Can you remember the first time you bit into a raw chili? The first taste, both sweet and sharp, as the juices burst onto your tongue, then a slow, warming prickle spreading through your mouth, threatening to burn you, creeping down your throat, hovering on the edge of pain, before drifting away, leaving a gentle numbness and confused exhilaration?
For many of us, that startling, addictive chili heat is synonymous with Indian food, but until the 16th century, no Indian cook had ever added chili to their pot. India is now the largest consumer and exporter of chilies in the world, but until the Portuguese rampaged through the southern state of Goa in the early 16th century, black peppercorns were the Indian cook’s only source of spicy heat.
When the Italian Christopher Columbus sailed west from Europe in 1492, he was in pursuit of pepper. Black pepper had been exported around the world from southern India for centuries—by the 12th century the Chinese were probably its biggest consumers outside India—and it had been used in cooking since at least 2000 BC.
Despite a laborious journey to Venice or Genoa via the Arabian Sea and Africa, pepper had become one of the most important spices in the European kitchen. The price of pepper in Europe was largely down to Arab traders and had recently rocketed; Columbus believed that by sailing west he could find a direct sea route to China, the Pacific Spice Islands and India. For the rest of his life, he refused to believe the islands he explored in the Bahamas and the Caribbean were not part of Asia.
Columbus’ mistake was not just down to geographic arrogance. The islanders he met grew and ate aji, a hot, spicy capsicum that, because it was similarly fiery, made him think it was a kind of pepper (despite looking quite different to the pepper berries found on the piper nigrum vine). His botanical-etymological muddle lives on when we call a capsicum a ‘chili pepper’. The word ‘chilli’ was stolen from Nahuatl, an Aztec language—chilies have been used in Central America for more than 6,000 years.
Spice and the Portuguese
While Columbus was nibbling aji, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, was also trying to find a sea route to China, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and sailing on toward India. By 1510, the Portuguese had established themselves in Goa and for the rest of the century they dominated the global spice trade while building a colonial empire that stretched across Brazil, Africa and China. Goa remained under Portuguese control until 1961.
Goa was accustomed to disruption, having been ruled by four different dynasties in the previous two centuries, but the arrival of the Portuguese was felt by almost everyone. The capital, now known as Velha Goa, was not just home to a flood of Portuguese Catholics but also Tamils, Gujaratis, Syrians, Chinese, Jews, Moors, Persians, Armenians and Africans.
Many local Goan Hindus and Muslims converted to Catholicism through marriage, choice or in a pragmatic attempt to improve or maintain their status with their new colonial masters. Others fled the district, especially once the brutal Portuguese Inquisition started in 1560, determined to rout out apostate Catholic converts of any nationality and punish anyone caught performing banned Hindu or Muslim rituals. Sixteen-thousand Goans were tried over its two-century campaign.
As Lizzie Collingham explains in her compelling book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, changing the religious life of Goa fundamentally changed its cuisine. Catholic converts were encouraged to eat both beef and pork, unlike their Hindu and Muslim neighbors. The blending of Portuguese techniques with local ingredients and new arrivals like the chili created a unique Goan Christian culinary language, which still happily coexists alongside the pescatarian-vegetarian Hindu majority. (Visitors can get quite a surprise when, walking the alleys of a Goan street market, they come across a stall loaded down with hundreds of strings of pungent, glossy, dried chourico pork sausages.)
The Portuguese had followed Columbus west, and returned to Goa with chilies from their territory in Brazil—which quickly overtook pepper in popularity—as well as tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples and cashews, now Goan staple foods. The colonists missed the wine vinegar used so widely in their home cooking, and taught their Goan cooks to make it from coconut toddy and palm wine, adding tamarind to replicate the tang of grapes.
Vindaloo is probably the best-known result of all these culinary exchanges. As Indian food writer Madhur Jaffrey points out in several of her books on curry, this super-hot Anglo-Indian curry-house favorite was originally a Portuguese dish: carne de vinha d’alhos, or meat with garlic and vinegar. Goan cooks used pork or beef and then added dried red chilies (in the Oxford Companion to Food, food historian Alan Davidson notes that they were used for color, not heat), tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom and pepper. British imperialists later helped vindaloo become a worldwide export, although the version currently favored in the UK is more about overwhelming chili heat than subtle spicing.
A key ingredient in sorpotel, a rich, meaty celebratory Goan pork stew, is pigs’ blood, which may explain why it doesn’t have quite the same global appeal as vindaloo. In his 2006 essay, No Blood in the Snake Oil, Mumbai-based food writer Antoine Lewis explains that the dish started out as a pork, sausage and blood stew called sarrabulho made in Minho, northern Portugal. It crossed the Atlantic with Portuguese invaders and landed in Brazil, where African slaves added offal, chili, onion and tomato, and changed its name to sarapatel.
No one knows whether the recipe sailed in from Brazil, or was developed in Goa from the Portuguese version. There is no definitive Goan recipe for sorpotel, although it usually contains cumin, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, pepper and cloves and is rarely made with tomato. Some modern-day cooks leave out most or all of the pigs’ offal, using only liver and pork meat, while others add feni, a coconut or cashew liquor. Like vindaloo, it contains chilies and a lot of vinegar, which acts as a preservative as well as adding sourness.
The Portuguese didn’t just introduce their own dishes to Goa; they also collected foods from their other colonial possessions. Balchão is something Goan expatriates often say they miss most from home. Halfway between a pickle and a curry, it’s a wonderfully mouth-puckering mixture of tomato, onion, vinegar, chili and spices, usually made with either prawns or pork. Once cooked, balchão can last for several weeks. It is thought to come from Macau, a part of coastal China once under Portuguese control, although it may also be related to the family of Southeast Asian shrimp-and-chili pastes with names like blacan, balachan and belacan.
The next time your mouth fills with a chili’s heat, remember the long threads that stretch back through history and across the globe, the way its inimitable flavor has changed communities, economies and cultures, thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart.
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