An Indian Encounter: In Lisbon
by Smita Chandra


For an Indian visiting Portugal, a trip to Lisbon’s Belem Docks carries a special significance, for it was from here that Vasco da Gama  sailed in 1498 on the voyage that finally succeeded in finding a sea route from Europe to India.

Along the Avenida India that borders the harbour, a magnificent monument commemorates all the Portuguese voyagers who set out from this spot to explore the world.

Vasco da Gama sailed in search of spices, which in the middle ages were brought from India to Damascus or Alexandria by Arab traders and then carried to Europe by Venetian merchants. Their cost, by the time they reached the markets of London or Paris was so great that only the very wealthy had the money for them.

After da Gama returned to Lisbon with spice-laden ships, the price of pepper fell so much that even ordinary people could afford it. European tables were never the same again!

Vasco Da Gama is a national hero in Portugal, commemorated in museums and monuments. His tomb lies in the great Jerónimos Monastery overlooking Lisbon harbour, where it is given pride of place over those of mere kings and queens. The wealth from the spices brought back from India by Portuguese merchants made the tiny European country the hub of a great empire that spanned the globe.  Traditional Portuguese food is simple and uncomplicated, celebrating the freshness of the ingredients. Grilled seafood and meats are usually cooked with just a drizzle of olive oil, salt and sometimes garlic. The freshness and quality of the ingredients shines through in every bite. Robust stews of pork simmered in red wine or salt cod cooked in many imaginative, delicious ways are also the pillars of Portuguese cuisine. Cinnamon, while not generally used in savoury dishes, is sprinkled abundantly on desserts like rice pudding and custard tarts.

The Portuguese established a colony in India in the enclave of Goa, which  developed a fascinating hybrid, Indian-Portuguese culture and cuisine over the centuries. It was a two-way trade in recipes. Goan cooks made vindaloo, combining the Portuguese style of cooking in vinegar with Indian spices.

To our surprise one of the most popular dishes in Lisbon was Chamuças, which turned out to be a close cousin of our familiar Samosa. Chicken Chamuças are a staple of every cafe menu! Liberally doused with curry powder and fragrant with the aroma of fresh coriander, they are delicious to nibble on while waiting for the rest of the meal to arrive. In fact, they are downright addictive!

Photos and article courtesy of:
Chef Smita Chandra