Words by Joanna Lobo | Art by Anna Vu
The early morning is still and silent in Goa save for one shirtless man slowly climbing up a coconut tree. The toddy tapper carries a sickle-like knife across his chest, and has a rope and an earthen pot tied around his waist that thumps softly with every deliberate step up the trunk. At the top, he cuts a small opening in the bud of the tree, binds it with rope and taps rhythmically until the bud swells up. Then, he attaches the pot above the incision to collect the sap. In the afternoon, he goes up again to slow the dripping sap by blocking the hole with mud. And in the evening, he makes another trip up, to cut it open and tap it again.
This continues for three days.
On the third day, the toddy tapper finally brings the tree’s sap down to the ground in a gourd-shaped container called a dudhinem. This collected toddy—milky white and sweet to taste—is then transferred into a larger container where it immediately begins to ferment into toddy vinegar, or as it’s sometimes referred to abroad, Goan coconut vinegar.
Wine and wine vinegar are an integral part of Portuguese cuisine. But when the Portuguese arrived in Goa in 1510, they found that Indians did not make vinegar. In her book Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, Dr. Fatima da Silva Gracias writes that it was Portuguese Franciscan priests who first made vinegar from coconut toddy to substitute for the missing wine vinegar. In her book, The Penguin food Guide to India, Charmaine O’Brien concurs, “Vinegar is used extensively in Goan Catholic cooking; initially it was a substitute for the wine used in Portuguese cooking,” she writes. “Goa’s climate was not conducive to growing grapes and wine or European-style grape vinegar could not be made, so alcoholic coconut toddy was used instead as a base for vinegar.”
Toddy vinegar is fermented in stone or earthen pots called kollso that are never rinsed between batches. “The fermentation process uses wild yeast. The micro pores in the stone absorb the yeast so the culture is always there, ready to interact with the liquid stored in it,” says Hansel Vaz, the owner of Cazulo Premium Feni—an alcoholic beverage that is also made from toddy. “The taste of the vinegar changes from place to place because of the yeast culture.”
A few days to two weeks into the fermentation process, the vinegar maker drops a blackened red mud tile, blackened kakonn (bangle-shaped bread), burned coconut husk, or roasted rice into the brewing vinegar to introduce beneficial bacteria and add color. They then seal the pot with a cloth or wet clay, and leave it untouched for approximately two months. The finished toddy vinegar is then transferred to jars and bottles, ready to make its mark in Goan kitchens.
Acidity is an important element in Goan cuisine. Goan Catholics use toddy vinegar, while other residents of the state more often employ kokum, tamarind, bilimbi (tree sorrel), or ambade (hog plum). “The Portuguese taught us how to use toddy vinegar,” says Dr. Gracias. “It is particularly important for pork dishes, and beef dishes.”
“Goan Catholics use it in almost all dishes that require a souring agent. It lasts longer, gives a nice sour flavor to the dish, and acts as a preservative,” says chef Vasquito Alvares, who runs a catering company called Vasquitos Kitchen and is the managing chef of Elevar, a restaurant in Goa. Toddy vinegar is essential to proper vindalho—a sweet, sour and hot pork curry made with chillies that is Goa’s most famous dish outside the state. But this sour elixir is also a key ingredient in chicken xacuti—chicken cooked in roasted coconut and spices—, apa de camarao—a prawn pie made with local rice, coconut and stuffed with prawns—, cabidel—pork seasoned with spices, garlic, and ginger, and then slowly braised in pig’s blood—, and Goan pork sausages or chouriços. Within Goa, though, sorpotel is the star dish—and the one where toddy vinegar makes the most impact.
This pork stew made using all the off-cuts of the pig is traditionally thickened with pig’s blood—though it’s rarely used today both because people are squeamish and it’s difficult to source—, and crucially, hit with a healthy dose of toddy vinegar that essentially pickles the meat along with the spices. Sorpotel was especially popular with Portuguese sailors travelling between Lisbon and Goa because the vinegar actually makes the dish better with age. Today, it’s a regular fixture on the Goan Catholic table during festivals like Christmas, First Holy Communions, village feasts and all celebrations that call for good food.
