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The secret sauce of Kochi's Luso-Indians

Musaadth, a complex condiment belonging to the Luso-Indian community, has survived mainly through recipes and memories

Tsarina Abrao Vacha’s ‘musaadth’.
Tsarina Abrao Vacha’s ‘musaadth’.

It was while walking down a quaint Fort Kochi street dappled with sunlight dribbling through giant rain trees, that Johann Kuruvilla told me about Kochi’s hyper-local, vinegar-laden mustard condiment, musaadth. Traditionally made by painstakingly grinding mustard, garlic, ginger, spices and seasonings with vinegar (ideally, Kerala’s indigenous coconut vinegar) by hand, in large stone mortars with heavy stone pestles, it is a complex and layered condiment, with a distinct sting and a hint of sweetness from sugar. It is typically served with robust meat roasts, especially pork (although it goes well with a beef roast too). In the absence of documentation, musaadth has survived mainly through recipes and memories passed down through generations of Kochi’s Luso-Indian families. This also means there’s no standardised recipe for musaadth.

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Kuruvilla, who runs the Kochi Heritage Project that organises heritage walks exploring Kochi, is a treasure trove of knowledge about its vibrant history. Kochi’s colonial encounter gave birth to diverse mixed-race communities and a hybrid culture and customs. Musaadth, he says, is a speciality of one such community, Kochi’s Luso-Indians, who are of Indo-Portuguese descent.

The word Luso is derived from Lusitania, the ancient Roman province in the Iberian peninsula, comprising parts of modern-day Portugal and Spain. As Charles Dias explains in his 2013 book The Portuguese In Malabar: A Social History Of Luso Indians, “The policy of politics through marriages was introduced by Afonso de Albuquerque, who married Portuguese soldiers with Indian women, which resulted in a social group faithful to Portuguese trade centres; this mixed race, or mestices, eventually formed the Luso-Indian community in Malabar.” However, in legal and official parlance, Luso Indians are clubbed under the larger umbrella of Anglo-Indians.

Kochi-based architect and fifth-generation baker Tsarina Abrao Vacha lights up when I ask her about musaadth. “Oh there’s always a bottle at home. I have some sitting in my refrigerator right now,” says Vacha, whose great-great-grandfather owned the legendary Rozario’s bakery (now closed) in Ernakulam in 1852.

Unlike the Bengali fermented mustard sauce kasundi that has received a lot of attention in these past decades, musaadth has led a quieter life. “The exact origins of musaadth are shrouded in obscurity, due to lack of documentation. But there’s little doubt about its Portuguese lineage, although it is likely to have evolved over time,” says Kochi-based author Tanya Abraham.

“Every family has their own recipe for the traditional condiment,” says Vacha. “Some people, for instance, add cashew nuts, another Portuguese import to this country, to enhance the creaminess and mouthfeel, while others replace sugar with raisins, sometimes soaked in brandy or rum. Some add a glug of French brandy or expensive cognac for added complexity, ” she says.

The combination of spices used to flavour it could also vary. “On the other end of the spectrum is a minimalist, boiled musaadth made by grinding mustard with salt, turmeric, pepper and some garlic in vinegar and then simmering the mixture on low heat. You could call it the poor man’s musaadth,” she says.

Whatever the recipe, one ingredient that no musaadth is complete without is the moringa bark. Moringa trees are common in Kochi, and often grow in people’s backyards. In fact the bark—only the inner pale green layer—is also an essential ingredient in Fort Kochi’s version of the vindaloo, another dish of Portuguese descent which is distinct from its more famous Goan cousin.

As Abraham points out, the moringa bark has a distinct horseradish-like pungency that adds zing to the condiment.

Nimmy Paul, a professional culinary instructor based in Kochi, explains why the musaadth makes a good pairing with meat, especially fat-laden pork. “A combination of mustard, vinegar and moringa bark, musaadth is also know to have potent digestive properties,” says Paul.

Vacha recalls that after a heavy meal, elders in the family would often prescribe a spoonful of musaadth.

Paul belongs to the Syrian Christian community and though this condiment is not a part of the community’s culinary repertoire, she makes it at home, based on a recipe given by a friend. “I tweaked the recipe according to my preferences to make my own version of the condiment,” says Paul, who often serves her pork or beef roast with homemade musaadth.

Still served at celebratory meals of the Luso-Indian community, the condiment was a mandatory fixture at elaborate banquets—also referred as “dish” banquets—that once crowded Fort Kochi’s social calendar. At these banquets, koakis—local master chefs— would roll out a vast repertoire of exquisite dishes.

While making musaadth is a cherished annual ritual in Vacha’s family, homemaker Faylene Lobo prepares it round the year. Lobo lives in Vypin, an island off the shore of Fort Kochi that is still home to a small population of Anglo-Indians, including Luso-Indians like Lobo. Lobo is known among her friends and family as the custodian of old family recipes handed down through generations in her family, and by extension of her community’s food. And her musaadth is a veritable crowd pleaser.

Lobo’s musaadth uses split kernels of mustard that are ground up with a host of ingredients like the seeds of dried red chillies, ginger, garlic, a smidgen each of spices such as cinnamon and cloves, sugar and salt. The ingredients are first soaked in vinegar overnight. “While musaadth can be eaten fresh, it tastes the best if it’s allowed to age for about 10 days,” says Lobo.

It is a versatile sauce and can be used in various other ways. “Use it as a condiment to jazz up a cheese sandwich,” she suggests. The sauce can be bought online on Those travelling to Kochi can enquire about musaadth with local vegetable vendors; chances are some of them will have a bottle or two tucked in their cart.

“My maternal grandmother only made musaadth for Christmas and served it with a massive smoked leg of ham that was cooked for 8 hours and sliced the day after,” says Abraham. The tradition of pork and mussadth on Christmas is one Abraham still maintains. That’s the thing about musaadth. It is not just a condiment but a repository of collective memories and history of a people, making it a truly special cultural heirloom.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer who divides her time between Kolkata and Mumbai.

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