Tasty Tales about how an Afro-Lusitanian slave-soldier sustenance meal became a cultural highlight – and Goa’s culinary icon

Year 1498. The yet to be known Vasco Da Gama set sail to find India, then the Golden Bird of the Spice Route. His ace: a strong sailor sense and a sack full of ingredients collected over different places he has anchored (and conquered). As his ship starboards ahead on the Indian Ocean, Gama is in deep thought. Overlooking the horizon, he is assured of his victory. A few weeks later, the ship anchors on the shores of Calicut. Gama sets foot in the kingdom of Calicut with his booty, wit, and an ambition to take pepper back to Europe. It would be, he told his comrade in arms, “my legacy.’ Little does the famous sailor know then that in 523 years from that day, his gifts would be more than just a mode of exchange, but a part of the Indian culinary tapestry.

Not chillies, but something equally valuable that would be his ticket to visit India three times, the last trip (incidentally his last too) sponsored by the Portugal king himself.

On port, thousand came visiting the ship.  The famous sailor steps out with a small group, each carrying a basket, but one stood out with his caldron. He carried Gama’s favourite dish, the Frango à Cafreal, an Afro-Lusitanian slave dish that the captain loved the most.

Darker green hued, Cafreal was in fact the first Portuguese import to arrive at the ports of Goa with Gama. Old trade books talk about a rather interesting interaction between a Tunisian Muslim trader and the famous Portuguese sailor at the port station of Calicut: When asked “Que diablo tetrajo aca?” (“What the devil have you brought here?”), Gama, a seasoned dealbreaker, replied “pepper and souls.” Back then, it was common practice for merchants and sailors to make the arduous journey to the Indian muziris for spices, especially pepper that was worth more than gold. However, it was what Gama had to batter that made history – the famous sailor offered Chicken Cafreal or Galinha (Frango), a blackish-hued dish known for its sharp flavour and sea-hardiness.

“It stays on, unspoiled” Game announced to whoever cared to listen before walking into the city for an audience with the Zamorin of Calicut, who found merit in the dish to gladly exchange a few samplings and a gunny of peppercorn for vinegar, chillies and Chicken Cafreal along with an African slave who knew how to make it. The legend, if true, leaves us pondering two things: First, if Chicken Cafreal came to Calicut first, why didn’t it gain popularity there? And second, how did it reach Goa?

Interestingly, chilli while was readily accepted as a return gift in Calicut was soon dunked in favour of the pepper that had a wide appeal and acceptability, albeit the port station where it became a thing that was occasional used as a showcase. There is a good chance that it was from the muziris in Cochin that chillies travelled to different ports around the Indian ocean, and the dish that showcased it best was Gama’s Caferal.

There was of course another route for the Cafreal to reach Goa: immigrants, especially from Angola and Mozambique who arrived on the shores as part of the Portuguese crew and either stayed back or were exchanged as and when needed. These transactions led to the beginning of Afro-Lusitanian food culture that the Portuguese would eventually adopt as their own years later when Goa joined their coterie of colonies. In the meantime, around the ports of India, Cafreal, which was a pejorative term used to address black Africans, transformed into a sub-cuisine that meant delicious food from the African kitchen. The dish that was tweaked using spices and arak soon became the most sought-after meal for the ravished tired souls arriving at the ports and found solace in the succulent bites of Frango à Cafreal, and a pint of dram.

As one of the earlier dishes to use chillies and vinegar, Frango à Cafreal’s travelled with Gama as he went scouring for spices and more delicacies around the world. On each port he anchored, the dish took on a local flavours. Story has it that by the time Frango arrived in India again with Gama along with a regiment of Portuguese soldiers, it had transformed into a brownish chicken dish with thick gravy – easily the grandad of the more vibrant green version of today.  

What did the dish tasted like when it finally landed in Goan shores is hard to assess, but there is a chance that Chicken Cafreal went through one last transformation before it began its leg towards popularity. The green masala for instance was a Goan addition, and the frying of chicken to mask the gamey-ness a popular muziris culinary technique. In fact, “frying” that was native to most port station gives some credence to the story of the Cafreal arriving to with Gama in Calicut first.

But there is little doubt that Frango became Chicken Cafreal in Goa with the Goan cooks, who not only cranked up the spiciness, tamed the acerbic taste of the vinegar but also transformed its appearance to an inviting green-hued chicken delicacy.

Unlike the pot cooking, the Goan Cafreal is essentially about using the green masala three ways, first as marination, then as basting and then as a thick sauce that the chicken roast is slathered with. This lends the dish not just with a refined dish but has turned Cafreal into a fine showcase of flavour-profiling, thus transforming what was once African slave dish into authentically Goan.

Such stunning was the transformation of Frango à Cafreal to Chicken Cafreal that the Portuguese began showcasing the Goan version on their feast tables, including those set for welcoming Christian Converts as well.

The standard Goan recipe to make Cafreal  back in the day began with cooking the meat in ‘espetada’ style that was smothered with a green paste of chillies, garlic and lime juice with salt to taste for special tables. The hint of spice, and the sharpness of vinegar went well with the high humid climate of Goa, and Cafreal becoming a popular celebratory dish. History has it that it was the pièce de resistance of the conversion tables and was served with those who converted into Christianity. With locals adopting to the dish that is a Christmas special these days, the sauce took on more native flavours including the addition of coriander, ginger, onions and spices like cumin, clove, and in a few cases cinnamon too.”

What remained of the Gama’s recipe was the way cafreal is finished. The chicken drumstick is first cooked for good 30 minutes in the green spice paste, after which they are bathed in butter and charred on the heat for the crispy fried finish. Once done, the leftover green paste is slathered over the crisped dish giving it that trademark moistness, aroma and the layers of taste beginning with the heat of the chillies, the freshness of coriander, the tanginess of lime and the sweetness from cinnamon, clove and cumin.

What’s the best Chicken Cafreal? Much like the Vindhaloo, there are many versions of the dish that is made today in Goa, however, a good Chicken Cafreal it is about the delicious meatiness of a native variety of chicken, the blend of chillies and the green paste that infuses it with the right kind of heat, warmth, and that fruity aftertaste.

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