Bundled in an almost identical swathe of socio-cultural fabric, are the erstwhile Portuguese colonies of Goa and Brazil. Two unlikely places that have a lot more in common with each other than just that one unifying factor. Actually, make that three more... football, Natal (Christmas) and Carnaval. In that very order.
In light of currency, the first two are the most omnipotent. With the raucous, pre-Lenten Mardi Gras Carnival taking backstage till late February or early March next year. All dependent upon 2023’s liturgical calendar, of course.
Speaking of religion, both the ongoing Football World Cup and the upcoming Christmas weekend are much-hallowed extravaganzas in Goa and Brazil alike. Celebrated to the hilt across the length and breadth of both the geographically disparate, but culturally simpatico ‘Colonial Cousins’. All the while, with unbridled fervour and reverence at their very core!
There can probably be no better unifier than food that is often the raison d’être behind any celebration. And Christmas season in both Goa and Brazil is no different. With the much celebrated pork meat as the axis around which the festive feasting pivots. What is dukra mass (pork meat) to us Goans in Konkani, carne de porco (pork meat) is in the lilting Brazilian dialect of Portuguese.
Chief among the superstars of the porcine brigade in both places is sorpotel. In Goa, no Christmas table can be considered complete without this thick, brownish-maroon stew taking prime position. Made days in advance before serving, so as to let it “mature”, Goan sorpotel gets its robust ‘legs’ from loads of ginger-garlic, Kashmiri chillies and liberal splashes of coconut vinegar called sur thrown in.
These congregate with bits of pork meat, fat and offal like heart, liver, and tongue to result in a thick, unctuous gravy dish that’s best mopped up with the steamed rice and coconut bread called sanna or with the good old crusty brun pao, as I like to pair it with. Said to have originated in the Portuguese town of Alentejo, this is one true-blue edible colonial legacy that’s shared with equal gusto by both Goa and Brazil.
For, in north-eastern Brazil an almost similar dish called sarapatel exists. It is believed that the name literally means “confusion”, referring to the mish-mash of the aforementioned ingredients that are almost identical to the Goan version. Down to the secret ingredient of pig’s blood that is added towards the end to impart a bright red blush to this hearty stew.
Though not exclusively cooked at Christmas time, there are a few more pork-based delicacies that further augment this colonial kinship. Though they may have originated from heinous colonial practices like slavery and bonded labour, they have nonetheless become edible symbols of this shared legacy.
Called assado in both places, this green-hued roast dish made from pork butt (shoulder) is first marinated in a coriander, vinegar and green chilly paste before being spit-roasted. Interestingly, assado’s underpinnings are in the other former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. From where it was said to have been brought by slaves to both Brazil and Goa; where to this date still lives a very tiny community of Goans of African descent called Hampris.
Similarly, the rich, dark brown-hued stew called feijoada is another slave-legacy dish found in both places. This is because the stew is made up of relatively cheap ingredients like dried pinto and kidney beans, pork offal and meat offcuts. All this, along with a little smoked chouriço (as the similar Spanish chorizo sausage is called in Portugal and its erstwhile colonies) thrown in for added flavour. Most of these were discarded ‘scraps’ off the so-called masters’ tables. This, giving gravitas to the adage that “necessity is the mother of invention”.
You can call it goiabada, bocadillo, perad or by the rather inaccurate misnomer ‘guava cheese’, but one simply cannot ignore the role this trans-continental sweet plays during Yuletide season. In Goa, this halwa-adjacent, translucent, luridly red coloured sweet is second in command (after the venerated marzipan) of the kuswar (sweet selection) platter.
The Goan version is made from the pulp of slightly overripe guavas, sugar, red food colouring and some sort of shortening agent (my mum uses vanaspati). It involves a laborious process of constantly stirring the molten mixture to see this confection fructify. Often with third degree burns inflicted upon the hapless maker.
In Brazil, the similarly produced goiabada is believed to have emerged as a guava-based substitute for the Portuguese marmelada or quince cheese. But its ‘cheese’ appendage probably got attached to it once it was paired with the rather mild-tasting Minas cheese. This conscious coupling earned the pair the moniker, Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, several regional South American iterations of goiabada abound. Be it the Colombian bocadillo, the dulce de guayaba of the Caribbean or guayabate as it is known as in Spanish-speaking South America.
Bringing this Goa-Brazil affinity to a sweet end is yet another Christmas sweet—cocada. As its name might suggest to some, it is a coconut-based delicacy. Cooked (again, with a lot of stirring involved!) with semolina and sugar, once cooled it is cut into diamond shapes.
In Brazil, cocada is a regional Christmas treat also from the north-east of the country like sarapatel. Here, it is often long and thin rather than diamond shaped and eaten warm. Called cocada preta, the black version of the sweet is made with brown sugar and slightly burnt coconut for a mildly nutty, caramelised taste.
Interestingly, in Brazil, rei da cocada preta (literally, black cocada king) is used to refer to an arrogant person who thinks too highly of himself.
Now, I could say that that kind of sums up almost every Goan person, worth their last plate of sorpotel I know. Self, included.