TGIFOOD

COLONISATION CUISINE

Throwback Thursday: The fascinating history of vindaloo

Throwback Thursday: The fascinating history of vindaloo
Tony Jackman’s Goan pork vindaloo, a product of colonisation. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Vindaloo, or vindalho? Is it Indian, or is it British? Or did it have its roots in neither of those countries, but in Portugal? Or perhaps Madeira? And was it even a curry at all to begin with?

What is a vindaloo or what should it be? The truth, as so often happens in life, is somewhere in between. Vindaloo, both in Goa and in Britain, is a hot curry. But vinha d’alhos, the dish from which vindaloo derived, is a Portuguese staple that travelled from Portugal to Goa and on to England. Which means that the Cape of Good Hope, in a passing sort of way, played a small role in that story.

I have my Chicago-based friend Chris Pretorius, who pens an occasional piece for these pages, to thank for inspiring me to explore this fascinating piece of colonial food history. Chris and I chat via WhatsApp daily, often about what we are cooking on our different continents. A few days ago he was cooking pork vindaloo and I thought… pork? He kindly enlightened me, and then I went on a deep dive down a series of rabbit holes. At one point I came up for air somewhere near Lisbon, later on found myself on a beach in Goa, and at one rather scary stage I gasped for very cold English air outside a nasty High Street Indian joint somewhere near Portsmouth where the “vindaloo” was nothing that an Indian from actual India would recognise. I dove straight back down that hole.

When people move around the globe, their cuisines travel with them. In the compartments and holds of the great ships that lumbered across oceans in earlier centuries in search of wealth, exotic ingredients and conquest of people who did not invite them over, there were beloved foods preserved in salt or vinegar or wine, or all of them, even with garlic and chillies.

Strange how today we think of chillies as a very Indian ingredient, as well as being associated with many other cuisines, but it was the Portuguese who introduced the chilli to India during their occupation of what was known as the State of India or Portuguese India, which lasted until the latter half of the 20th century. Portugal’s colonial rule of Goa outlived that of the British Raj by more than 100 years. Within all of that, a dish that had been a staple in Portugal, to which it had travelled from its satellite island of Madeira, morphed over time to what today we call vindaloo.

Barrels held the future of vindaloo

In the holds of those ships, Vasco da Gama and his crew would have had the whiff of red wine and garlic in their noses from below decks blend with the salty sea air, from wooden barrels in which were layers of pork and garlic, with everything flooded with red wine as their chief preservative. Those barrels held the future of pork vindaloo.

Carne de vinha d’alhos was to evolve, by the addition of some of the spices that the Portuguese had gone in search of and found in Goa, into the pork curry that remains a staple of Goan cuisine and one of its best known dishes. And that, in turn, when knowledge of the dish was taken back to England by returning colonials and sailors, morphed into the “vindaloo” that is still on every British high street Indian menu. The name of the dish had over time been adapted to vindaloo. Vinha d’alhos = vindaloo.

But, with all that slow change over many years, the British version of the dish lost much of its charm and simply came to be understood to be an extremely hot curry. So your “vindaloo” on a British high street menu will often be chicken, or beef, sometimes lamb, and yes, sometimes pork. You do of course get superior versions in England but your run-of-the-mill “high street Indian” is probably not the best place to look for it.

Wikipedia explains the Portuguese original, Carne de vinha d’alhos, as follows: “A standard element of Goan cuisine derived from the Portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos (literally “meat in garlic marinade”), a vindaloo is a dish of meat (usually pork) marinated in vinegar and garlic. The basic structure of the Portuguese dish was the Portuguese sailor’s “preserved” raw ingredients, packed in wooden barrels of alternate layers of pork and garlic, and soaked in red wine. This was adapted by the local Goan cooks with the substitution of palm vinegar for the red wine, and the addition of spices. It evolved into the localised and easy-to-pronounce dish ‘vindaloo’.”

Tamarind was common before tomatoes

I read many recipes during all that browsing, and Chris also shared his recipe with me, which he had formulated after much research. The result, with tweaks of my own, is the following recipe. One of its key ingredients is tamarind which was common to many Indian curries before the tomato was introduced by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century although it was much later that it became the core part of many Indian regional cuisines that it is today. And there’s no tomato in my recipe at all, hence the brown rather than red hue.

Which could mean that the South African Indian community may not have brought the use of tomato in curries with them, which in turn would mean that tomatoes were incorporated later in colonial Natal. My research wasn’t very helpful in resolving this so I would appreciate any input from that community which could enhance our and my knowledge about this.

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

For the paste:

6 tbsp white wine vinegar

4 red chillies, chopped

8 cloves garlic, bashed in the husk, removed, and finely chopped

3 cm fresh ginger, minced or grated

1 tsp cumin seeds

To cook the curry:

1 kg lean pork, cubed

4 Tbsp cooking oil

1 tsp poppy seeds 

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

1 large white onion, chopped

1 heaped Tbsp tamarind paste

Pinch of ground cloves

2 tsp ground turmeric

1 heaped Tbsp palm (or brown) sugar 

Water to cover

Salt to taste

Method

Pour the vinegar into a bowl.

In a mortar, pound the chillies, garlic, ginger, and cumin seeds to a paste. Stir this into the vinegar.

Add the cubed pork to this and marinate, refrigerated, for three hours or more. Bring to room temperature an hour before cooking.

In a deep pot, heat cooking oil and add the poppy seeds, mustard seeds, black peppercorns and cinnamon stick and cook on a very low heat for 2 minutes while stirring now and then.

Add the chopped onion and cook at a simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring.

Add the marinated pork meat and all its marinade and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or so.

Add a pinch of cloves, the tamarind paste, turmeric and brown sugar. Add water to cover, and salt to taste.

Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook gently, uncovered, until the pork is tender and the liquid has thickened by reduction. Serve with rice, garnished with chopped coriander. DM/TGIFood

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on a platter by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.

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