Chillies arrived in India early in the 16th century, not long after Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492.
Why did Columbus head west? The main reason was to find a passage to India and the “spice islands” in the Pacific. Up until that time, pepper was carried to China (or Malaysia) and then transported across the Indian Ocean to India, then across the Arabian Sea to Africa, then overland to the Mediterranean and finally entering Europe via Venice or Genoa. Towards the end of the 15th century, the price of pepper was spiralling upwards and a lot of the blame was put on the multitude of middlemen in the process, particularly the Venetians and Genoese. A western sea route to the spice source was needed.
Columbus was convinced that he had succeeded in finding the western route when he reached the Caribbean and this conviction was strengthened when he saw the locals spicing up their meals with pepper.
But pepper wasn’t being used in the Caribbean – capsicums (chillies) were being used. Varieties of these capsicums had been used in cooking for thousands of years in the Americas. One of the major users of the spicy capsicums was, and still remains, Mexico. The Aztecs were a major force in Mexico for a long time and their word for the capsicum was “chilli”.
In this way, the humble chilli pepper was “discovered” by Europeans.
In 1498 a small Portuguese fleet of 3 ships, led by Vasco da Gama, sailed down the west coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Arabian Sea and landed at the Malabar Coast of India. The real sea route to India had been found (remember, this was long before the Suez canal was built).
Trade flourished between India and Portugal and the Portuguese established settlements in this area of India with their capital at Goa. The Portuguese quickly took over control of the spice trade and built forts to protect their interests.
And the Portuguese brought chillies from the New World and used them in their cooking in, and around, Goa.
The Portuguese ate a lot of meat, mainly beef and pork, and added chillies to the ingredients in their dish of meat cooked in wine vinegar and garlic. The Portuguese for this dish is “carne de vinho e alhos” – “vinho e alhos” was badly pronounced by the local population and became “vindaloo”.
The local Indian population usually did not eat meat – they were Muslims (who didn’t eat pork), Hindus (who didn’t eat beef) or vegetarians. But all that changed when the Portuguese introduced Christianity and even more so when the Inquisition arrived in Goa in 1560.
The Inquisition persuaded (or coerced or forced) the Indian population to become Catholics. In 1550, around 20% of Goans were Catholics and this had reached around 67% by 1650.
And the Catholic Church issued edicts saying that it was OK to eat pork and beef.
And so, gradually, the local population began to eat meat.
The British invaded Goa in 1797 and discovered the vindaloo. And they loved it. The British left Goa after less than 20 years and took Goan cooks, and recipes, with them back to British India. After that it didn’t take long for the vindaloo to reach Britain where it established itself as a favourite dish, especially pork vindaloo.
Use of the chilli spread within the Indian sub continent from Goa. The chilli was as spicy as the Indian long pepper (that it quickly replaced), was easy to grow and easy to store (the Indian long pepper was hard to store because it was susceptible to mould).
So, contrary to popular belief, the chilli did not originate in India – it is a spice from the New World (the Portuguese did indeed ship a lot of chilli to Europe, mainly in the form of chilli powder).
The blending of the Portuguese dish of “carne de vinho e alhos” and chillies resulted in the vindaloo, for which the rest of the curry-eating world is grateful.
There are some great vindaloo curry recipes on the Curry Focus website for you to enjoy.