One of my favorite dishes in Indian restaurants is vindaloo. I love the complex spicy flavor of the deep coral sauce. When I eat vindaloo, I can imagine the frenzied competition between ancient powers to dominate a spice trade route. The stuff is that good. I used to equate vindaloo with Indian cuisine.
That was before I went to India a few years ago. I was in Delhi, which is far north of Goa, the region known for vindaloo. But I thought I would ask for vindaloo anyway. After all, you can get grits north of the U.S. Mason-Dixon line. Surely, you could get vindaloo north of Goa. “Is there somewhere I can find vindaloo?” No one had heard of it.
[Incidentally, I recently asked Parul Kamboj, who is from northern India and who I featured in a recent Nosh Story, if she was familiar with vindaloo, and she had not heard of it either. Read her Nosh Story here.
Unable to accept that I could not have vindaloo while in northern India, I went back to my hotel and feverishly googled vindaloo. Perhaps there is another name for it in northern India, I thought. I was unable to find another name, but I did come across more than one article that suggested that vindaloo was not Indian at all, but an invention by curry houses in Great Britain! What?! Oh no, I thought. Is this going to be like fortune cookies which turned out to be entirely inauthentic “Chinese” treats?
As I delved deeper, it turned out that vindaloo has a deeper history. In fact, we have to go all the way back to the 15th century to unpack this story. The late 1400s were the beginning of the “Age of Discovery,” and European countries were vying for domination. Vindaloo has its origins here, in the political seas of this time of intense exploration (and exploitation, but I’ll focus on the positive here).
The Portuguese were particularly successful at this time, especially as sailors. Portuguese Vasco da Gama was the first European to arrive in India via the sea in 1498. He landed in the area now called Kerala, which is on the southwest coast of the continent. Shortly later, Portuguese merchants landed further north, in the area now known as Goa.
Portuguese sailors, preparing for a long voyage, traveled with food that would withstand the journey. Pork and garlic soaked in wine were layered in wooden barrels. The pork, garlic, and wine marinade became the basis of a Portuguese dish called carne de vinha d’alhos. Goans kept the pork (that’s right, the original vindaloo included pork, not lamb or chicken!), but changed the recipe a bit, adding red chilis, replacing wine with vinegar, and localizing the name to “vindaloo.”
The British play a role too. A couple of hundred years after the Portuguese colonized Goa, the British colonized other parts of the continent. Goan chefs, who were mainly Christian and free of the religious and caste rules of other Indians, would freely handle pork and liquor, something the British wanted served in their establishments.
The love for vindaloo quickly followed and was exported to Britain, where the dish took on some of the characteristics better known in the Western world including adding potatoes. Interestingly, the Hindi word for potatoes is “aloo.” The fact that the word vindaloo (localized from the Portuguese word) contains “aloo,” is a coincidence and not a reference to potatoes, which were not part of the original recipe.
Recently, I decided to order take-out lamb vindaloo from three different restaurants in Norwalk, Connecticut: Paradise Biryani Pointe, Saffron, and Veda. None of these restaurants are Goan or Portuguese or British.
“Pinky” Kaur, co-owner of Saffron for example, is from Punjab and her restaurant mainly serves Punjabi dishes she learned to make from her mother. I asked her about the vindaloo at her restaurant. She told me the recipe was not Punjabi. In fact, “it’s not even from India! It’s Portuguese.” Now she tells me! Where was she a few years ago when I was still completely ignorant about the origins of vindaloo.
I asked all three restaurants to make the vindaloo “very spicy.” Saffron asked me “how spicy?” on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being most spicy. I said 7. The other restaurants did not ask for clarification about the level of spice. However, when I arrived at Paradise Biryani Pointe, the server asked me how often I ate such spicy food and confessed, “I can’t take it spicy.”
When I got home, my husband Adam and I sampled all three vindaloo dishes. The taste test was “blind” for him as he didn’t know which vindaloo came from which establishment.
Adam and I both had a clear preference for the same one. Before I reveal our favorite, I should point out that all three were completely different in style and flavor. Choosing a favorite is a completely personal choice. It’s sort of like asking someone if they prefer Sally’s or Pepe’s Pizza in New Haven, Connecticut. You end up with passionate choices on both sides.
Paradise Biryani Pointe’s vindaloo was very spicy and creamy, and had the most complex flavors. The vinegar marinade in Saffron’s was apparent, and the flavor of cloves. It was the least spicy of the three. Veda’s had a very strong tomato-flavored base, with heat only at the finish.
Our favorite vindaloo in this particular instance was from Paradise Biryani Pointe. When I picked up our take-out, I had asked the server at Paradise what the “secret ingredient” was in its vindaloo. The cream and complexity of flavors are what really put it over the top for us. We were also impressed with the heat. He didn’t know, or wouldn’t tell me.
On a separate subject, I want to offer “a shout out” to Saffron’s samosas. The owner Pinky tells me they sell 200 a week. It is one of their specialties.
“Vindaloo” still seems to be a bit of an enigma for some northern Indians. My husband recently told a north Indian colleague about our taste test. “What’s vindaloo?” he asked.
I would love your opinion. Where have you had your favorite vindaloo? Please comment below.