The journey of Goan food


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BOTH eastern and western culture parleyed for a long period of time in Goa, the headquarters of the Estado da India Portuguesa. This encounter impacted on people’s lifestyles and brought about a dietary revolution. People of all three communities in Goa – Hindus, Christians and Muslims – have contributed to local food, with influences from the outside world more evident among the Christian community than the other two.

Vasco da Gama’s journey to India in 1498 led to significant changes in the culinary art of many nations. There was transfer of products, circulation of recipes and food habits from the New World (the Americas), Europe, places en route as well as from areas under Portuguese control or places where they had settlements like in Africa and Asia. The Portuguese acted as facilitators in this exchange with their political control over some areas around the world enabling them to introduce changes more easily. Historian M.N. Pearson argues that Portugal played the role of a conveyer belt to the major markets in northern and central Europe.

The Portuguese brought goods to Goa for their own consumption, trade or as a part of their culture. From the routes discovered and used by the Portuguese came a host of plants/roots producing luscious fruits and vegetables never seen or heard of before such as potato, tomato, pumpkin, aubergine, cashew nut, pimento (chilli), papaya, passion fruit, pineapple and guava to enrich our diet. From Mozambique in Africa, among other things, was introduced a recipe on how to prepare Galinha Piri-piri (Chicken Piri-piri). Fruits, vegetables and herbs like cilantro (coriander) from across the seas added flavour to Goan, especially Hindu, cuisine as also made the food more aesthetic when used as a garnish.



From Goa, fruit bearing plants such as mangoes, coconuts and spices made their way to places as far as Brazil via rulers, traders, missionaries and, in more recent times, Goan migrants. These products enriched the culinary art and economy of various regions.

After da Gama’s journey to India, European markets were flooded with spices which not only added flavour and gave an exotic taste to food and wines but also helped preserve meat at a time when refrigeration was unknown. Spices were also used in making perfumes and in the materia medica.

Initially people reacted diversely to the introduction of new food products. Since a section of the population considered some fruits polluting and fleshy, these were not consumed for a long time and even when finally accepted, not included in the ‘food for Gods’. The use of other products depended on the cost, taste at particular points of time or even what was in vogue in culinary art. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1510, the food habits of a majority of the people in Goa were more or less uniform, although there were some influences from earlier rulers.



During the Portuguese period (1510-1961) many traditional habits were discarded, new ones added and recipes circulated and modified to suit the needs of the rulers and the ruled or the availability of certain ingredients. Many new food products and customs percolated into Goan society. Among these was the use of potato by people of all communities in making savouries such as samosas, batawadas, potato baji as well as in meat and fish recipes.

The new food products brought to India changed the lifestyle of the people, sometimes in a subtle way. Many of the food producing plants became an integral part of the local flora, altering the economy and food habits of the people. Few realize, for instance, that chillies which are widely used in Goan and Indian cuisine were a stranger to our continent until the Portuguese introduced them from the Americas. Chillies, particularly the dried red variety, are used widely to add pungency, flavour, texture, marinate meats and fish and to make the world famous Goan humon – prawn/fish curry and other curries. They are also used in tempero (a paste of spices, chillies, garlic, turmeric ground with vinegar) popularly known among Goans as recheio/recheio-masala to stuff fish or to make the famous Goan pork sorpatel (sarapatel), prawn/ fish or pork balchão, while the green variety is used to make chutneys, pickles, give pungency and taste to vegetables, meats and fish. Without the zing of chillies, our curries, gravy, pickles and savouries would have less flavour, colour and spice.

