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What is Vindaloo?

By S. N. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Fans of Indian cuisine will surely be familiar with the delights of the incendiary vindaloo, a staple on the menu of most Indian restaurants. But this entree in its various incarnations—pork, beef, chicken, lamb, with pork being the standard—is often as misunderstood in its preparation as its name is in translation. Popularly known as “vindy” in Great Britain, vindaloo as it is served up in the Indian restaurant of today generally bears little resemblance to its original forebear, a dish that originated not in India, but in Europe, and was transported to the Goa region of India by Portuguese explorers sometime following Vasco de Gama’s mission to that country in 1498.

Historically, vindaloo was called by its Portuguese name, vinha d’alho, which referred to the primary flavorings of vinha, the Portuguese word for wine vinegar, and alho, the term for garlic, both of which figured prominently in both the original Portuguese recipe and the modern Indian modification of the dish, now known as vindaloo. The meat originally prepared by this method was pork. As the Portuguese—and their culinary contributions—were assimilated into the Goan culture, the Goan influence began to be evident in the vinha d’alho,, with the addition of potent chilies and various spices, including ginger, coriander, and cumin.

The current version of this dish reflects this evolution, the result being a rather fiery, vinegary curry, most typically but not exclusively featuring pork, often including onions, tomatoes, and/or cauliflower. Although the traditional vindaloo does not historically include potatoes, modern vindaloos often do, as a result of an etymological faux pas. Simply, the word for “potato” in Hindi is aloo. Over time, as the Portuguese provenance became more obscure, alho became aloo, and a concomitant expectation arose that there would be potatoes in a dish with “potato” in its name. Gradually cooks obliged by including them in their vindaloos, with the result being tasty, if inauthentic. Also, chicken and lamb vindaloos grew in popularity, accommodating tastes and religious customs that eschew pork.

Although vindaloo masalas, or blends of spices and seasonings that give the vindaloo its signature piquant fire, vary by cook and region, most contain some combination of the following ingredients: garlic, vinegar, chilies, coriander, cumin, onions, ginger, peppercorns, and salt. Other ingredients that may typically be found in vindaloo masalas include tomatoes, cardamom, mustard seed, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, fenugreek seed, and cloves. Some recipes call for the addition of a small amount of brown sugar, for a touch of sweetness to counterbalance the tartness provided by the vinegar. Many cooks prefer to marinate the meat in the vindaloo masala for a period of hours or even days prior to cooking, believing this enhances the flavors of the Indian spices in the marinade.

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