Friday, August 26, 2011

Discovery of India in Lisbon

Monument to the discoveries, Lisbon
No worries if you don't know Portuguese, chances are you'll get by with a few Indian words!
I'm at a restaurant in Porto, the city that's given Port wine its name, and I see an order of potato fingers whizz past my table. Despite that irksome word calorie attached to it, it's such comfort food and, a la Jughead, I'm tempted to follow its aroma. Instead I settle for the next best option of hailing the waiter and trying to explain what I want. After a few minutes, the eureka! moment happens. “Ah! Batata,” he says. I nod, slightly stunned. In a country where language is a barrier, I didn't know ordering a plate of chips was as simple as mouthing a term used in my own country. Who in west, or east India hasn't heard of batata vada, batata sev and the likes? Over the next couple of days I come across quite a few Portuguese loan words found in our regional languages: sabonete (soap), almiro (almirah), camara(room), chave (key), balde (bucket), toalha (towel), ananas (pineapple) and pao (bread).

Names in South India are known for their record length but, as I saw it, Portuguese ones can easily give them a run for their money. I happened to glance at a cab driver's identity card and it read: Nuno Jose Da Silva Machado Garcia Vilela. How do people address him, I asked. “They call me Nuno,” he smiled, adding, “My original name is longer!” Six-seven deck names were pretty common. So when our guide used the phonetic alphabet to spell the name of a posh area adjoining Lisbon's splendid UNESCO site, Jeronimos Monastery (where Vasco da Gama prayed before departing for India in 1497 AD), a colleague noted it as: Richard Edward Simon Thames Edward Lima Othello. But all that the beleaguered guide had meant to say was, Restelo!

There's something very reassuring about home flavours. We had toured the Iberian Peninsula for about a week, and though we had been treated to outstanding cuisine, the taste buds longed for dal-chawal-roti. Very accommodatingly, our guide cancelled a prior booking and led us to a place local Portuguese recommended — India Gate, in Downtown Lisbon, one among the nearly 100 Indian restaurants here. No sooner had our group made itself comfortable than we had owner Hemant — who arrived here from Jamnagar six years ago to marry his ‘Internet lady love', a Gujarati settled in Portugal — scurrying around with our requirements. Oh! We felt quite at home placing the order in Hindi and then digging deep into an absolutely scrumptious fare, including baingan bartha, moong dal,raita, saag-paneer, a variety of non-veg besides aromatic basmati, crisp naan, and a host of accompaniments from papad, aachar, pyaz to namak. I requested a meeting with the chef, who turned out to be Vijeesh from Thrissur. I complimented the South Indian on preparing excellent North Indian food, and he beamed saying it was a team effort. His squad included a Nepali and two Punjabis: Baljit from Jalandhar and Mumtaz from Lahore, Pakistan.

The Galo de Barcelos or the Barcelos Rooster is the national symbol of Portugal.
As legend goes, an accused sentenced to death in the town of Barcelos, celebrated for its pottery, appealed for reversal of judgement one last time before the Judge, who was attending a banquet. The Judge asked him to prove his innocence. The man desperately looked around and, on seeing a platter of steaming hot fowl carried by a waiter, prayed aloud to the Lord to prove his innocence by making the rooster crow. It's believed the cooked fowl got up and crowed loudly. The amazed Judge pronounced his verdict: ‘Never sit on judgment of a fellow man, and let the rooster be a reminder of that for generations to come'.
To this day it remains an emblem of honesty and is meant to bring good luck. I saw the rooster splashed across all sorts of souvenirs, perched on doorways or preening in lovely gardens. Though nowadays available in assorted material and colours, it's traditionally made out of clay, painted black, and decorated with white, green, yellow and blue polka dots.

During World War II, Portugal was neutral territory and Lisbon quickly turned into a rendezvous zone for spies, chiefly because of its strategic Atlantic connections. Many a spy novel was set in and around the capital city and tourist agencies use that feature to their advantage by conducting special walking tours through spy routes. The most famous spy, though, to have set foot on Portugal is a certain James Bond. And Cascais, the cheerful town by the Atlantic Ocean, all of 30 minutes by train from Lisbon, flaunts the Bond connection via the flick On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), which was shot here and in the neighbouring casino town of Estoril.
While browsing Cascais's prettily-cobbled shopping street, I chanced upon a poster of Bond. “No one's been able to replace him,” I jokingly asked the Portuguese sales assistant. “None. They have all been merely 003.5,” he winked.

It seems a borrowed tradition from neighbour Spain but the Portuguese believe in it resolutely. It's the custom to eat 12 grapes on New Year's Eve as the clock strikes midnight. As a ritual, people are tuned to the town's clock tower and munch a grape with every chime. This is supposed to fulfil wishes and bring luck. I was told hardly anyone can finish all 12 in time and Lady Luck continues to act fickle. When I saw the lovely, big-sized grapes in the market, I realised why.

You can't have visited Lisbon and not savoured Pasteis de Belem, an egg custard-filled sweet puff pastry with a sprinkling of cinnamon and castor sugar. Not only will that amount to sacrilege, it's an epicurean loss too.
A legend in its own right, it was first prepared around the 1820s at the Jeronimos Monastery as a means of livelihood for nuns and monks. Since 1837, Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, adjoining the monastery, acquired the right to use its name. It bakes it by the hundreds every day and the recipe remains top secret.
The patisserie was typically packed when I visited. Every table had the same order, and when mine arrived, as I bit into its softly-crisp pastry and creamy filling I realised why locals said, “a dozen never reach home intact”! It is its sweet nostalgia that makes it so endearing.

(This article was published in The Hindu Business Line, on August 25, 2011)

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