Chicken Cafreal: The Goan connection

Here’s how an Afro-Lusitanian slave-soldier sustenance meal became Goa’s culinary pride.

Vasco Da Gama. The famous sailor is remembered for many things. Thanks to his escapades, India was found; the West learnt that the Earth doesn’t end at the horizon; and chillies. But for most Goans, Gama has a bitter-sweet connection. After all, it was with Gama that paneer – or at least the art of making it – came to our shores; he brought in cashew that ultimately spawned the signature drink, feni; and, of course, an array of dishes that helped shape the popular Goan food book of vindaloos, sorpotel, sausages and xacuti. And the Frango à Cafreal. The Afro-Lusitanian slave dish that, in its modern avatar today, is known as Chicken Cafreal, and is a must at every feast table.

Chicken cafreal
Chicken Cafreal although usually found with the trademark green hue these days, started life as a blackish-brownish dish.

Fascinatingly, the Cafreal, identified with its characteristically green hue, was among the first Portuguese imports to arrive at Goa with Gama. Old trade books have this interesting conversation between a Tunisian Muslim and Vasco da Gama at the port of Calicut, where when asked “Que diablo tetrajo aca?” (“What the devil have you brought here?”), Gama, by then a seasoned dealbreaker, replied “pepper and souls”. Back then, it was common for merchants and sailors to make the arduous journey to Indian muziris (ports) for spices, especially pepper that was worth more than gold. However, it was what Gama had to offer in return that made history – the sailor offered Chicken Cafreal or Galinha (Frango), then a blackish-hued slave dish that the Portuguese took a liking to because of its sharp flavour and sea-hardiness. “It stays on, unspoiled.”

That line not only earned him an entry into the port but an audience with the Zamorin of Calicut, who found the deal good. And gladly exchanged a few samplings and a gunny of peppercorn for vinegar, chillies and Chicken Cafreal along with an African slave who knew to make it all. The legend, if true, leaves us pondering two things: First, if Chicken Cafreal came to Calicut first, why didn’t it gain popularity there? And second, how did it reach Goa?

Interestingly, chilli, while readily accepted as a return gift in Calicut, didn’t come immediately to use. Pepper remained the preferred spice. There is little evidence to show the direct influence of the dish beyond the ports, but there is a good chance that it was popular in the ports, which served both as trading station and cauldron of culinary influence, and it is possible that the dish may have travelled coast to coast before it arrived in Goa.  

There was, of course, another route for the Cafreal to reach Goa, notes Saurabh Khanna (GM, The Park, Calangute), “and that was the rustic yet delicious tasting food from Angola and Mozambique that arrived on the shores thanks to the Portuguese sailors who followed Gama’s suit of getting a dish and slaves as exchange for the spices they needed. These transactions led to the beginning of Afro-Lusitanian food culture that the Portuguese would eventually adopt as their own years later when Goa joined their coterie of colonies. In the meantime, around the ports of India, Cafreal, which was a pejorative term used to address black Africans, transformed into a sub-cuisine that meant delicious food from the African kitchen. The dish that was most sought after was Frango à Cafreal, a succulent grilled chicken that had just enough jus and spice to tickle the staid tastebuds of the sailors along with a pint of desi beer to feel happy again.”

As one of the earlier dishes to use chillies and vinegar, Frango à Cafreal travelled with Gama as he went scouring for spices and more delicacies around the world. And at each port he anchored, the dish took on local flavours. Legend has it that when Frango arrived in India next, along with a regiment of Portuguese soldiers, it was a slightly brownish chicken with thick gravy – easily the earlier iteration of the more vibrant green one we have today.  

What the dish tasted like when it finally landed on Goan shores is hard to assess, but there is a chance that Chicken Cafreal went through one last transformation before it began its leg towards popularity. The green masala, for instance, was a Goan addition, and the frying of chicken to mask the gamey-ness, a popular muziris culinary technique. In fact, “frying”, that was native to most port stations, lends some credence to the story of the Cafreal arriving with Gama in Calicut first.

Chicken cafreal
Cooking Chicken Cafreal is essentially about using the green masala three ways, first as marination, then as basting and then as a thick sauce that the roasted chicken is slathered in.

But there is little doubt that Frango became Chicken Cafreal in Goa with the Goan cooks, who not only cranked up the spiciness, tamed the acerbic taste of the vinegar but also the appearance of the dish into an inviting feast rather than the black-brownish grilled meat it was before.

Unlike pot cooking, the Goan Cafreal is essentially about using the green masala three ways, first as marination, then as basting and then as a thick sauce that the chicken roast is slathered with. This lends the dish not just a refined taste but has turned Cafreal into a fine showcase of flavour-profiling, thus transforming what was once an African dish into an authentically Goan one.

So stunning was the transformation of Frango à Cafreal to Chicken Cafreal that the Portuguese began showcasing the Goan version on their feast tables, including those set for welcoming Christian converts as well.

“A common recipe followed in those days to make Cafreal,” explains Chef Prasad Dalavi (Executive Chef, Veeksar The Fern Hotel Kolhapur), “was to make the meat in ‘espetada’ style that was smothered with a green paste of chillies, garlic and lime juice with salt to taste for special tables. Eventually, with Cafreal becoming a popular meal for Goans, especially those who converted, the green paste evolved with the gradual addition of coriander, ginger, onions and spices such as cumin, clove, and, in a few cases, cinnamon too.”

“However,” adds Chef Dalavi, “most Cafreal is finished alike. The chicken drumstick is first cooked for a good 30 minutes in the green spice paste, after which they are bathed in butter and charred for the crispy fried finish. The finishing includes tossing them in the leftover green paste, thus giving it that moistness, aroma and the layers of taste beginning with the heat of the chillies, the aromas of coriander, the tanginess of lime and the sweetness from cinnamon, clove and cumin.”  

Clearly, there is little to reveal the African origin of the dish aside from the name “Cafreal”. What’s the best Chicken Cafreal like? The answer, while tough to answer, thanks to the many versions present today, it is, as Khanna puts it, “about the delicious meatiness of a native variety of chicken and the blend of chillies that lends the dish that heat followed by the fruitiness to make Cafreal finger-licking good”.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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