The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine , By Colleen Taylor Sen

The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine Food on the Move Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1996 Colleen Taylor Sen More information visit:

The Portuguese conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries are a remarkable chapter in the history of empire. Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese retained a dominant position in the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean and an important share of the trade east of the Strait of Malacca. At the heart of this mercantile empire, was India, with its wealth of cloth, luxury goods, and spices. The Portuguese even used the expression Estado da India (State of India) to describe their conquests between the Cape of Good Hope and the Persian Gulf on one side of Asia, and Japan and Timor on the other. At its height, Estado da India comprised a chain of more than 40 forts and factories (bandars) extending from Brazil to Japan (Figure 1). Portuguese was the lingua franca of this far-flung empire.

The products traded included gold from Guinea, South-East Africa, and Sumatra; sugar from Madeira, Sao Tome, and Brazil; pepper from Malabar and Indonesia; mace and nutmegs from Banda; cloves from the Spice Islands; cinnamon from Ceylon; gold, silks, and porcelain from China; silver from Japan; horses from Persia and Arabia; and cotton textiles from Gujarat, the Malabar Coast, and Bengal. The merchandise was bartered in the interport trade of Asia or taken round the Cape of Good Hope to Lisbon and Antwerp, a major distribution center for Asian spices and other goods.

This vast empire was launched in 1415 when a fleet of 59 galleons and 50,000 men attacked the Arab stronghold of Ceuta on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar. By 1515, the great conqueror Albuquerque had seized the three most important centers of the spice trade: Malacca, Ormuz, and Goa, wresting control of this trade away from the Arabs. However, the glory days of the empire lasted little more than a century. The task of maintaining such an extensive empire was too great for a small nation of around 1 million population. Sufficient sailors could not be found to man their fleets, so that convicts and outlaws were recruited. The Portuguese system of administering the spice trade was also inefficient, if not obstructive.2 In 1580, the crowns of Spain and Portugal were united under Philip II of Spain, who treated Portugal as a conquered country. The real blow came when Portuguese ports were closed against the rebellious Dutch. Forced to get an empire of their own, the Dutch wrested much of the trade in Southeast Asia, Ceylon, and India from the Portuguese. The French, English, and other European powers followed. By the middle of the 17th century the Portuguese role as the dominant mercantile power in Asia was virtually over (although they left Goa only in 1961 and will leave Macau in 1998).


On the Indian subcontinent, the Portuguese established trading posts in three areas: along the Malabar coast at Calicut, Cochin, Goa, and other towns; on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka); and in Bengal in the northeast. Goa was the capital of the Portuguese empire in the east and a central clearing house for merchants from Arabia, Siam, Java, Malacca, Persia, China, Japan, even America. So great was Portuguese influence that at one point, it looked as if King Sebastian (1557-78) might occupy the throne of the Great Moghuls. According to legend, when Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498, a Moor from Tunis asked him in Castilian “May the devil take you. What brought you here?” His answer was “We have come to seek Christians and spices.” The conversion of local people was always a major Portuguese objective and was accompanied by widespread intermarriage with local inhabitants at all levels of society. Today, the major Portuguese legacies in India, especially on the West Coast, are the Catholic religion and churches, the Portuguese language, and the prevalence of such surnames as (Da) Souza, Castro, Cruz, Dias, Fernandes, Gonsalves, Fonseca, Pereira, Rodriques, (Da) Silva, (Da) Souza, Correa, etc. Because of internal migration, these names are also found in Calcutta and other Indian cities. Gastronomically, the Portuguese legacy was widespread, profound, and enduring. Their main heritage was, of course, the fruits and vegetables brought from the Western Hemisphere, Africa, the Philippines, and China and Southeast Asia which were rapidly and thoroughly integrated into local cuisines. Another was the creation of Goan cuisine, which combined Portuguese techniques and dishes with Indian spices.


The Portuguese first visited Bengal in 1517, just 33 years after Bartholomew Diaz landed at Calicut on the East coast. Bengal was an independent kingdom under the Muslim Lodi dynasty, which was replaced by the Moghuls in 1576. Bengal was then an extremely wealthy land known far and wide as “the Paradise of India.” Rich in rice, cotton, and other agricultural products, it had long been the center of a luxury trade in spices and cloth. The famous muslins of Dacca, much sought after by Roman women, were exported in large quantities to Provence, Italy, and Lanquedoc in the 17th century. The chief port was Chittagong (“Chatigam” on the map in Figure 2) and the capital was Gaur. Kalikatta, which was to become Calcutta, was an insignificant village on the left bank of the Hooghly River. In 1580 Akbar granted the Portuguese a charter to settle in a village on the banks of the Hooghly River 25 miles upstream from the site of present-day Calcutta. Called Hooghly or Porto Pequeno, it became the common emporium for vessels from other parts of India, China, Malacca, and The Philippines. Merchants took advantage of the cheapness of goods in Bengal and sold them at an enormous price in their numerous ports in the east. At first the Portuguese traders would remain there in the rainy season buying and selling goods and return to Goa when the rains were over, but eventually they formed permanent settlements. In the 1670s, there were said to be at least 20,000 Portuguese and their descendants in Bengal, although only about 300 were pure Portuguese. About half lived in Hooghly, the rest in Satgaon (Porto Grande), Chittagong, Banja, Dacca and other ports. They lived in great luxury, dressed in the style of the local nawabs, and “made merry with dancing slave girls, seamstresses, cooks and confectioners.”3 Slavery was widespread, so that households often had dozens of domestics. One of their specialties was the preparation of sweetmeats from mangoes, oranges, lemons, ginger, and pickles. Portuguese bakers were also known for their bread, cakes, and other forms of pastries, filled and flavored for various occasions. The Bengali settlements were under the authority of the government in Ceylon, not the viceroy in Goa because of difficulties with communications. However, in reality, neither this government nor the home government in Lisbon had much to do with them, especially after the merger with Spain. Authority was weak, and adventurers tried to set up independent kingdoms, often in alliance with local rulers. Their men, convicts and outlaws, became plunderers and pirates in alliance with the Arakanese and Moghs, a semi-tribal Buddhist people who lived around Chittagong. Known as Feringhi (from the Arab word “Frank”, once applied to the Crusaders), these brigands reaped a reign of terror over the rivers and swamps of eastern Bengal.

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