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Food Story: From Mumbai to Calicut, the evolution of the coastal cuisine

One of the best examples of Portuguese deep-seated culinary influences in India is its popular export Alphonso mangoes.

Written by Madhulika Dash | New Delhi | Updated: October 3, 2014 10:00:34 am
What gives the coastal cuisine, its culinary edge? Trade, invasion and asylum seeking communities. (Picture courtesy: Wanderbug) What gives the coastal cuisine, its culinary edge? Trade, invasion and asylum seeking communities. (Picture courtesy: Wanderbug)

Mention coastal cuisine, and it’s assumed that it would be seafood and coconut that would be talked about. The impression isn’t out of sync. Hard to believe but in first glance, the cuisine of coastal  India – East and West – appears to be meat and seafood heavy, thanks to the natural abundance. But then  for every prawn gassi that the coast boasts of, there is a vegetable ishtew, and for every jeermari chi kombdi there is a Calicut Brinjal Curry and a Phanasa Chi Bhaji, thus making the cuisine one of the more complex yet fascinating cuisine of India.

One of the breakfast staple in Goa, the poi comes from the Jews of Malabar. One of the breakfast staple in Goa, the poi comes from the Jews of Malabar.

In fact, it is said that if you ever look for king size breakfast, head coast. The southern coast of India itself makes some 30 odd varieties of  breakfast, which is all vegetarian, not your idli dosai affair, and none of the items have the same base ingredient repeated twice or the similar method used. In fact, the West Coast boasts of having some of the best relishes in the world.

What gives the coastal cuisine, its culinary edge? Trade, invasion and asylum seeking communities. Result, west coast – by which we head from Maharastra to Goa and Calicut – has seen not one but three different, big influences that have shaped the cuisine the way it is today.

Both in terms of ingredients, spices and cooking techniques. the one place that has led this culinary overhaul from the front is Calicut.  It was through this  “big bazaar of spices” (as termed by the Russian traveler Athanasius Nikitn in 1468) that many communities came and went – few for trade most for the wealth. But each in its zeal to explore took the cuisine to a higher standard.

The one dish that taste the same in Kochin as in Goa. The one dish that taste the same in Kochin as in Goa.

Ma Huan, the Chinese Muslim sailor part of the Imperial Chinese fleet under Cheng Ho landed in Calicut in 1403, was stunned to find the existence of pilafs. In fact, he describe Calicut (modern day Kozhikode) as the “noble emporium for all India” abounding in pepper, lac, ginger, a larger kind of cinnamon, myrobalans and zedary.

Which meant that way before Vasco de Gama landed in the Goa’s shores in 1498, and created the pork, vinegar and ginger based cuisine of North Goa, and then introduced the first matured cheese in Calcutta by the name of Bandel Cheese, the coastal cuisine had began on its phase III of evolution with the Romans, Greek, Afghans and Chinese already making their mark, cuisine wise.

So how was the cuisine then and what changed? Much like the rest of the country, the culinary evolution in the Western coast happened through three factors: ecology (natural produce), exposure and invasions. According to ancient records, Indian food till about the 3rd century BC followed Buddhism. Food was mostly vegetarian and simple with Ayurveda dictating what to have and how.

Kitchens even at homes were divided into mardana and janana and cooking was done separately for male and females. So why cardamom and fennel were accepted in a female kitchen, mace and nutmeg was strictly for men.  Food then, for vegetarian at least, was mostly lentils, wheat and chickpeas, till Thailand introduced chicken and rice, and sheeps came from West Asia. Records back then show that people knew about Pork,but only soldiers had it. The rest of the population depended on natural occurring vegetables and fruits. So yam and tapioca were big part of the cuisine, much like curd and tamrind in South and kokum in Maharastra.

Herbs were known, but chillies were still an alien term for the entire coast line.  The food culture took an interesting turn under the Maurya kings, when Hindus, who were  the larger population, decided the sacrificing animal was a sin and turned vegetarian again. 300 years later, under the Gupta period, non-vegetarians fare made a comeback with Devi pujan and gave birth to a new breed of Brahmins who ate fish, meat and even pork. But had two days of fasting, which demanded the stay away from non veg. And that’s when the advent of famous vada pav in Pune and the kootu, which eventually gave the idea of jal frexi, evolved. It was also the time when jackfruit was discovered.  However the evolution was limited to well to do families, the general populi ate whatever the land could provide and was unthreatening.

