go into either versions. Of course, the variations of the fillings are as many in number as the population of Goa.
Another meal that is common to Goa and other Portuguese-ruled regions is the “Feijoada”: a hearty bean and meat stew, which in the Brazilian version, comprises of lean, cheap cuts of meat stewed for hours for large, elaborate family meals, served with rice and sautéed greens. The Goan version, colloquially referred to as “Feijoa”, is slightly more refined, and made with Red Kidney beans (“Rajma”) instead of the pinto beans used in South American countries, and spicy pork sausage. I assume it would be delicious with some fresh Pão, or white rice, with a squeeze of lemon!
So many other “Goan” dishes that are popular even outside Goa now, have deep Portuguese roots. One such dish whose name has been maimed and butchered is the “Pork Vindaloo”. Most people think of this as some kind of Pork and Potato stew, but it actually came from a Portuguese recipe titled “Carne de Vinha d’Alhos”, which means Red meat (usually Pork) cooked with Wine (“Vinha”) and Garlic (“Alhos”). When adapting to the traditional Goan ways, the wine was replaced by vinegar, and of course, spicy red chilies were added to bump up the spice levels. “Alhos” started being rounded down to “Aloos” and the humble potato made its way into this rich, vibrant stew as well, becoming one of the mandatory ingredients. And as far as I’ve heard, no one has complained!
The famous Goan staple “Prawns Balchão”, a tangy, spicy pickled version of Prawns (typically; it could also be made with fish or pork) in a chili-tomato base, is also in the same category, in that it originated in Macao, another Portuguese colony (where is referred to as “Balichão”). Imagine topping a steaming bowl of white rice with some ghee and this pickle! Sometimes, this pickle is also used to fill a Prawn Pie (“Apa de Camaro” described above). To “pickle” the prawns, some kind of sharp acidic element needs to be used, and this is the part that varies from province to province. For e.g. in Goan cooking, Coconut Toddy Vinegar is used, whereas elsewhere Malt or Cane or basic distilled vinegar can be used. It just depends on what kind of flavor combination is desired in the final dish. Another factor that determines the intensity of the vinegar is the protein used in the dish i.e. prawns, fish or pork. Heavier meats such as pork can withstand, and even require an intense acidic component to break it down, which with seafood can make it fall apart into a crumbly mess.
Probably the most well known Goan dish of all though is the “Xacuti Chicken”, which owes its recipe to the Portuguese dish “Chacuti de Galinha” (fowl in the Chacuti sauce), which in the Goan version consists of toasted poppy seeds, grated coconut and red chilies. The Xacuti preparation is also made with lamb and prawns sometimes.
Every cuisine has its signature “Grilled Chicken” and in case of Goan cuisine, that would be “Cafreal Chicken”, its Portuguese name being “Cafreal Galinha”, which originated from a dish named Frango Piri-Piri (“Frango” means “chicken” in Portuguese and Piri-Piri is typically a chili pepper based dry rub/spice mix). In this, Chicken thighs are marinated overnight in a brightly flavored paste of Coriander/Cilantro leaves, ginger, garlic, lime juice and a spice mix, and then the tender meat is grilled to perfection.
In the dessert department, you could eat “Arroz Doce” (or Sweet Rice Pudding aka Kheer aka Payasam) in any Portuguese-ruled province, and Goa is no different. The Rice Pudding/Porridge is sweetened with sugar and in almost all cases, has the warmth of Cinnamon, which is typically used as a garnish. Use of lemon juice and lemon peel is also common.
This list above is delicious and mouth watering (I’m going to plan a Goan lunch as soon as I’m done writing this!), but in no way exhaustive. As with any country or province in India that takes pride in its cuisine, I’m sure some of the recipes or outlines may be inaccurate – I bet there’s a Goan grandma somewhere who wouldn’t touch a lemon with a ten-foot pole while making Arroz Doce for her grandkids, but that won’t stop me from trying the intriguing combination of cinnamon and lemon peel! And that’s just the beauty of it.
Like it or not, thousands of years of wars, expeditions and conquests have directly dictated who should eat what in the world, if you really think about it. Luckily for some of us, we are able to access many of the original ingredients and recipes wherever we are and create the original (and sometimes, our version of the original) recipe and enjoy it just the same. Food is, in my opinion, the very best way to remember a place and recreate its memories. The next time you are in Goa snacking on “Chouriço Pão”, or washing down some “Cafreal Chicken” with some chilled Kingfisher beer, just remember that there maybe someone in some other Portuguese-esque land, doing the exact same thing, just a few time zones behind you! I hope this makes you want to hop on the next flight to Goa. As for me, I’ll get back to my research and sample some Prawns. [Bal]chão until then!
Article & photographs by our Resident Blogger and a Food & Travel enthusiast Amruta Jejurikar who also has her own food blog ‘one pie at a time’