Food Files: How Portuguese maritime endeavours post-1498 resulted in a culinary sea change for India

With previously unknown produce — such as pineapples, guavas, cashew nuts, chillies, tomatoes and potatoes — from the “New World” making its way to the shores of the “Old World”, “host” cuisines found themselves adapting new techniques to incorporate foreign fruit into their existing diets

Jehan Nizar April 27, 2021 09:55:41 IST
Food Files: How Portuguese maritime endeavours post-1498 resulted in a culinary sea change for India

Guava cheese. Image via Shutterstock/ Surabhi Surendra

This is the second in a three-part Indian food history series that delves into time-tested culinary techniques and single-ingredient origins and showcases how some of these practices have been reflected across states and communities.

Each installation of this series will focus on a specific flavour profile; part 2 is a continuation of 'sweet'. Read part 1 here.

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“Quinces are a very strange fruit and aren’t good to eat unless they’re cooked. There are several Portuguese and Spanish references to them, and a long tradition of making them into a thick paste that is dried. When guavas were discovered in the ‘New World’, they were given the same treatment.”

Food writer Vikram Doctor is outlining the “notorious” process of making the Goan Christmas favourite guava cheese, which calls for patient stirring and often results in “burned arms” owing to the bubbles that form and splatter upon thickening. In doing so, he touches upon the possibility of a very likely link between the Goan specialty and Portuguese quince cheese.

The arrival of European traders by sea and the Mughal conquerors by lands are two events that are considered to have had a singular bearing on India’s positioning in a global context. The fact that the Portuguese, classified as an “aspiring thalassocracy in the Indian Ocean” by historian and academic Michael N Pearson, and the Mughals, who Pearson refers to as “a classic tributary empire”, arrived within only about three decades of each other is an often overlooked fact.

In the monumental Historical Atlas of South Asia, Joseph E Schwartzberg narrows the focus of this momentous timeline down to the years 1498 and 1526, which “brought to the stage of South Asian history, two events of profound significance”. While the former year marked Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s arrival on the shores of Calicut in the South Indian state of Kerala, after a sea voyage round the southern tip of Africa, the latter witnessed the implantation of Mughal rule in Delhi. Together, Schwartzberg dubs these events, “precursors of the modern age”.

Aside from being evaluated from a strictly trade standpoint, Portuguese endeavours such as the opening up of new sea lanes from the Cape of Good Hope to West Africa and Europe, marked a turning point in India’s existing culinary topography. Previously unknown produce — such as pineapples, cashew nuts, chillies, tomatoes and potatoes —  from North and South America or the “New World”, found its way to the shores of Europe and Asia or the “Old World” and made tentative inroads into “host” cuisines. These were integrated by virtue of acquired techniques (case in point: quince cheese) or given a new lease of life in keeping with local preferences and requirements. In The Illustrated Foods of India, food historian KT Achaya also touches upon the “wave of immigrant fruits”, such as the papaya and sapota, that came in after AD 1500 from South and Central America.

If the Mughal-inspired affinity for melons, apples, pears, grapes and all manner of dried fruit was seen to enrich Indian cuisine in the plains, the Portuguese and the produce they brandished, as a consequence of the Colombian Exchange, resulted in a distinctive string of regional and coastal offshoots and derivatives. Their nautical expeditions overseas didn’t see them returning home empty-handed either, and one of the most noteworthy food takeaways for the Portuguese was the mango or “maanga” — the Malayalam name by which they continued to refer to it.

Variety, however, is something that the Portuguese had to be credited for. Instead of resting on the laurels of existing Mughal cultivars, they experimented with grafting, resulting in some of today’s much-loved varieties. The Jesuit priests began dabbling with mango grafting in Goa in 1575, and the fruit of their labour was evident with cultivars including the Peres, Rebello, Antonia and Fernandina. Although several of these have fallen off the map, the Alphonso, named after the Portuguese general who helped establish the stronghold of Portuguese colonies in India, has become a worldwide household name. Other areas such as Karwar and Ratnagiri, which were within the Portuguese area of control, were also subjected to experiments in grafting.

It is no secret that the western coast of India continues to be famed for its mango cultivation. This has resulted in the strong presence of unusual mango-based confections and preservatives for communities such as the Kokani Muslims, who inhabit the Konkan stretch of coast from north Palghar and Thane to Mumbai, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, according to Mumbai-based Saher Khanzada, founder of The Bombay Glutton blog.

Food Files How Portuguese maritime endeavours post1498 resulted in a culinary sea change for India

(L) Amboshi and (R) Aambya cho Khaar. Photos © Saher Khanzada, founder — The Bombay Glutton Blog*

“At the end of the day,” says Khanzada, “we are people of the coast where mangoes abound.” She refers to the “Hapoos” (the name by which the Alphonso goes by in “local parlance”) and says that apart from these, which are the most renowned variety endemic to the region, there are two lesser-known cultivars — the Raivali (used to an extent for pickling) and the Pairi, a table mango that, “can only be sucked and not cut”.