Rulers, merchants, missionaries, Portuguese women in India, exiles, slaves and others, all played different roles in introducing various types of food, knowledge of food habits and for circulating recipes. It has often been pointed out that the nuns of the Convento da Santa Monica in the old city of Goa were responsible for introducing Portuguese recipes and for creating the Indo-Portuguese recipes – particularly sweets like dedos da dama, petas de freiras (similar to the French sweet, pets de none), pasteis de natas, pasteis de Santa Clara. These conventual sweets are still served as dessert in some Goan Christian homes on festive occasions. Some of the Indo-Portuguese recipes created by them are a blend of Portuguese and Goan recipes or Portuguese recipes adjusted to meet the needs of the time and availability of ingredients. In addition to sweets, the Portuguese brought to Goa their guisados, caldei-radas and assados prepared with fish and meats.



Not all food products, plants and dietary habits were easily assimilated. Consequently, various methods were devised to introduce new food habits, products and recipes – regulations, treaties, force and instructions issued by the Portuguese government, Church and its agency, the Inquisition. The non-eating of pork, for instance, was at one time an offence punishable by the Inquisition. New food habits were also introduced through interaction, miscegenation, marriages, religion and migration. At times new food habits became popular because they were part of Christian cuisine or had been brought in by the rulers.

Afonso de Albuquerque, the conqueror of Goa, was responsible for initiating Politica dos Casamentos (mixed marriage policy) between Portuguese men and local women in Portuguese India. This policy of mixed marriages must have surely influenced the food habits of the mixed race. Similarly, the commercial treaty (Anglo-Portuguese Treaty) of 1878 with British India brought new elements into the diet. Prior to this treaty a majority of the people had never heard of coffee, tea and sugar. As these items became more easily available they formed an integral part of the diet of the upper classes at breakfast, after meals and as a mid-afternoon beverage.

The Portuguese used regulations to introduce new food habits or to stop those that persisted even after a section of population converted to Christianity. Conversion forced the Goan Christians to give up some food habits, adapt new dietary habits or ingredients and introduce radical changes in food processing. For example, in 1736, the Holy Inquisition issued a decree banning Christians from cooking rice without salt. Both this and chewing pan (leaf and betel nut) were considered as habits of the gentios (non-Christians). Evidently the Portuguese feared that the continuation of such pre-Christian practices among the new converts might weaken their religious hold over Christians. The Portuguese also used food habits based on religion to distinguish between Hindus and Christians and again, between upper and lower class Christians.



The rulers introduced the practice of eating meats – beef and pork – among the converts. These were mainly consumed by upper class Christians. In the early 19th century, Cottineau de Klougen, during his visit to Goa, noted that the poor did not eat meat more than three or four times a year, a luxury which they could not afford on a daily basis. However, on festive occasions such as Christmas, Easter, weddings or feast of a village patron saint large numbers of Christians irrespective of their social and economic status, would consume meat, particularly pork.

Pork became the centre piece of Goan Christian cuisine on festive occasions in Old Conquest territories – Bardes, Salcete, Ilhas (also known as Tiswadi). No meal would be complete without pork meat with at least a sarapatel or a vindalho and particularly, among the upper strata, a roast pigling and pork balchão. However, some pre-conversion practices prevented many Christians in the New Conquest from consuming meat, particularly beef and pork. Instead, they occasionally consumed poultry and mutton, which incidentally is also eaten by non-Christians in Goa.



A durable change, first introduced by the Portuguese to Goa was oven-baked bread that a boy from Padeiro (baker) still delivers every morning. Padeiros (Poder in Konkani) have always been from the Christian community, a majority hailing from the Old Conquests, mainly from Salcete. Pão (bread) known as pau in Konkani, though not a staple food has now become popular with all communities. To begin with, pão was a part of Christian upper class diet eaten for breakfast, with mid-afternoon tea and to accompany meat, fish or vegetable dish during main meals.

The Portuguese introduced sura (palm toddy) instead of the yeast in the process of fermentation in Goa, particularly in the making of wheat bread. Sura was also used to make vinegar introduced in the Goan Christian cuisine by the Portuguese for adding flavour, provide a sour taste and as a preservative in meat, fish, vegetable and pickle recipes. Hindus and Muslims in Goa do not use vinegar in their cuisine. As result of the new habits in their gastronomy, Christians in some cases had to give up or modify their pre-conversion dietary habits.

