by Vivek Menezes
It’s 1am, pouring heavily on an overcast monsoon night, and I’ve been waiting to talk to Sebastiao Frias for almost two hours.
But he’s still elbow-deep in his work, dusted from brow to toes in wheat flour, and moving with the distinctive balletic grace that master craftsmen acquire after decades of practice.
A seemingly unending series of trays are lined up next to his hip, become filled at full speed with little nubs of steadily ‘proving’ dough (each snipped off by feel alone, yet almost exactly identical to the next), then set aside to await a pre-dawn turn in the massive, ancient oven which dominates the largest room in this old house in Panjim, the pocket-sized capital city of India’s smallest state.
Frias began his evening’s labours as always, preparing thousands of ‘unde’ for baking. These palm-sized, egg-shaped loaves of crusty bread are the addictive favourite of Ponnjekars, the residents of this pleasant riverside city, where ‘pao bhaji’ has to be accompanied by an ‘undo’ or it is not considered the genuine article, and most dailyroutines begin with the ritual purchase of the morning’s supply from a deliveryman who brings the bread right to the front door of every household in the city (the evening’s supply comes separately, in another round of deliveries).
The clock keeps ticking, and I find myself mesmerized by Frias’s swift, efficient movements, the dough rolled out in table-top sized slabs, then kneaded into cables and ropes and knots, then back again across the counter.
By now, he had moved on the ‘katre’, the squarish, flat loaves that give shape to the sandwiches in innumerable tiffins across the city and state, with little toasted corners that small children love to chew on. These are a refined taste in Frias’s neighborhood, so he will lay out less than half the loaves-to-be than he did with the ‘unde’. In full flow, it takes no more than 25 minutes, the baker’s hands ablur in the shadows cast by the tube light on the wall behind him.
And now Frias acknowledges my presence again for the first time since he started work hours ago, He nods towards the dough at his fingertips – it’s finally time to lay out the iconic ‘poee’, the pita-like, whole-wheat bread that’s laced with fresh palm toddy.
Generations of locals have grown up on robust, toothsome ‘poee’ but the demand for its old-fashioned charms is dwindling. Frias now makes just a few dozen every day for his older clients, who count on his bakery’s ‘poee’ just as their parents and grandparents did in previous decades. The clientele is now insignificant, but Frias keeps producing ‘poee’ because it’s a way of life, just like every other aspect of his laborious existence, nothing much changed from generations of baking Friases past, stretching all the way back to the first decades after the establishment of the Estado da India in 1510.
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.
From Roman times and even before, exotic aromatics from the East were prized across Europe for their ability to transform bland staples into desirable delicacies.But these cameat an extraordinarily heavy price, comparable to gold. A chain of traders was required to shift the precious goods via Malaya and China to the ports of India, and then the Arabs took over, moving them by ship to Africa, whence they came overland to the Meditteranean to be collected by Venetian and Genoan traders who kept a near-monopoly going for centuries.
So when Columbus sailed off in 1492, the main reason was to try and break this centuries-old monopoly, to access the fabled spice markets of the Indies without having to go through middlemen. Thus began the so-called Age of Discovery, which remade the world, with Columbus crossing the Atlantic to the New World, and Vasco da Gama finally making the crucial breakthrough to sail right around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope to wind up in the sheltered bay of Calicut in May, 1498.
It was not a very grand arrival, contrary to European expectations. They were immediately greeted in their own languages, which confounded them. And then the Zamorin and his court were comrehensively unimpressed by the gifts that were presented to them: a dozen coats, six hats, a bale of sugar and four barrels of butter and honey. But da Gama had brought coin along as well, and the multinational traders of Calicut accepted it with alacrity.
The Iberian managed to fill his ship with tens of thousands of kilos of black pepper, bought for 3 ducats the hundredweight. Back in Lisbon, he found the price holding steady at 22 ducats – da Gama and his crew became rich overnight, and the royalcourt immediately began to pay close attention.
Less than three years later, Lopo Soares was back in Calicut with 9 ships in his flotilla. This time, the Portuguese shipped back more than a million kilos of pepper, and thousands of kilos each of ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. The captain and his entire crew became fabulously wealthy, and now there was no stopping the interest of the members of the court, and the sovereign himself.
In 1510, Alfonso da Albquerque moved stealthily up the western coastline of India towards Goa, alerted to the possibility of an easy takeover by local Saraswat Hindu chieftains who were tiring of the Adil Shah’s onerous tax regime. He finally took Goa after a brief, bloody battle.
Just 20 years later, the entire trading routes across the Arabian Sea were controlled by the Portuguese, who had already arrayed a string of 50 forts to control their monopoly, with further military outposts in Bengal and the Coromandel coast, and 100 fast ships devoted to cutting off and killing any competition that might arise.
By the dawn of the 17th century, the Cidade de Goa, the sprawling port city on the Mandovi River whose ruins are now known as ‘Old Goa’, had grown far larger than London or Paris in the same era, and become one of the most important marketplaces in the history of globalization.
