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Getting Vindaloo Right

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David Rosengarten's TASTINGS
Foods and Wines That Make Me Swoon

FILED: January 23, 2007
Getting Vindaloo Right
David Rosengarten
Food TV Network Show Host: "Taste"
The most fascinating thing about eating Indian food in India……..finding out what Indian food is! Oh, sure, we have our Indian restaurant favorites in America…..but most of what’s served in those stateside restaurants is based on the rich food of the Punjabis, who live near Pakistan (or in Pakistan) in the northwest corner of the sub-continent.
The Punjabis, unlike the occupants of most other Indian regions, always had a tradition of eating out…..and, when the difficult days of 1947 split the Punjabis between India and Pakistan, many traveled to other countries entirely. It was the Punjabis in London, post-World War II, opening restaurants left and right, who introduced the west to their chicken tandoori, to their creamy kormas, to their ghee-drizzled breads…..and it is the food of those Punjabis, now proud proprietors of Indian restaurants all over the world, that is thought of by most non-Indians as “Indian food.”
Ten minutes in India, however, in a place other than Punjab, demonstrates how relatively insignificant the Punjab-centric menu is in this riotously colorful, endlessly variegated country. I have been traveling for ten days now with a group of TASTINGS readers, merrily munching our way through many different regions of Mother India. Surprises abound; new delights pop up at every meal; pencils assiduously scrawl recipes of dishes we’ll probably never see in the U.S. unless we make them ourselves. Fear not about your own scrawls--for the next issue of THE ROSENGARTEN REPORT (subscribe by logging on to will carry brand-new recipes for many of the most eye-opening dishes.
For now, however, I want to emphasize my point by telling you about one distinctive regional cuisine that tickled us last weekend. Almost every Punjab-based Indian restaurant outside of India includes a few “regional” specialties--with the dish from Goa called “vindaloo” leading that list. Not all diners, however, think of it as a regional dish--many simply recognize it as “the hottest curry on the menu.” In fact, that is really all that “vindaloo” has come to mean on modern restaurant menus.
Everything about that is wrong. And by getting vindaloo right, you crack the code of one of India’s most fascinating and distinctive regional cuisines.
Goa, a lush region lying on India’s west coast, was conquered by the Portuguese in 1510. What were they doing there? It was all about food, of course; they were active players in the spice trade, carrying the precious flavorings from the jungles of India back to Europe. But they brought things to India, as well…..and this is the basis of “the Goan difference.”
They brought wine. They brought a love for pork. They brought a love for garlic that exceeded that of the locals. And they brought chiles--particularly the hot little ones called piri-piri that they had discovered in their other important colony, Brazil. Over the centuries, these elements melded with the Goans’ love of fish, rice, local spices…..and the result is the remarkably vibrant Goan cuisine…..a cuisine very poorly represented in Indian restaurants outside of Goa.
When you enjoy it in Goa, and compare it to other regional cuisines of India, it has an almost Mediterranean flash to it. Sauces are often red, often brimming with tomato, garlic, strips of capsicum…..sometimes looking for all the world like Italian food, or Provencal food. But it veers beyond the Med taste into something else, of course, buttressed as it is by all the cardamoms, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves and cinnamons of southern India. What gives it real specificity, to me, is an almost sweet-and-sour taste that keeps turning up in the food… everything from fish dishes, to meat dishes, to vegetable dishes, to Goan pickles. And…..though the food can be quite hot… is not necessarily quite hot, not often quite hot. The other lively flavors, not the chiles, are much more important to the Goans than the restaurant vindaloos of the world would have you believe.