Religion and customs also forced Goans to rename some of their recipes or add different ingredients. Goans, particularly the Hindus, did not easily accept all the products brought to India. For instance, the Hindus, due to religious beliefs and at times superstition, resisted the use of certain types of vegetables and other food products in their cuisine. They avoided the great Mediterranean trilogy of bread, meat and wine for a long time. Pão was not consumed both because it contained sura and probably because a majority of bakers were Christians and it was a European product. Today, however, people of all communities consume bread, though some Hindus abstain on religious occasions.



In the early period the Hindus of Goa did not eat tomato. Even today most Goan Hindu families do not cook tomato, aubergine, radish and papaya on festive religious occasions when they prepare ‘food for the Gods’ since these vegetables are from ‘across the seas’ and considered polluting. Tomato, a fleshy red fruit is associated with blood, considered polluting. Circumstances forced the Hindu in Goa to eat tomatoes in the early decades of the 20th century. Apparently, during an epidemic of typhoid, patients were prescribed cod liver oil. Because of its unpleasant taste, physicians advised them to mix it with tomato juice. Subsequently, Hindus started using tomato in their food.

In certain parts of the New Conquest territories of Goa (territories that came under Portuguese rule only in the 18th century) tomato was not used until the second half of the 20th century. In these areas tomato was neither easily available not did many know its use. Today, tomato is an integral part of the Hindu diet although not used when the food is prepared as part of ritual offering to the Gods. Kotkotem, a dish made out of several vegetables, pulses and coconut is a favourite dish among the Goan Hindus. Nevertheless, on ritual occasions Kotkotem has to be prepared without tomato, aubergine and other vegetables produced from imported plants.



Meat became a regular part of Christian cuisine after conversion. However, there was sanction on eating meat during certain periods among Christians in Goa – viz. Lent – and instead people were encouraged to eat fish. Fortunately, being a coastal area, fish was easily available and cheap. At other times religion was used to introduce some food practices or to end others as in the case of boiling rice with salt. These food habits based on religion were then used by the Portuguese to create new distinctions between Hindus and Christians, or Christians of different classes. For instance, Christians use vinegar to give a sour taste to meat and fish preparations while non-Christians in Goa use sour lime or tamarind pulp for the same purpose.

Religion also influenced the introduction of wine since it enjoyed religious sanction due to its association with Christianity. Considered the blood of Christ, it played an important role in the liturgy. Furthermore, it was believed that wine, if drunk moderately, gave strength to the body. The consumption of wine was not approved by religion and customs of the Hindus and Muslims.

Christmas confectionary of the Goan Christians that forms a part of ‘consuada’ (confectionaries sent to relatives and neighbours) draws on many cultures – Portuguese, Hindu, Arabic, Malaysian and Brazilian. The Hindu ‘cookery of the Gods’ has its influence on Christmas confectionary in the form of neureos, kalkal, and shankarpalis.



Food and recipes were not always introduced in their original form, and instead modified according to availability of ingredients, climatic conditions and local tastes. Often, the Portuguese carried ingredients from their country. As long as these lasted, recipes were prepared in their original version but once they ran out, local substitutes were introduced. For instance, almonds or walnuts in Portuguese recipes were often replaced by cashew nuts or coconut. Almonds were not easily available in Goa and prohibitively expensive. From Arabia via Portugal came the marzipan. Apparently, when the Arabs ruled the Iberian peninsula they brought marzipan made out of almond paste (and sugar) to Portugal. Galinha (Frango) Piri-piri a grilled bush dish from Mozambique underwent changes when brought to Goa. It came to be known as Galinha Cafreal (chicken cafreal) and was no longer grilled but fried.

