When Vasco da Gama landed on the southern coast of India in 1498, he laid the foundation of a trade route that would go on to define India’s destiny for centuries to come. The Portuguese trading and imperial interests that followed Vasco da Gama, would soon establish a thriving empire with its capital first located in Cochin, Kerala, and then later being shifted to Goa. However, the imperial appetite of the Portuguese were hardly satisfied with their growing presence in the West coast of India. When in the middle of the 15th century, a fleet of ships commanded by João da Silveira reached the coast of Bengal, the long cherished Portuguese dream of an empire in the East was finally at the threshold of being fulfilled.
By 1528, the Portuguese were given permission to establish factories and custom houses in the port of Chittagong and the settlement soon grew into the most prominent Eurasian port on the Bay of Bengal. The Portuguese presence in Bengal was no meagre accomplishment. They are noted to be the pioneers of European commerce in this part of India, paving the way for the Dutch, British and French to follow. Writer Joaquim Joseph A. Campos in his celebrated work, “History of the Portuguese in Bengal,” notes that “the Portuguese at the beginning of the 17th century occupied a position in Bengal, comparable to that of the British in the middle of the 18th century.”
Given the strong presence of the Portuguese in Bengal, it would be unsurprising to note the extent of influence they had on Bengali culture, particularly pertaining to linguistics and cuisine. The Portuguese are noted to be the ones who introduced Christianity in Bengal and the first type-printed works in the Bengali language were documents based on Catechism. Incidentally, a number of Indian languages contain words of Portuguese descent, particularly those associated with trade, Christianity and the names of articles commonly imported from Europe.
A lesser known aspect of Portuguese influence on Indian culture is that related to the technique of making sweets among Bengalis. When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident.
The cheesy factor
Chhana or cheese — which is the basic ingredient in sandesh and roshogolla — produced by deliberately splitting milk by adding citric acid is in fact completely missing as an ingredient in desserts beyond East India. Food historian Chitrita Banerjee in her work, “Eating culture: exploring the food and culture of the land of spices” mentions that prior to the 18th century, there is no documented evidence of chhana anywhere in India.
Most desserts made around India have traditionally used ingredients like flour, semolina, coconut, but never chhana. Even in Bengal before the 18th century, sweet products generally were made out of evaporated milk or kheer. Part of the reasoning behind the omission of chhana is that Hindu religious tradition prohibited the deliberate spoiling of milk through adding of acid. Till date, food offerings made to Hindu Gods and Goddesses never include paneer (another kind of indigenous cheese that was made popular through the Turkish conquests).
Strangely, however, from the 18th century on, Bengal seems to have made an exception to this Hindu tradition. This is where the Portuguese connection comes in. Banerjee refers to an article found in a journal from 1921 called “The Indo-Portuguese Review”. The writer talking about the Portuguese interaction with Bengalis claims: “Indians were tied to the Portuguese with tender ties of love. What better than love to break down taboos and inhibitions and arouse the urge to experiment, taste and enlarge the boundaries of the senses?”
Banerjee accounts that there are two reasons why cheese as an ingredient for sweet making was made popular by the Portuguese. First, historically the Portuguese were “skillful confectioners” who must have come across as an inspiration to Bengali culinary masters. Second reason being the marital alliances the Portuguese indulged in during their stay in Bengal, particularly with Bengali Muslim and low caste women, among whom many happened to be hereditary cooks and confectioners. The French physician and traveller, Francois Bernier who lived in India between 1659 to 1666 noted in his work that “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade.”
While Portuguese cheese happened to redefine dessert making in Bengal and neighbouring Odisha, it is quite strange as to why it never entered the culinary ensemble of the West coast of India, the region most identified with Portuguese presence in India. While the cuisines of Kerala and Goa more than anywhere else has strong connections with the Portuguese palate, use of cheese in desserts definitely does not feature anywhere. The reason behind this omission is hard to explain. What is certain though is the fact that Indians would definitely not have their roshogolla without the Portuguese making the country their home.