Vasco de Gama’s voyage to India in the late 15th century laid the groundwork for the Portuguese empire, in which Goa, a small region on the southwestern coast of the Indian subcontinent with ample natural harbors and wide rivers, would come to play an important role. In the early 16th century, Goa was made the capital of the Portuguese State of India and remained as such until 1961, when the Indian army captured it.
Over four centuries of colonial rule, Goan intellectuals most often migrated to Portugal in search of education, especially in the 20th century. Yet following the annexation of Goa by India, many Goans, particularly those working in government and the military, accepted the state’s offer of Portuguese citizenship and made their way to Europe. Others migrated to Mozambique, another Portuguese colony that at the time had not yet gained independence.
There was always a close connection between the two states, as Mozambique used to be within the jurisdiction of the viceroy of India, and many Goans worked there, first as merchants and later as administrators and clerks. Moreover, Goa was famous for its medical and pharmacy school, and the doctors and pharmacists that trained there often took jobs in other Portuguese colonies.
Yet when the African state finally threw off Portuguese rule in 1975, many of the Goan transplants found themselves with few opportunities. It’s estimated that around 10,000 Goan families moved to Portugal after the decolonization of Mozambique and Angola.
In recent years, Goans have been migrating to Portugal under the law that allows those born in Goa (as well as Daman and Diu, also part of Portuguese India) before 1961 or their descendants up to the third generation to become Portuguese citizens.
Yet given these many waves of migration and assimilation over the years, it’s difficult to determine how many Goans are currently living in Lisbon. According to the Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora put together by the Indian government in 2001, there are around 70,000 Indians in Portugal, including those with ancestral ties to the Indian subcontinent and recent immigrants.
What is clear is that as more Goans migrated to Lisbon during the 1960s and 70s, particularly after Mozambican independence, their cuisine began to trickle into the public sphere. Prior to 1961, the year that Portuguese rule ended in Goa, Goan food was not prevalent in Portugal and could only be found in private homes.
One snack in particular – the chamuça, or samosa – conquered Lisboetas, eventually becoming the most beloved Goan specialty in the city. The rise of the chamuça, and one particular chamuça maker, is a unique lens through which to track the history of the Goan community in Lisbon.
According to Dr. Erica Wald, Senior Lecturer of Modern History at the University of London, the samosa “is of contested origin.” Some say the Portuguese introduced samosas, along with myriad other ingredients (potatoes, chilies, peanuts and maize, to name a few), to India, having learned how to create the thin wrapping from the Moors. Others, like Rui Rocha in his book A Viagem dos Sabores (“The Journey of Flavors”), attribute this type of dough to the Chinese. There is also an argument to be made, as Colleen Taylor Sen does in her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, that the samosa came from the various Middle Eastern cuisines that the Mughals embraced when they ruled India.
While all types of samosas are available in India today, vegetable samosas are the most common. “Partly, this is because there are so many vegetarians. Also, meat is more expensive than vegetables,” said Chitrita Banerji, an Bengali-American food writer and author of Eating India.
José Paula Rodrigues, owner of the Lisbon restaurant Delícias de Goa, recalls eating lots of shrimp samosas in Goa. For him, samosas were an integral part of daily life in both Goa and Mozambique, where he lived from 1967 until 1975. At the end of the day, people would gather on terraces to drink beers and boys with baskets full of chamuças would invariably show up to peddle their wares.
It was mostly after 1975, when Goans began arriving from Mozambique, that the chamuça started to gain popularity in Lisbon. It was the first “foreign” snack to take up real estate next to cod cakes and meat croquets on fry trays at shops and restaurants. Yet rather than the vegetable and shrimp chamuças that were so prevalent in Goa and later Mozambique, meat ones became the favorite in Portugal.
No one perhaps knows the chamuça business better than Basílio Fernandes. Born in Goa in 1951, he came to Lisbon with his parents when he was just a one-year-old. Growing up in Lisbon, he remembers an already established Goan community here, mainly consisting of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. (Basílio himself has connections in high places – he’s a friend of the current Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, whose family is of Goan origin.)
Basílio’s father, whose name is also Basílio Fernandes, founded Velha Goa, considered to be the first Goan restaurant in Lisbon, in the early 60s. At that time, it was difficult to source the spices and ingredients necessary to make Goan food. They had to be imported from London, unlike today where they can easily be found in the Martim Moniz area.
For years, the restaurant attracted a crowd to the Campo de Ourique neighborhood. They came to taste the Goan specialties, like vindalho, a dish with Portuguese origins that Goans made their own by using vinegar (not the traditional wine or olive oil) and cumin, clove and cinnamon to preserve and cook the meat. The delicious chamuças, though, were particularly beloved.
Basílio and his brothers left university to help their father as the restaurant grew more popular. Eventually, after teaching all of his recipes to his kids, he decided to leave the business. “My father handed me the keys, saying he wanted to retire,” Basílio said.
A musician himself and later a manager and producer for many top Portuguese musicians, Basílio began to host gigs at the restaurant. “We had live music in Velha Goa when there were no other clubs in the city, except Hot Club,” he said. It was exciting but also very tiring to run such an enterprise, and Basílio decided to retire at 55 years old. “I was exhausted,” he admitted. And so, 11 years ago, Velha Goa closed. “I went to Goa where I didn’t have to do chamuças,” he said, laughing.
For family reasons, he eventually returned to Lisbon and rented an apartment next to Padaria do Povo, an association in Campo de Ourique, and started to make vegetable chamuças for them in his home kitchen. But demand was so high for these savory snacks that he opened a small restaurant and takeaway.
“Now I have too many clients and I just want to go back to Goa,” he said while showing us his little farm in Costa da Caparica where he grows the different hot chile peppers, vegetables and herbs used in his dishes and sauces.
What began as a popular dish at Goan restaurants has gone mainstream. Nowadays you can find chamuças at snack bars, cafés and supermarkets all over the country. “It’s a big business,” said Basílio of these mass-produced samosas. Yet on the flipside, the snack is now so commonplace that other chefs are tinkering with the chamuça formula, like the Mozambique-inspired fish and spring samosas at Ibo or the special sardine samosas that Jesus é Goês made for one of the Santo António festivals, further deepening the cultural exchange and cementing the cultural links between Goa and Portugal.