In the first part of our Chronicle series, our special food and culture correspondent uncovers the story behind the eclectic cuisine of the East Indian community in Mumbai.
Regina Pereira’s home is located in the sleepy village of Giriz in Vasai (formerly Bassein) in Mumbai. If you walk into her kitchen during meal times, you’ll be engulfed by the aromas of Pork Indyal, Duck Moile, Kujit and Fugias.
These interesting dishes belong to the cuisine of the East Indian community. Not to be confused with the inhabitants of the country’s eastern coast, or American Indians as some may believe, the East Indians are regarded as one of the original inhabitants of Mumbai.
The origins of East Indians traces back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese took over Bombay – back then, an archipelago of seven islands – from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Locals from fishing, salt-making and farming communities were converted to Roman Catholicism. This community maintained a separate identity from the rest of the Christians.
Once Bombay was handed over to the British East India Company in 1661, Christian migrants from other parts of India made their way to the city. So, in order to stand out as an ethnic community, the locals referred to themselves as the East Indians. Today, reportedly, there are about 600,000 East Indians in Mumbai, Thane and Vasai.
Eat like the Portuguese
“The normal everyday meal is simple, consisting of a curry, a vegetable, and a pickle or condiment to go with it,” writes popular chef Michael Swamy in his book, The East Indian Kitchen. “Traditional East Indian cooking was done in earthenware and clay ovens,” adds Swamy, a restaurateur has also curated the food at the restaurant Eastern Sunset in Mumbai.
Like their language, the East Indian cuisine bears traces of the Portuguese influence too. It’s evident in dishes such as Pork Indyal and Pork Sarpatel. They may sound similar to the vindaloo and sorpotel prepared by the Goan Catholics but their distinctive flavours are courtesy the difference in certain ingredients. A name derived from the Portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos (‘meat in garlic wine marinade’), the vindaloo a stew redolent with spicy flavours rounded off by the sweetish-sourness of vinegar. While the Goans use coconut vinegar, most East Indians add in sugarcane vinegar. This dish is best had with piping hot Fugias, also known as balloon bread. It’s a variety of slightly sweet bread where the dough is fermented, shaped into balls and deep-fried.
Meanwhile, the East Indian Sarpatel, like the Goan sorpotel, is a festive, meaty dish enhanced with the flavours of ginger, garlic and other spices. This version, however, is less liquid in consistency. “What lends it a distinct flavour is our bottle masala,” says Regina, a home chef who manages East Indian Memory Co. Fine Foods, a specialist catering outfit that retails East Indian spice mixes too.
The bottle masala is indeed the mainstay of the East Indian cuisine and found on the kitchen shelves in each household. It includes over 30 ingredients – from a wide range of spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and dagad phool (black stone flower), red chillies, khus khus (poppy seeds) to chana dal (Bengal gram). Every home has its own safeguarded recipe and its preparation is a laborious process, usually done in the summer months. “It takes an entire day to make the masala. First, we dry roast each spice separately. Then, we hand-pound the ingredients. Now, there are mills to grind the spices but only hand-pounding method lends a depth of flavour,” says Sheryl Fonseca, one of the partners at Bottle Masala, a restaurant serving authentic East Indian cuisine in Manori that’s located in northern Mumbai.
Traditionally, this masala would be stored in coloured bottles, mainly beer bottles, to prevent harsh sunlight from spoiling the spices and helping preserve it for as long as a year. Bottle Masala is used in a number of gravy dishes, including Duck Moile and Mutton Khuddi. These are mainly had with boiled rice, chitaps (rice crepes) or aps (rice bhakris).
Fish such as Bombil (Bombay Duck) and Kolim (dried shrimp or prawns) are also used in the cuisine as chutneys, appetisers or in gravies.
Wine, wedding pickle and more
An East Indian wedding is the best way to discover the diversity of the community’s cuisine. Two distinct dishes that feature in this feast are the Wedding Rice and the Wedding Pickle. Traditionally prepared only for weddings, the pickle features raw papaya, carrots, vinegar and other ingredients. It uses almost no oil, is drier than other pickles and can be preserved for about two weeks – duration of long wedding celebrations. “The Wedding Rice is a lavish preparation that has caramelised onion, cashews, raisins and boiled eggs,” adds Regina.
Rice is revered and used in the sweet dishes too. For instance, in Atola, you’ll find harvested unpolished rice laced with coconut milk and jaggery. In Letri, it is turned into colourful vermicelli.
Wine and liquor plays a significant role on the community’s culinary landscape too. It’s had on sad and happy occasions. A popular drink is Khimad, spiced (with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves) and sweetened with coconut liquor as its base. “Khimad is made from the spirit which is the first distil and so is smoother than feni,” writes Swamy, adding, “The liquor is pure and unadulterated and great value is put to its medicinal properties”. The Khimad was stored in wooden casks and “served hot in small earthen cups known as cheuvnies”.
Khimad is also part of wedding rituals. Sheryl informs that it’s offered to the bride on the eve of her wedding. “It’s a symbol of having fun and enjoying her last night as a spinster,” she chuckles.