Vindaloo: A Storied Stew (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
Like most people, I’ve expanded my cooking repertoire since the pandemic began. In part, I credit Costco for this. On a lark, my husband ordered pork tenderloin. Expecting a pound of meat, we were surprised by an enormous log, seven pounds in total, sealed in a vacuum pack. “That’s a lot of pork,” my husband said with a sigh. “What can you make?” I looked through my recipes and smiled, “Vindaloo.”
While vindaloo is not yet a household name in most American families, it should be. This fiery and flavorful stew is popular both in the Indian Sub-Continent and in the United Kingdom. In England, it has become so popular that it now joins tea and cheddar as symbols of Britishness.
If you like complex meat stews, this is a dish for you. You can make it with any form of protein. Lizzie Collingham recommends duck breast, in the English fashion. But I have seen recipes featuring beef, goat, chicken, and even tofu. The main thing is the heat. Some versions of the recipe employ as many as twenty chili peppers. There are also many other aromatic spices. Cumin, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon. These pair well with tangy and pungent ingredients like tamarind paste, whole mustard seeds, and garlic. To finish? Some toasted cashew nuts (I'll pass, as I am severely allergic...).
The combination of these flavors produces a spicy, tangy, and tender meat stew. People serve it with rice and naan. I’ve gotten cute in the kitchen and made vindaloo bao sandwiches.
A cursory glance at the ingredients hints of a long and storied history. The dish, of course, marries New World ingredients with the fruits of the Indian Ocean Trade. But the presence of beef and pork in an Indian dish demands closer inspection. It points to a darker history of colonialism and religious persecution.
The name of the dish makes no bones about its genesis in the Portuguese empire. Vindaloo is a loan word. A local pronunciation – “corruption” – of the Portuguese carne de vinha d'alhos. Vinha d’alhos for short.
At first glance, vinha d’alhos looks nothing like vindaloo. The Portuguese dish is mostly tang and little heat. It also lacks many of the signature elements of the Indian version. The aromatic spices, for instance, are M.I.A.
But a closer look reveals a faint family resemblance. To see the similarities, we must focus less on flavor and more on process: the long marinade in something sour, the stewing of the meat to produce something tender, and the main ingredient (pork). This method is similar to that used to make the ill-fated meat stew in Nagasaki. It’s also a distant cousin of adobo, now known as the national dish of the Philippines. That’s made with pork or chicken, and stewed with the local palm vinegar.
Obviously, many of these dishes have Indian accents, accents that reflect the inevitable process of local adaptation. When the Portuguese arrived in India in the sixteenth century, they struggled with the lack of vinegar for their meat stews. So home cooks (like the Indian wives of Portuguese merchants and soldiers) substituted other sources of acid: tamarind, which abounds in Southern India and which finds its way into local renditions of biryani.
Goa, too, was a Portuguese colony, from 1510 to 1961. The Portuguese began settling in Goa not long after they landed, and they built the area in the image of an Iberian settlement. Today, you can see traces of European influence throughout the region. Unlike in Nagasaki, there are *very* old churches, Portuguese-styled houses (painted bright red), and South Asian Catholics with surnames like D’Silva, Sousa, Souza. The talented Indian actor, Freida Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, is of Goan extraction.
The Portuguese influence in Goa is easy enough to explain. Portuguese rule brought Portuguese people to Goa in numbers: merchants, soldiers, and Catholic missionaries. While in India, the Portuguese settlers attempted to live and eat as Europeans, even when they intermarried with local women. This meant enjoying familiar foods like yeasted breads baked into soft milk rolls with an egg glaze, similar to Filipino Pandesal.
Goans also prepare plenty of custardy dishes, a love they got from the Iberians, who in turn got that predilection from their former Moorish overlords. Today, you can enjoy bebinca and various flans – a Portuguese influence found not only in Goa, but also in Macau (egg custard tarts) and in the Philippines (Leche flan).
The meat, though, deserves more attention. How did meat get into Indian cuisine? As Collingham points out, the Goan love of meat (even beef!) is somewhat anomalous.
For an answer, we have to consider the nature of Portuguese culinary contact. The Portuguese were interested in not only building an overseas empire, but also proselytizing. Towards this end, their ships transported Catholic priests across the world: Franciscans and Jesuits. Those priests were full of zeal. Once they got to Goa, they got busy preaching the word from the 1540s and going to war with other religions. They used Portuguese military might to destroy Hindu temples and to drive out Hindus (and Muslims) from the area. They then forcibly converted the remaining native population. By 1650, two thirds of the Goan population was Catholic.
