Vindaloo is truly a food of empire. This famous curry is an adaptation of an old Portuguese dish called Carne de Vinho e alhos, which translates approximately into: meat cooked in wine vinegar and garlic. While it is now much more famous for being the ‘hottest curry on the menu’ in most Indian restaurants, the original story and traditional recipe is much more interesting.
One of my favourite books, Curry: A tale of cooks and conquerors by the English Historian Lizzie Collingham, describes the history of vindaloo beautifully. It tells the story of the chilli, which was brought to India by the Portuguese in the 15th century, along with their love of meat stews and extensive use of vinegar in cooking. In Goa, Portuguese cooking mingled with that of the locals, using these ingredients and combining them with some of the aromatic spices from the trade routes on which their empire was built – cloves, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom.
The British only discovered vindaloo when they invaded Goa in 1757, and were quickly taken with Indian food. They were to have their own significant influence on Indian cooking over the next couple of hundred years, creating curries to their own tastes and further introducing other foreign ingredients like tomatoes and potatoes into Indian cooking.
I love that you can almost trace the history of exploration and discovery of the modern world in a vindaloo recipe. You can see how it has evolved from a European stew in the 1400s to an Indian curry full of Eastern spices that the British fell in love with and adopted as their own. As Lizzie Collingham writes, these dishes “unite in their fiery sauces the culinary history of three continents: Europe, Asia and the Americas”.
Vindaloo also holds a special place in my own history. As I delve into my old handwritten recipes, I see so many variations and personal touches added by family members through the ages.
I have tried a few of these recipes and come up with my own adaption below, which I think best suited for our taste today – a moderate amount of vinegar and many, many fewer chillies. For those that like it very hot, don’t panic, chilli can very easily be added to make it hotter.
This recipe involves roasting and grinding the masala from scratch, but I will be taking orders to do it for you…. Making it a very, very easy and authentic curry to whip up.
Vindaloo masala (for one curry):
6 large dried red chillies
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1 teaspoon of turmeric
2-3 cardamom pods
2 dried bay leaves
Stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of peppercorns
Lightly toast the chillies in a frying pan or in the oven and set aside. Do the same for the cumin seeds, and the other dry spices. When the spices have cooled down, add them, and a spoon of turmeric, to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder (the thermomix does the best job), and grind until you have a fine powder.
1 kilo of meat (use chicken, lamb or beef with bones. Pork shoulder is also very good)
¼ cup of white wine vinegar
5 tablespoons of oil
Stalk of curry leaves (if you have them)
6-8 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
3 green chillies, cut vertically down the middle
2 large tomatoes
1.5 teaspoons of sugar
1.5 teaspoons of salt
1 heaped tablespoon of tomato paste
Make a paste from the curry powder and vinegar and mix it with the meat in a large bowl. Marinate overnight or at least for a few hours.
To make the curry, blend the tomatoes into a pulp and set aside. Heat oil in a large pot and fry the curry leaves, garlic and green chillies, then add the tomato. Tip in your marinated meat, fry for a minute or two, then add half a cup of water or stock and the salt and sugar.
Turn heat down to low, cover and cook very slowly until the meat is falling apart (around 45 minutes for chicken legs, 2 hours for red meat or pork). You want to cook it in as little water as possible, but keep checking, stirring and topping up to make sure it doesn’t burn or dry up. When the meat is cooked, add a bit more water for gravy and stir in the tomato paste.
Taste for salt and sugar before serving.. and if you like it hotter, you can stir in another green chilli or top up with some red chilli powder.