Sometimes recipes were modified to suit the palate of the people or add flavour, as in the case of sarabulho, vindalho, cabidela and feijoada made of pork. Sarabulho in its original form consisted of pork meat, liver, ears, tail and limbs. Only a few spices were added to the cooking. Goan Christians discarded the ears, tail, limbs, added tempero paste and called it sorpotel (sarapatel). It is a popular dish in the Goan Christian cuisine on festive occasions and even today many in the Goan diaspora prepare it. The famous Goan sausages are a modified version of Portuguese chouriço. Bebinca, the queen of Goan Christian dessert on festive occasions, is a modified version of bebingka made in Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

At other times, the original name was retained but new ingredients added or substituted. In Goa, flour was often substituted by semolina, cashew nuts were used in place of dry fruits and jaggery replaced sugar in preparation of a variety of sweets. This way new recipes were created or adopted giving rise to a new Indo-Portuguese cuisine. At times, local names were changed when a section of inhabitants converted to Christianity even though the ingredients and method of cooking remained the same. This was probably the case with black Dodol – a kind of halwa (sweet) prepared with rice flour, black jaggery and coconut juice on festive occasions by Christians in Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Goan Christians prepare Dodol or Kali Dodol (as known in Sri Lanka) with black jaggery of coconut palm. The sweet is no different from various halwas prepared by Hindus in Goa, the only difference being the colour of the jaggery and change of name. The Hindus call it Alvo and use a lighter colour jaggery made of sugarcane.



Goans prepare different foods for different occasions – daily consumption, festive (religious and non-religious) occasions, food for the gods, rituals, ancestors, and according to the season. Food for daily consumption consists of rice, curry, fish/vegetables and pickles depending on the economic status. Goans are basically non-vegetarian. Fish is an important item of their diet. But Hindus, unlike their Christian counterparts, are usually vegetarian and do not consume fish and meat (chicken and mutton) during religious festivals. Rice is eaten in different forms. Rice for meals is boiled in water and drained. Hindus cook it without salt. A canjee is also made of rice. In the past canjee was cooked in a container called modki and was popular as breakfast or as a light meal when ill. Rice flour is also used to make a variety of roasted breads. Curry is made of coconut juice or by grinding coconut shavings to a fine paste with chillies, garlic, turmeric, dry coriander and tamarind.

Hindus cook their food in copper, aluminium or stainless steel vessels while the Christians (in colonial times) used fired clay vessels. Today, aluminium and stainless steel vessels are common to people of all communities as they are easily available and durable and firewood has been replaced by gas as a cooking fuel. ‘Food for the Gods’ meant for religious occasions, particularly among the upper classes, is cooked in special vessels that are kept apart.



According to prevalent custom in the Hindu community food for daily consumption has to be cooked by the housewife and other women of the family, though Christians of upper and middle classes often employ a cook. Today, with many women working outside their homes, these customs have undergone change.

Goans are very hospitable and lavishly spend on food during festive occasions such as birth, naming ceremonies, birthdays, thread ceremony, first holy communion, engagement ceremonies (exchange of rings), pre-marriage rituals such as tel/ross ceremony and Bikrem jevon (Bhuim jevon), marriages, religious festivals, village feasts and anniversaries. This lavish expenditure impelled the government in colonial times to issue orders banning such customs. For example, the birth of a child was celebrated for a week. Among Hindus food was also cooked for the dead on the 12th day or death anniversary. Christians also observed a month long death anniversary when special food was served.

On festive occasions like Ganesh Chaturthi, Guddi Padva and Diwali, special food is prepared for the gods. At least a month before Ganesh Chaturthi, which takes place at the end of the monsoon season and before harvest, women prepare sweets. For Diwali, the housewife cooks five kinds of puffed rice in addition to other food. These dishes are first offered to God on a banana leaf.