The establishment of Iberian rule and Catholicism, however, came at a price. The Holy Inquisition – with its interrogators and torture racks – also came too. The Catholic authorities looked upon these new Christians with the same suspicion that they viewed Jewish converts. In 1560, the Portuguese Inquisition spread to Goa, where it acquired notoriety in Europe for its brutality. (The French philosopher Voltaire quipped that the "war" on Satan had turned the Portuguese clergy into the Devil's agents).
The Goan Inquisition followed a familiar pattern of using violence to root out non-Christian beliefs. Last time, we focused on the way that Jewish New Christians were targeted; this time we look at people in South Asia, too. As Rowena Robinson puts it, "The Inquisition came down heavily on converts who refused to consume beef and pork." For Indian converts to Christianity, the avoidance of meat and especially beef was dangerous. Inquisition authorities were constantly on the lookout for evidence of lingering Hindu belief – especially, signs of “revering the cow.”
But this was not the only reason why pork and beef became signature elements in Goan cuisine. Many of the converts hailed from low caste backgrounds. Unlike Brahmins, lower-caste people did not observe a beef taboo, or practice vegetarianism. So the transition to a Portuguese diet was "no wrench."
For former high caste people, however, violating the beef taboo entailed a complete change in social identity. It meant losing one's membership in the Hindu community and instead becoming someone in Portuguese Christian society. Chowing down on red meat thus became a handy way to display allegiance not only to the Catholic Church, but also, perhaps more importantly, to the Portuguese crown.
The Goan case offers a studied contrast to the Japanese one. As I mentioned last time, the Portuguese influence in Japan was light. It came down to accepting some new ingredients and the piecemeal adoption of a handful of Iberian recipes. As point of fact, Portuguese influence did *not* spur a fundamental overhaul of the Japanese food system, or cultural matrix. If anything, the suppression of Christianity in Japan militated against radical change. The Japanese shoguns had realized the dangers of allowing Iberians to play on their soil. So they began their own horrific campaign of religious suppression, driving Christians underground.
In Goa, things worked out differently. The Portuguese were a colonial power. They had the military force to impose their rules, their culture, their church, and their cuisine on the local population. Not surprisingly, Portuguese dominance prompted a reordering of the cultural matrix. It dislodged taboos against beef consumption among Brahmins, and turned red meat from a lower caste food to something European and prestigious.
Last week, some of you posed the question on YellowDig: how should we feel about foods with a violent past? The case of vindaloo exemplifies this conundrum. For vindaloo is a product not only of trade and culinary exchange, but also religious intolerance and European colonialism.
As one of your classmates noted in YellowDig, the recognition of that history has inspired some people to decolonize their diets: to reject the food of conquerors and to return to the cooking styles and ingredients of their ancestors. For a Mexican of indigenous ancestry, that would mean cutting out the beef, pork, wheat, and cheese. For a Korean, this program would entail skipping the chili peppers in the kimchi. And for someone in India, that would imply ditching the vindaloo, excising the potatoes from the samosas, and getting unhooked on chai.
While I am sympathetic to these sentiments, I think that the approach is wrong headed. To people in Goa, pork and beef are their foods, and Catholicism is their religion. And in some cases, they were the product (like me) of mixed marriage. This makes the Portuguese also their forebears. For them, there is no going back to some pristine, untouched Indian past.
What's more, vindaloo is no longer a Portuguese dish. I like to think that this act of appropriating -- and radically altering -- the European stew represented an act of "talking back." When Goan women began preparing the pork for their Iberian masters (and husbands), they transformed its flavor profile by adding heat and aromatic spices. They thus domesticated the food of their European oppressors and came to own it. What *they* created was something new, marvelous, and now better known to the world than vinha d’alhos.
If you don't mind meat, vindaloo is a good recipe to make. Here's the BBC version of pork vindaloo. Many people also make the chicken version. But if you have a lot of pork and would like to compare vindaloo to its Iberian ancestor, you can do this recipe. I would also recommend comparing the South Asian version with adobo, a Filipino "cousin" of the recipe.
Anderson, James Maxwell (2002). Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition (Greenwood Publishing Group).
Collingham, Lizzie (2007). Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Chapter 3: “Vindaloo: The Portuguese and the Chilli Pepper,” 47-80.
Priolkar, Anant Kakba (1961). The Goa Inquisition; being a quatercentenary commemoration study of the Inquisition of India. With accounts given by Dr. Dellon and Dr. Buchanan. (Bombay).
Robinson, Rowena (1993). "Some neglected aspects of the conversion of Goa: a socio-historical perspective." Sociological bulletin Volume: 42.1-2: 65-83.
____ (1998). Conversion, Continuity and Change: Lived Christianity in Southern Goa (Sage).