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The Zamorin of Calicut was signally unimpressed by Vasco da Gama and made it clear that he expected “gold, silver, velvet and scarlet” in return for Portugese access to spices. Image: From painting showing the Zamorin of Calicut on his throne, by Veloso Salgado,1898 (Image source: Wikipedia)

In the end, they are the ones who discovered us.

 – 15th Century Portugese Count on hearing what the Zamorin of Calicut expected in return for the spices sought by Portugal

THE PORTUGESE CONQUEST of Goa in 1510 took both the Sultan of Bijapur and the Portugese by surprise. The Portugese had set out only to test new waters, for they were eager to reinvent themselves after the ill will they had built in the Malabar.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for them to procure supplies of pepper and spices. Local suppliers, unhappy with the menacing highhandedness of the Portugese, saw it fair to place barriers to their procurement of pepperWhether by accident or design, the later Portugese introduction of chillies to India would dent the monopoly of pepper over pungency – and extract a measure of poetic if pungent justice for the slighted Portugese.

Meanwhile, drained by their complicated relations with powers in the Malabar, the Portugese general Albuquerque had decided to set out to Hormuz or the Red Sea, where his equity was in place. The advice to sail to Goa instead, came from a certain Thimmayya (Timoji), a local corsair who worked for the Vijayanagar Empire.

But the taking of Goa was not a cakewalk and the Portugese had to abandon the city a few months after their first assault. From there they retreated to Anjediva (an island off the coast of Goa), where he gathered an improved fleet and material resources.

What food did the incoming Portugese encounter in India? We know that in Calicut a few years earlier, Vasco da Gama and his team had been treated to a meal at the home of a local official of rank. It consisted of rice, butter and boiled fish. The preparation was received well by all of the Portugese party, with the exception of the notoriously grim da Gama. A more culturally diligent Portugese, Duarte Barbosa, took time and the privilege of access, to take note of the dining ritual of the Zamorin.

The Zamorin’s meals would follow a format. In the run up, he would bathe in his palace tank, worship towards the east and dress in fresh garments. His meal would first be offered by priests to the Gods. The ruler would seat himself upon a low, round seat. He would then be brought a silver tray containing small silver saucers. A copper pot of boiled rice would be placed upon an adjoining stool. The attendant would ladle rice onto the silver plate. In the smaller saucers, the attendant would serve curry (meat-based, plant-based, or both), relishes, chutneys and sauces.

It is fairly certain that the Zamorin’s cooks designed his meals according the precepts of Ayurveda – with deference to the season and the Zamorin’s own disposition. Apart from those who waited on him during the meal, no one else was allowed to watch him as he ate (which makes Barbosa’s observations either a feat of tact, investigation, or reasonable supposition). A silver ewer of water was also placed before him, from which he periodically drank by lifting it high and pouring the water into his mouth, not allowing the container to touch his lips. On conclusion of the meal, he would wash himself.

The palace priests would carry any leftovers into the courtyard, and summon crows to partake of the offering.

  • Goa-Kanara Portuguese Relations, 1498-1763, by Bhagamandala Seetharama Shastry
  • The Routledge History of Western Empires, by Robert Aldrich, Kirsten McKenzi
  • The Career and Legend of Vasco Da Gama, by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
  • The First Spring: The Golden Age of India, by Abraham Eraly
  • Society in India, by A R Desai
  • History of India, edited by A V Williams Jackson
  • Spice Roots by K Rajagopal (The Hindu, July 20, 2013)