The name sorpotel translates literally to mishmash or confusion. Fittingly, the dish’s origins are confusing and contentious. Some believe it’s a version of a lamb dish made in Castelo de Vide in Alentejo, Portugal, while others like Mumbai-based food writer Antoine Lewis contend the dish is a version of sarrabulho, a stew of minced pork cooked in pig’s blood, from the northern Portuguese province of Minho. “African slaves in the Bahian province of Brazil, who were given the offal and less delicate cuts of pork, transformed the dish into ‘sarapatel’, by adding onions, tomatoes, and chilli peppers,” writes Lewis in an essay in the book Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa. “This new dish found favor with the Portuguese who carried it to Goa where impregnated with Indian spices, it was transformed into sorpotel.”
“The trick to making a good sorpotel is to grind your own masala,” says Pauline Dias, who prepares the dish on order for customers of her home catering business in Mumbai. “Today, people buy readymade stuff and want to do shortcuts. This is a dish that requires time.”
Dias, who is now 77 years old, learned her mother’s recipe for sorpotel as a teenager. Working as a cook later in life, she perfected it to serve to the priests at the Orlem Church in Malad, Mumbai. Dias’s sorpotel begins with a variety of pork cuts, which she says should ideally have the skin and some fat intact. First, Dias boils the meat in water flavored with a paste of ginger and garlic. She then separates the meat and fat, cutting both into small cubes. The fat goes into the pan first to render with sliced onion. Next, Dias adds the rest of the meat, frying it until it browns. Then the masala goes in—a combination of ginger, garlic, Kashmiri chillies, red Goan chillies, jeera, cloves, black pepper. Once the spices are fried, the toddy vinegar goes in, lending the dish its signature acidic tang. Finally, Dias adds back the boiling liquid and braises the mixture until all the meat is tender. Then it rests. “Ideally, keep the sorpotel aside in an earthen kunddlem (an earthen pot used for cooking) for a few days, for it to get ripe,” Dias says. In the fridge, sorpotel can even last for weeks.
Toddy is an important part of the Goan kitchen. It isn’t just used to make vinegar; it is boiled to make the traditional Goan jaggery, a chocolate-caramel-like triangular madanchem god (literally, sweet from the tree). Toddy is also fermented, boiled and distilled to create coconut feni. And sorpotel is typically eaten with sannas, a spongy savory rice cake also made with toddy.
But the availability of this elixir is dependent upon toddy tappers, a fast-diminishing community. “You have to keep aside trees for toddy, you can’t pluck coconuts from the same one,” says Dr. Gracias. “It is difficult to find good toddy because there are very few toddy tappers. Some of the vinegar in the market is diluted with chemicals and has just acetic acid.”
At the markets in Goa, look for women selling baskets of produce like dried kokum, fat red rice, salted and dried fish, alongside their bottles of cloudy toddy vinegar . These brand-less, nameless bottles are often the real deal. The trick to sourcing a good vinegar is to look for a strong smell. “If it’s amber in color or completely clear, it’s probably been processed,” says Alvares. “Pure toddy vinegar is cloudy. If you leave it for a few days, it starts forming a sediment.”
True Goan toddy vinegar has a distinct taste. It’s slightly milder than apple cider vinegar, but with a sharp acidic bite and faint hints of sweetness. The best bottles carry a raw, slightly sweet fragrance, with none of the pungent, chemical smells associated with processed vinegars. Red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar can be used as a substitute in a pinch, but purists know the difference.
As Dr. Gracias puts it, “Without vinegar, you just don’t get that taste”.
A version of this article originally appeared in Acid League Magazine Volume 1.
Joanna Lobo is an independent journalist from India with a passion for storytelling rivaled only by her love for good food. Find her work at https://joannalobo.