It is here that Asia and Europe met, traded, and mingled on a large and sustained scale for the first time, with profound results that have changed the world since then. Goa became the locus of intense cultural exchange and technology transfer: the home of the first printing press in Asia, the first modern lighthouse, the first public library, the first universal civil code, ad infinitum.
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 via the Estado da India.
But it was bread that came in for special emphasis by colonial authorities, who found no substitute in India’s panoply of unleavened chapattis and rotis, thin dosas and appams, soft breads made from ground rice and lentils.
Wheat bread did not merely signify subsistence to the Europeans, 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. In time, the ‘Poders’ of Goa became ubiquitous, and constituted a powerful caste-based union that played an outsized role in state politics right into the 20th century.
The last Poees are ready for the oven, and Frias indicates that he will be ready to talk after he cleans up a bit. I retreat to the tiny balcony overlooking the front yard, and watch the rain crash down in sheets on this small cluster of traditional houses, tucked invisibly into a clump of trees at the base of the Altinho hill that dominates the centre of Panjim.
The Frias bakery is named after the nearby spring that gives it its name (Boca da Vaca = Mouth of the Cow). The modern flat that I live in with my family is just a kilometer south down the riverfront, but the scene I am looking out on feels part of a village world far different from what an Indian state capital is supposed to look like in 2011.
In fact, the Padaria Boca da Vaca came as a revelation to me when I found it a couple of years ago, having never stumbled across it while criss-crossing the city on foot since childhood, despite the fact that Panjim is by far the smallest state capital in the subcontinent (and not even close to the largest city in Goa, either).
The main commercial drag of the city – 18th June Road – is probably less than 150 metres away from the Frias establishment, but a universe apart nonetheless. Each step away from blocks of unremarkable apartment buildings, and up a tiny by-lane lined with bougainvillea, takes you further towards a small stand of soaring, old coconut trees, until you’re completely out of sight of the city, and the countryside atmosphere pervades,
But long before I visited Padaria Boca da Vaca, I had surely eaten its bread. Like every other traditional bakery in Goa, its bicycle salesmen fan out across the neighborhood and beyond, honking insistently on bulb horns that set Goan households salivating at first earshot. ‘Phonk phonk, phonk’ and you know bread is on its way in a fabulously democratic exercise where every home in the state – mansion, hovel, in-between – is served by the network, and 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.
Similar thoughts turn out to occupy the mind of Sebastiao Frias, when he finally settles down in the comfortable gloom of his balcao a little past two in the morning, with moonlight breaking though the rain clouds overhead.
“I think you are probably educated,” he says, peering at me rather doubtfully, “so I don’t have to tell you what bread is, what it means to the people.” Now his eyes start to shine with excitement, “bread is not just food to me, bread is not just money to me, bread is life, man.” The baker sits back with a sigh, “Poder means respectable, honest, trustworthy. We always deliver, we are known for nevercheating. This is what my family tradition means to me – we have been bakers for more than 300 years!”
The broad-shouldered poder gestured his world to me with his hands – the small hotel he owned in Majorda, the bank account that had grown enough to give him enough interest to live on without having to bother with the odd-hours and endless physical labour of the bakery profession. But, “I was born in this,” he says, with a shrug of acceptance and finality, “and there is no doubt that I feel a big gap in my life when I am way from the bakery, and the smell of my pao.”
‘Te poder gele and te unde gele’ is a pointed Konkani aphorism. “That bread is gone, and the bakers who made it too.’ But while decolonization meant the departure of the Europeans, our cultural landscape has been irrevocably altered.
Can we imagine Andhra food without chilis, or a Bengali culinary landscape without sandesh and rosogollas made from chhana (the cottage cheese preparation introduced by the Portuguese to Bengal)?
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.
Without much exaggeration, you could actually read much of modern human history in the spread of these little loaves.
To begin with, they’re made from wheat flour, one of the original grain-bearing grasses that were first cultivated on a large scale in Mesopotamia, and made human civilization possible in the first place. Wheat soon catapulted ahead of the other ancient grains, because it was discovered to have a secret ingredient – gluten.
Though this complex of proteins can be found in oats, barley and rye (and some others), it is found in the highest concentrations in wheat. It is gluten that combines with water to make dough made from wheat flour malleable, and it is precisely this stretchable consistency that is critical to the way that gases are trapped when they’re released by the active yeast in the dough. The result is something like the perfect food: nutritious, easily digestible, highly durable, portable and versatile, bread in all its forms.
But there is a twist, too. You have to take a great deal of trouble and time, and require considerable expertise to bake bread consistently and efficiently. So in every single bread-eating culture, professional bakers emerged quite early, and served the development of this new culinary habit.
Voila, Frenchmen frequent boulangeries to buy their daily baguettes, and Egyptians all troop to get their daily pitas from government-run bakeries, and that is what leads us straight back to Goa’s proliferation of traditional bakeries, and the burgeoning ranks of expert bakers who fanned out across the British and Portuguese colonial possessions all through the 19th century, right up to 1947.
(PART II to follow sometime soon!)