All this changed in 1100 AD with the Islamic conquest. Suddenly eating pork became a sin, and turning to Islam the key of survival. And with this came in the first Islamic food influence which developed into Moplah cuisine in Kerala courtesy the Syrian Arabs who fled the region. The cuisine till date follows the Islamic practice of using only Halal meat and tandoor to cook.  It was the time when the first masalas began to be grounded as shorbas became popular with meat and vegetable being cooked together. These were the early days of the Moplah cuisine.

But the culinary and food habits overhaul wasn’t a random act, but a gently brewing process.  It started back in 1st century AD when the enterprising Arabs started the spice route to Cochin and Calicut through a rumour that showed this little pit-stop as the ‘trading hub’ for all spices, including saffron, a spice that was introduced to India by Greek and Arab traders themselves.

Yet, by the time Alexander the Great came to India, saffron had transformed into an Indian spice, much like the ‘gold spice’ pepper. According to ancient traveler Ibn Battuta, coastal India by then already knew how to cook in tandoor, had tasted chocolate, coffee, sulemani chai and of course was marinating vegetables with kokum, jaggery and mango.

However it wasn’t till  Vasco Da Gama landed that the influences became more pronounced. It was the Portuguese who introduced tomatoes, chillies and potatoes in the coastal cuisine, along with ginger and vinegar. The use of toddy vinegar though present before them was turned into a must-have ingredient in cooking because of the Portugal rule in Goa, and areas nearby. Steaming and pancakes though were in existence, the Portuguese showed the locals how to use vinegar, tomatoes and toddy to add flavours to their cooking.

For the colonial master, this could have been an exercise in replicating their food in India, but the locals who by then had divided into Saraswat Brahman and Anglo Indian didn’t shy from lapping up new techniques. In fact, a certain credit has to be given to the Portugal community to introduce the art of refining the way masala were made in India. Take the roasted onion addition to the chilli coconut base of the Brahman cooking was influenced by the Portuguese style of cooking, which uses this technique to flavour its fish curry. In fact, sweating the shallots for tempering was an art that many say the Indian members of the Portugal trading company took down to Cochin and Calicut during their visits to find new markets to tap.

One of the best examples of Portuguese deep-seated culinary influences in India is its popular export Alphonso mangoes. Named after Afonso de Albuquerque, a nobleman and military expert who helped establish the Portuguese colony in India, it was the Portuguese who grafted on mango trees to produce extraordinary varieties like Alphonso. The fruit was then introduced to the Konkan region in Maharashtra, Gujarat and parts of south India.

Yet another innovation on their part was the kulkuls, which were actual variations of the Portuguese Filhoses Enroladas. But in their Indian  adaptation, kulkuls were deep fried and sugar coated, much like the Narkel Naru or coconut ladoos.

But it wasn’t just the Goan coastal region that benefitted from the Portugal style of cooking, Kochi, yet another buzzing port, too had similar culinary influences. This is the reason that the sorpotel, taste-wise and cooking technique is very much alike. In fact, the introduction of paneer, which many say the Portuguese introduced Hoogly people to, came to South India because of this trading community. So for every duck fry, fish molly or moi lee, mutton chops, lamb curry, pork chops, pork barbecues, pork sandwiches, the famous Portuguese beef stew, beef roast and steak that the colonial power introduced in Kerala during their 150 year dominance in Kochi, there were interesting paneer versions of the same. In fact, instead of replacing kappa and meen (tapioca and fish) that were the staple food then, such culinary introduction helped them create vegetarian option – the classic vegetable ishtew is one such example. It was the Portuguese who introduced sugar in the coastal region, which till then used honey and jaggery for preparing food and marinating.

Thanks to the Portuguese influence, South began using both tamarind and tomatoes to add sourness to their cuisine. Yet another community that influenced our cuisine were the Jews of Malabar. From laying the base for the popular Malabar Paratha to actually teaching us the art to baking and turning our flatbreads, which was more or less chilla made of chickpea and served with spicy yogurt, to bread. The Jews who found asylum in India, much like the Sryian Arabs and the Parsees, who got us our first biryani before the Mughals, were the first to introduce baked breads in India and not the British, who introduced tea, or the Dutch or French.

