Today, Vindaloo is one of the most popular Indian dishes outside India. Visit any Indian restaurant in Europe and the chances are that you will definitely find Vindaloo on the menu. Such is the popularity of the dish that at the 1998 World Cup football, the ‘unofficial’ football anthem of the English football team fans was 'Vindaloo-Vindaloo-Vindaloo, we're gonna score one more than you.'
In India, Vindaloo is a traditional recipe of the Goan Catholic community. However, the origins of Vindaloo lie, not in Goa, but 5500 miles to its West, in Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic, around 600 miles from the Portuguese mainland. Under Portuguese rule since 1411 CE, the islands are famous for their wines.
– In order to preserve meat and fish for a long duration, the residents of Madeira developed a unique style of cooking known as Carne de Vinha d'alhos or meat in wine and garlic.
The meat was immersed in a stock (or sauce) composed of vinegar, salt, garlic and Madeira wines to preserve and enhance its flavour. In India, Vindaloo is a traditional recipe of the Goan Catholic community.
From Madeira, the Vindaloo recipe travelled to other countries when Portuguese ships to South and Central America stopped by. In America, it came to be known as Vinyoo dalyge. Later in South America, Paprika and Oregano were added to the original recipe.
Vinha d'alhos arrived in India with the Portuguese sailors from Brazil in the 16th century and evolved into Vindaloo. When Portuguese cooks arrived in India, they realized Indians did not make vinegar. Food Historian Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors writes how some ingenious Franciscan priests are said to have solved the problem by manufacturing vinegar from coconut toddy, an alcoholic drink fermented from the sap of the palm tree. This combined with tamarind pulp and plenty of garlic satisfied the Portuguese cooks. Further, they added native spices like black pepper, cinnamon and cloves, as well as the most important ingredient- red chillies, which arrived in India in the 1500s, as part of the ‘Columbian food exchange’ (that also introduced new foods like potato, tomato and maize to India).
Prior to this, long pepper which grew abundantly in the forests of the Western Ghats and Malabar had been the hottest spice known to Indians. Lizzie Collingham states that red chillies were originally grown in Goa and as a result were known across the rest of India as ‘Gowai Mirchis’. The fact that chillies were easier to grow, and cheaper, besides tasting similar to long pepper, meant that they quickly gained popularity across the country, and became an integral part of Indian cuisine.
Vindaloo was introduced to the British through the Goan Catholic cooks around the 1800s. The British preferred to employ cooks from Goa as they were free from caste and religious restrictions on preparing beef and pork dishes that the British loved to eat. The first recorded mention of the word ‘Vindaloo’ in the English language is in a book called ‘Wife’s Help to Indian Cookery’ published in 1888, which describes it as ‘Portuguese Karhi’.
While Vindaloo continued to be served in Goan Catholic homes, it gained great popularity only in the 1970s when a large number of Indian restaurants opened in the UK. However, the Vindaloo being served in Britain was prepared mostly by Bangladesh cooks and was therefore quite different from the one in India. Gone were the subtle flavours, and it just became ‘the spiciest curry on the menu’. As a result, eating a Vindaloo curry became an act of daring to the British populace who were used to eating mild foods. Hence, by the 1980s, it became a part of the ‘British Lad culture’, where the men ordered the ‘hottest item on the menu’ which was the Vindaloo, as an act of macho bravado. This explains why the Vindaloo song was the unofficial song of English football fans.
Thankfully, in recent times, the original Vindaloo recipe has moved out of Goan Catholic homes in India and the ‘authentic’ version can now be found in a number of restaurants across the country!