During pre-wedding rituals people of all communities prepare a wide range of dishes. Christians offer Bikrem jevon (food for the poor) also known as Bhuim jevon (food eaten sitting on the floor) in honour of their ancestors. The poor of the village, relatives, neighbours, close friends or members of the community living in the same village are all invited for this non-vegetarian lunch. Today, most people do not follow this custom; instead they send food to a home for the poor or aged.

Since a variety and large quantity of food is prepared on festive occasions, the common practice in all communities is to hire cooks from the same community if not the same caste. Cooks who specialize in cooking for festive occasions are hired from the village or from neighbouring areas. Relatives and neighbours lend a helping hand.

Just before marriage, an ojem – a basket containing foodstuff, mainly sweets, fruits and among Christians some bolos (a kind of cakes) made of rice flour and jaggery – is sent to the groom’s house for distribution among neighbours and relatives. Hindus (parents or brothers) send ojems to the married daughter’s house throughout her life at the time of important festivals such as Ganesh Chaturti and Diwali.

A majority of people of all communities sit on the floor to eat their meals. Upper class Hindus also sat on the floor, although many of them might have owned a dining table. This custom is still followed in upper class Hindu families during religious festivals such as Ganesh festival and the 12th day ceremony for the dead. Earlier, the upper and middle class Hindus squatted on paths – low wooden platforms – and ate food served on brass/steel/aluminium thalis/taths or in a disposable plate (patraval) of banana leaf or jackfruit leaves joined together with sticks from palm leaves/fonds. Now such people sit on chairs around a table.



Until a few decades ago Hindus as a rule ate in the kitchen; there was no separate dining room. Not only was the kitchen considered sacred, since women had to serve large joint families, it was probably convenient as well. It was the duty of the housewife to first serve food to the menfolk of the family and children; only subsequently did women in the family have their meals. With the break-up of the joint family system and shift of population from rural to urban areas, however, many of these customs have changed.

Among the Hindus and Muslims the food is served and eaten together – rice, curry, vegetables/ fish and pickles. This is followed by drinking kaddi made of an extract of kokum in a container called peló. The upper classes drank coconut juice with kokum in a vati. In the past, sweets were generally not eaten after meals. Hindus of all classes eat their food with fingers without messing up the rest of the palm. Therefore, it is common practice to wash hands before and after meals. Earlier the upper classes used metal spoons to serve food while the poorer classes used spoons made of coconut shell.

Among the Christians, the manner of serving food reflected the class they belonged to. The lower classes eat food sitting on the floor or on a low stool known as bakin. Food is cooked in fired clay pots and eaten in clay or metal plates, or cheap quality porcelain ones. Doules (spoons) made of coconut shells were common in Christian kitchens. The upper classes and even middle class Christians ate their meals sitting on chairs around a table in the dining room/hall or in a passage near the kitchen. The table is covered with a tablecloth or a synthetic material. On festive occasions the tablecloth would be of white damask, Chinese embroidery or crochet lace. This class mainly used porcelain dishes to serve and eat food.

On festive occasions, Chinese blue and white pattern porcelain and other imported porcelain is used. Upper class Christians use cutlery to eat which is placed according to the custom in Portugal, usually the French or Russian style – the fork on the left, the knife on the right and the spoon in front besides a dessert spoon. Separate glasses for water and wine are arranged on the table on festive occasions. In colonial times, among the upper class Christians, domestic staff served food, course by course – soup, fish followed by meat, vegetables, rice and curry. It was customary to eat a dessert or fruit after a meal.

Goan food today is a fusion of many cuisines, and in many ways it brought the colonizer and the colonized closer. Goan food drew on different influences – Arab, Konkan, Malabar, Malaysian, Portuguese, Brazilian, French, African and even Chinese. There are many dishes common to Goa, Daman, Kerala, Mangalore (other areas of Konkan), Malaysia, Macau, Portugal, Brazil and Sri Lanka. The history of the evolution of Goan cuisine not only helps us understand the complex processes of assimilation and exclusion, it also serves as an exemplar of Indian multi-culturalism.