East Indian cuisine owes its essence to the bottle masala, which is a blend of over 30 spices. The East Indians — mistaken for people living in Eastern India — were the first inhabitants of Mumbai. Named after the British East India Company, the community went up against the name ‘East India’ soon after the British ended their colonial rule in India. They however, thrived under the British rule. The influence is there for everyone to see, as they blended British cooking styles with their cuisine, which was predominantly Maharashtrian.
Maharashtra has vigorously impacted the community’s culinary scene, which also draws substantial parallels with Goa. The cooking methods employed pottery and clay vessels, and were cooked over wood or coal fires. Although the community has preserved their pre-Christian Marathi culture and traditions, Portuguese influences, too, have been absorbed.
If there is one thing that has become synonymous with East Indian cooking, it is the bottle masala which is a kitchen staple in East Indian Catholic homes. Since the masala is traditionally stored in beer bottles, it derived its moniker, bottle masala. A blend of about 30 spices — including Kashmiri red chillies, wheat, nutmeg, asafoetida, channa dal, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, pepper, sesame seeds, shahi jeera, poppy seeds, mustard seeds, saffron, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves — this recipe is a heavily guarded secret. Each family has its own take on it. The bottle masala, however, doesn’t overpower a dish in the way most different masalas do. One can utilise it with chicken curry, mutton curry, fish curry, shellfish, beans or different types of vegetables, and it doesn’t leave your palate burning.
The East Indian Catholic community is known for its foogaths, a side dish where vegetables are fried into batters made with flour, yeast and fermented coconut toddy. Owing to the numerous post-Christmas weddings, their pulao mixed with dried fruits — aptly called wedding rice — is the ideal foil to the spicy Mutton Khudi Curry and the Duck Moile, which is traditionally eaten after Christmas Day.
The East Indians even have their own version of the sorpotel (a pork dish), where they use the bottle masala in the recipe. As a community, they prefer eating non-vegetarian food and have contributed to the culinary world with dishes such as vindaloo, sorpotel, boiled tongue, mutton chops, meat ball curry, kanji curry and beef croquettes while retaining Maharashtrian flavours in the cuisine through an abundant use of coconut, and of course, the bottle masala.
The East Indians speak Marathi is a blend of pure Marathi and Portuguese. But the working-class in Mumbai today prefer to speak in English since they are educated and hold good jobs.
(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)