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Trading tastes

A little obscure village on the left bank of river Hooghly, now known as Kolkata, became the city of Calcutta under the influence of its many rulers. The Portugese landed in the village Kalikatta in 1517. In 1580, Akbar, gave them a charter to settle here. Basically traders by profession, the Portugese would buy things like muslin, spices, cotton, rice, and other agricultural products here and then sell them off at high prices at various ports in the East. Initially the Portugese would stay in Kalikatta during the rainy season, trade and then head back to Goa where rains would be over . With time this practice gave way to permanent settlements and records say that by 1670s ‘there were at least 20,000 Portuguese and their descendants in Bengal’.
Though the political influence of the Portugese diminished after the arrival of Dutch and finally the East India Trading Company yet even today it pervades the life in Bengal in many other ways. One of the ways in which the Portugese influence continues is through the usage of spices, various ingredients and techniques that they brought with them.

You will be surprised to know that many plants that you might have thought belonged to us Indians were introduced by the Portugese. Let us take the example of a versatile- a sort of star vegetable- potato. It was 1780, when a basket of potatoes was presented to Sir Warren Hastings in Calcutta. Called batata on the west coast of India, aalu was being grown in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1830s and by 1860s potato had become a popular part of the Bengali food being incorporated in its dry form as well as a gravy avatar. Today a proper Bengali meal begins with shukto which is incomplete without its fair share of potatoes alongside a melange of other colourful vegetables. So much so, shukto is often the measure of a good cook here in Bengal. The addition of potatoes to curries alongside meats and seafood is also an example of the carrying on of the Portugese influence.
Many fruits like Pineapple, Papaya, Guava and Litchi were brought to Bengal by the Portugese. The Portugese name for Pineapple- ananas- is still retained and in much use.

A legacy of the Portugese baker that still lives on in Bengal as a mainstay of the cuisine is the luchi. Generally plain boiled rice is served alongside the meal but if bread is served it is the luchi, made of white flour or maida.
The sweets too have been much influenced by the Portugese. The basic method of curdling milk with yogurt or lemon juice to produce chenna is often attributed to them. This is an important ingredient of countless sweets like rosogulla and sandesh.
The Portugese also bought the influence of Goan dishes into the Bengali cuisine and today you can find these listed alongside many native dishes in any cookbook on Bengali food.
It will not be wrong to say that Calcutta’s cosmopolitan food and culture owes much to the Portugese.

(The post first appeared as a column on October 19, 2012, in The New Indian Express. Here is the link:


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