Monday, October 31, 2011

The bread of life

The Portuguese had food on their mind from the moment that they arrived in India – after all it was the scent of spices that lured them across the oceans in the first place.

Right alongside, the diet of the subcontinent changed permanently: potatoes were introduced (India is now the world’s largest producer); chilies came in for the first time. Corn, cashews, guavas, pineapples, custard-apples, papayas, all came into the Indian diet through the Portuguese.

But bread came to be the most famous import of the Europeans, who found no substitute in India’s versions of unleavened chapattis and rotis, thin dosas and appams, soft breads made from ground rice and lentils.

Wheat bread did not merely signify subsistence; it was required for the celebration of Mass. The early Portuguese presence in India was missionary-heavy, and they made bakeries and baking into a priority. It was missionaries who trained a large number of converts from the ‘Chardo’ caste (of Kshatriyas), from South Goa in the arduous art of baking bread in wood-fired clay ovens, and found an alternative to yeast in fresh coconut toddy.

Every traditional bakery in Goa, has its bicycle salesmen fan out across the neighborhood and beyond, honking insistently on bulb horns ‘Phonk phonk, phonk’ and you know bread is on its way to every home in the state.Everyone buys the same article for the same price: the government-mandated Rs. 2.50 per undo, katre or poee. It’s beyond a daily staple, and more like a basic human right: if every Goan doesn’t get his fresh daily pao, every politician knows that the government will fall immediately.

Bread is right at the forefront of this cultural exchange – in fact, the original Portuguese word ‘pao’ itself is a amazing cross-over phenomenon, incredibly widespread, and used in every Asian language from Japanese to Marathi.

It take’s a great deal of trouble and time, and require considerable expertise to bake bread consistently and efficiently. For us it has been part of our life style, the silent part of our daily mornings without which many of our discussions and debates are not complete an integral part of the menu in various cafes and restaurants spread across Goa making bhaji’s, omelette's, and all the dishes taste better.

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