One of the great dishes you’ll find in Goa is Fish Rechaedo, usually made with the round, medium-sized pomfret caught in the Arabian Sea. The whole fish, with central skeleton removed, is rubbed, inside and out, with a bright red paste that, last weekend at the terrific beach-side Taj Exotica, included mild red chilis, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, cumin, pepper…..and sugar with vinegar, giving it its characteristic sweet-and-sour quality. The fish is grilled, or sautéed in a pan…..and clearly stands on the world stage with any whole fish preparation you’re likely to find in France, Italy, Spain or Greece. The same flavoring elements also enliven shrimp in the classic Goan Prawn Balchao, another sweet-and-sour masterpiece.
But I think the Goan magic pays off most of all in its pork dishes…..for, believe it or not, “vindaloo,” in Goa… almost always a pork dish! The chile-gorged monstrosities we endure in our Indian restaurants are almost always “lamb vindaloo,” or “chicken vindaloo,” or “shrimp vindaloo.” But, with the occasional exception of chicken, you will not see these headlining proteins in Goa in vindaloo dishes. Goan vindaloo is sweet-and-sour pork, of the highest order.
The word itself, “vindaloo,” has Portuguese roots; “vinha de alho” was the name of their dish, and it meant “wine with garlic.” Goan chefs today do like to add wine to their vindaloo, sometimes….but the “vin” of vindaloo has come to stand for vinegar much more often than it stands for wine. Wine itself was just not that available in Goa, over the centuries--but the local version of vinegar was. And their version of vinegar is a key element in a true Goan vindaloo--the vinegar derived from tapping the high branches of the coconut palm tree.
In fact, this coconut-palm sap turns up everywhere in Goa, and in Goan cuisine… I thought I’d better observe some of it coming out of the tree. I didn’t quite realize that getting up at sunrise was required…..but, since I don’t pass by this way too often, off I went at the crack of dawn (with a few other hardy souls).
We were driven in bullock carts to a stand of coco palms, high ones, their coconut-clustered tops at least 50 feet over our heads. Next thing we knew…..a middle-aged Goan man, barefoot, was scampering up the tree at blinding speed, a terra cotta pot hung over one shoulder, a kind of spouted pitcher hung over the other. When he got to the top, he sliced through a long and wide coconut branch, and placed his terra cotta pot over the cut; we discovered that it will take 24 hours for the dripping sap to fill that pot. Then he moved on to a pot that had been set the morning before, and poured that sap into his “pitcher.” He scampered downtown, and we were able to taste the freshest coconut-palm sap on earth.
Here’s the cool thing. After its 24-hour drip, and its harvest, it is “fresh”--that is to say, it hasn’t begun a serious fermentation yet. It is sweet, with just a hint of the cheesy flavors to come. As the sun rises, the fermentation grows. By noon, the transformation is startling: it is now an alcoholic beverage, with a funky-cheesy-porky-minerally taste quite unlike any other taste I’ve ever experienced. At this point, the Goans refer to it as a kind of “coconut beer.” If you leave it for a week or so, you have an equivalent of “coconut wine.” And if you leave it for two to three months…..yes, you have the “coconut vinegar” that is de rigueur in a proper vindaloo.
Believe it or not, the taste that it lends to vindaloo reminds me of something from my childhood. This is really bizarre--but a good Goan vindaloo has overtones reminiscent of the BBQ Pork Sandwich that they used to serve… Nathan’s!.....a Coney Island institution most famous for its hot dogs! And I know they weren’t using fresh coconut vinegar from Goan trees on Coney Island. So don’t despair; without Goan coconut vinegar, you can still get a good Goan taste in your vindaloo…..just as long as you stay away from the “lamb vindaloo” recipes in cookbooks that are just as inauthentic as the “lamb vindaloos” on restaurant menus.
There are two secrets to getting your vindaloo right, at home:
1) Use malt vinegar as a substitute for Goan coconut vinegar; and
2) Get yourself a copy of THE ROSENGARTEN REPORT that I will write in late January after my return from India…..a REPORT that will carry an ultra-authentic recipe for you-know-what!
Time for a gin-and tonic. See you next week!
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shantihhh's picture
Getting Vindaloo Right