Preservation techniques, for the Kokani Muslims, enlist the use of raw mangoes, which are sun dried with salt and go on to make amboshi, a key souring agent that is used throughout the year. Khanzada reiterates that while some people make this preparation using raw mango pieces, “the actual stuff is made from the core of the mango, which is salted and sun dried till it turns black and can go on to be used till the next summer”.

While on the topic of dried mangoes enjoying their time in the spotlight, Khanzada makes mention of aambya cho khaar, and time travels while outlining a technique from the “olden days”, when raw mangoes would be roasted on embers until they had “nicely softened” and acquired a smoky flavour. While still hot, the mango would be mashed with jaggery and a little water to thin the consistency. Salt and crushed green chillies were also added to lend an exciting flavour dimension.

Khanzada states that kokum is the second most important fruit from the perspective of flavouring for the community.  Sun drying is once again the treatment of preference meted out to extract maximum virtues. She touches upon a loose recipe, for a cooling kokum-based syrup drink, which she warns changes from “household to household”, with methods ranging from allowing the juice to leach while spending a few days out in the sun to sun drying with sugar, “until it melts and fruit juice leaches out”, to directly boiling the fruit.

When talking of the fruit-based techniques of preservation that the Portuguese brought with them, and which continue to linger in various iterations across the country, one need only scratch the surface of the guava cheese mentioned by Vikram Doctor. Commonly referred to as perada by the Goans, it can also be regarded as a forerunner of regional versions of the popular aam papad or mango leather. Binding Goa to other former Portuguese outposts across the world, perada is a throwback to the colonial times in Brazil where guavas were used to make goiabada — a conserve of red guavas and sugar traditionally cooked in cauldrons over a low fire — as a substitute for the original marmelada or quince cheese.

Aam papad, which goes by a multitude of regional names such as amba vadi in Marathi, mamidi tandra in Telegu and maanga thera in Malayalam, is perhaps the country’s most beloved fruit leather featuring mangoes and can also be considered an offshoot on the guava cheese technique. Mango pulp is slathered on to trays and kept out to dry in the sun. As soon as the first layer is dried, subsequent layers are spread on top and left to dry and the process is ongoing until a preferred thickness is attained.

Simply put, a fruit leather, according to Chennai-based Chef Koushik S, is “anything with a high pectin content, concentrated with lots of sugar and then put out to dry”. The texture, according to him, can vary from being “soft and gummy to thick, leathery or crisp”, and is fully dependent on the moisture content of the fruit used. He also touches upon how the south of India makes the concept its own with hyperlocal, seasonal fruit offerings such as the elantha pazham or Indian jujube.

For Tirunelveli-based cookbook author Hazeena Seyad, the elantha pazham is synonymous with the elantha vadai, a candied treat that is helped along by the sun and, “made in Tamil Nadu’s Kongu region, in places such as Coimbatore, Salem, Kangeyam and Karur”. As with most preserved fruit preparations, the process cannot be hurried along and Seyad describes how, “each fruit is pricked with a needle and left overnight in salted water to ensure it is free of worms”. The fruit is then wiped and dried in the sun for 10-15 minutes to remove any moisture.

Food Files How Portuguese maritime endeavours post1498 resulted in a culinary sea change for India

Unset Elantha Vadai. Photos © Hazeena Seyad

The next step calls for the fruit to be pounded and this is traditionally done by placing the jujubes into the hollow circular pit of a stone ural and smashing it with a long, wooden olakka. Tamarind, jaggery, salt, dried red chillies and asafoetida are added and the mixture is crushed continuously until the seeds disappear and it becomes “a gooey mess”. While modern advancements have made allowances for the mixture to be eaten at this stage and subsequently refrigerated, Seyad reminisces about the ways of old, where the mix is laid on a white cloth, patted into vadais or circles and sun dried for three to four days, until it becomes really dry.

On questioning Khanzada as to whether traditions such as sun drying still have a place in the Kokani kitchen today, she is objective. “A lot of these practices are going extinct and urbanisation doesn’t support the creation of certain condiments and ingredients. You have only to think about the feasibility of sun drying in a metropolitan city like Mumbai as opposed to ancestral villages.”

As with most fierce custodians of heritage cuisines, Khanzada urges people to, “understand where these ingredients and one’s cuisine came from and why the raw mango, an integral part of the region’s flora, has a place in our cuisine”. She is, at the same time, just as pragmatic about the fact that, “each cuisine will evolve along with the prevalent practices”, gently reminding us that the eventual integration is likely to be as gradual as the legacies that have been imbibed from the mid-15th century onwards as a result of European maritime explorations.

Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in national and international publications such as The Wire, The Wire Science, Firstpost, Verve Magazine, Whetstone Magazine, PEN America, The Spruce Eats and Gulf News. She formerly wrote a weekly food column for Asiaville.

— Images © Saher Khanzada by special arrangement, for one-time editorial use.

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