Of course, the influences all started on the ground level with commoners before heading into the royal kitchens, where chefs would use the knowledge to create new things out of the local flavours. Like the Wadiya family of Mysore adapted the use of cumin and roasted shallots and onions but only to make their dishes – which were vegetarian taste better. Their creamy saabaki payasam made with sabut dana (sago) and milk to round off the meal  was first to use the sugar.

And the Bahmani kings of Persian origin who controlled the Deccan side soon after the decline of Vijaynagra,  became the first to introduce the yam and jackfruit cutlets that resembled the kebabs back home closely. In fact, it was during this time that the kitchen divide of mardana (for male) and jenana (for female) segments, where meals were prepared differently for fertility and virility, diminished as some dishes were made alike for everyone. Like the Iyengar Kootu, which was a simple dish made of all tropical vegetable, or the tomato saar, a lentil preparation in Maharastra that eventually led to tomato rasam in the South.

Calicut Brinjal Curry

Brinjal diced (green and long) — 2 or 3 no
Coconut oil – 2 tbsp
Fenugreek – 1tsp
Dry red chilly – 2 nos
Ginger julienne – ½ cup
Garlic chopped – ¼ cup
Onion sliced – 1 cup
Green chilli slit – 1no
Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
Tomato diced – 1 ½ cup
Turmeric – 1 tsp
Tamarind – 1 tbsp
Black pepper powder – ½ tsp
Salt to taste
Coconut milk

•      Heat coconut oil and add mustard seeds and dry red chillies. Once it crackles add curry leaves, sliced onions, green chilly, ginger and garlic. Sauté till it just starts to brown.
•      Now add turmeric and sauté over low heat. Add tomato dices and sauté. Now add the diced brinjal and sauté for 30 secs.
•      Now add coconut milk mixed with 1 cup water. Cook the curry on slow heat for 10 mins. Sprinkle pepper powder.
•      Add tamarind pulp to the curry to adjust the acidity and check for salt. Serve hot with steamed rice
Recipe courtesy: Chef Kunal Kapur, celebrity chef and author of  ‘A Chef in Every Home’

Shengdanyachi Aamti Ani tandalache wade  (Konkani style peanut gravy and rice flour poori)


For the peanut gravy
Peanuts, soaked and peeled-  1 cup
Kokam- 4 to 5 no
Green chili paste- 1tsp
Turmeric powder- 1/2 tsp
Jaggery- 1 tbsp
Fresh finely Grated coconut- 3 tbsp
Salt- to taste
Coriander leaves, chopped- 2 tbsp
Soaked boiled white watana (dried peas) ½ cup
For tempering
Ghee- 1 tbsp
Cumin seeds- 1/2 tsp
Cloves- 4 no
Garlic, chopped- 1 tbsp
Curry leaves- 7 to 8 no

Soak peanuts overnight and peel. In a non-stick pan, add peanuts, green chili paste, turmeric, salt, grated coconut, salt and 2 cups of water. Bring it to boil. Once it’s boiled lower the flame and cover pan and keep it simmering for 15 minutes.
Now add the kokam and jaggery. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add little water if required.
In another small pan prepare tempering. Add ghee and then crackle cumin seeds, garlic, cloves and curry leaves. Pour this tempering over gravy and mix well. Add watana if you like. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves.

Tandalache wade ( rice flour poori)

Rice flour- 2 cups
Fennel seed powder- 1 tbsp
Fenugreek seed powder- 1 tsp
Salt to taste
Onion, grated- 1 small
Water- 1 1/4 cup
Oil for frying


In a non-stick pan, add 1 1/4 cup water. Add fennel seed powder, fenugreek powder, and salt and bring it to boil. Now add rice flour slowly and keep mixing it continuously. When you see dough is leaving the edges of the vessel then it’s done. Remove, immediately add grated onion and 1 tbsp ghee or oil. Knead the dough well.

Apply little water on hand and make 12 small equal balls. Roll small pooris and deep fry it until turn golden brown. Remove on kitchen towel to absorb excess oil. Serve hot with peanut gravy.

Recipe and picture courtesy: Chef Ranveer Brar, Health Bhi Taste Bhi, Zee Khana Khazana

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