The Bottle Masala

By Anurag


‘Vimos buscar Christoas e especiaria!’ or ‘In search of Christians and Spices!’ was the famous reply given by Vasco da Gama to the interpreters of the Zamorin monarch of Calicut when asked why he had travelled so far away from his home country. The topic of discussion in this essay, fortuitously, is a historical outcome resulting from the amalgamation of these two elements in the Portuguese Indian Empire.

When examining the history of societies and cultures from a broad perspective, it often reveals a domino effect where certain developments in one part of the world can lead to significant changes in the socio-cultural life of societies living elsewhere, often without mutual awareness of these occurrences. Such is also the case with the East Indian community of Mumbai.

In the 16th century, as the expanding Mughal Empire under Humayun posed a threat to the sovereignty of the Gujarat sultanate, Sultan Bahadur Shah sought assistance from his erstwhile naval rivals, the Portuguese. Eager to expand their influence, the Portuguese agreed to aid the sultan. As part of the deal, the sultan ceded the southernmost territories of his domain viz. the province of Vasai (then known as Bassein) and the islands of Salsette and Bombay in a treaty known as the Treaty of Bassein which was signed on December 23, 1534. This agreement marked the formal beginning of Portuguese rule in the region, eventually consolidated as the Provincia do Norte (Northern Provinces) of the Estado da India, or the Portuguese Indian State.

The Portuguese rule brought about significant changes in the socio-cultural fabric of the local society. Their evangelizing activities led to the emergence of a native Catholic population in Mumbai and the surrounding regions of North Konkan. Initially known as the ‘Norteiros’ (northerners), this new population thrived under Portuguese administration. The introduction of new ingredients by the colonists such as potato, tomato, cashew, and especially the chilli, completely transformed the dietary habits of the native population, giving rise to new masalas and condiments.

The Portuguese fostered a bon vivant culture amongst their subjects leading to the creation of delectable gastronomies in their colonies. Thus, while Peri Peri sauce was born in Mozambique and Temporo Baiano emerged in Brazil, and Recheado masala was concocted by the Goans, the inhabitants of the northern provinces of Portuguese India developed their own unique spice mix, eventually known as the bottle masala due to its preservation in dark tinted bottles used for storing alcohol. Like many other Indian communities, the East Indians fully embraced the use of chilli in their masala blends.

The East Indians

The Portuguese first arrived in India in 1498 when Vasco Da Gama landed on the shores of Calicut on the Malabar coast. Their unexpected entry onto the socio-economic and cultural landscape raised concerns among existing trade players due to their aggressive trade and evangelical practices. They rapidly began conquering the coastline of western India, as part of their larger mission to dominate the Asian seaboard from Yemen to Japan. Early victories included the conquest of certain port towns on the Malabar coast. The port of Goa was one of the thriving economic centres and the most important port engaged in a highly lucrative horse trade with West Asia.

Initially under the control of the Bahamani Sultanate, Goa came under the rule of one of its successor states, the Adil Shahi Sultanate, following the disintegration of the Bahamani Sultanate in the late 15th century. Despite attempts by the neighbouring state of Vijayanagar to seize control of Goa from the Bahamanis and later the Adil Shahs, their efforts were futile.

In a strategic move to overthrow the Adil Shahs from Goa, the Vijayanagar monarch Krishna Deva Raya, invited the Portuguese and provided them with his naval support, leading to the conquest of Goa by the Portuguese in 1510. The establishment of Portuguese power in Goa provided them with a permanent stronghold for their future military actions across West India.

Their attention now turned towards conquering the north Konkan coast, an opportunity came in the form of a proposed military alliance from their former adversary, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Bahadur Shah sought to utilize the advanced naval and military technology of the Portuguese against the Mughals. As part of the Treaty of Bassein signed in 1534, Bahadur Shah ceded the control of the islands of Bombay and Sashti (Salsette) along with the neighbouring territory of Vasai to the Portuguese. These territories became known as the Northern Provinces of the Portuguese Indian Empire.

The Portuguese wasted no time in settling their newly acquired territory and building new structures to serve their religious and administrative needs. The most prominent of these was the Vasai Fort, known to the Portuguese as the San Sebastian Fort. As devout Catholics, they also initiated large-scale evangelizing activities across the Northern Provinces, conducted by several Catholic religious orders. Numerous native communities such as the Kolis, Agris, Bhandaris, Bramhins, Prabhus, etc. resided in this territory and many were converted to Catholicism. The Franciscans led the missionary efforts, with a Franciscan priest named Antonio de Porto converting numerous natives to Catholicism and establishing churches, convents, seminaries, and orphanages in the Northern Provinces. Another priest, Manuel Gomes, converted a significant portion of natives in Bandra, laying the Catholic foundations of present-day Bandra and earning the title of the Apostle of Salsette.

By the early 18th century, the Northern Provinces boasted a sizeable population of native Catholics, who practiced an interesting blend of native and Catholic traditions. Importantly, the excesses of the Goa Inquisition were not enforced in the Northern Provinces, allowing them to preserve their indigenous traditions to some extent without external hindrances.

Image 1: Portuguese map of the Vasai fort (1635)

They retained their mother tongue of Marathi, spoken in several native dialects, which facilitated their integration with the new rulers of the regions, the Marathas. The culmination of this integration was seen in the 1739 Battle of Vasai which concluded the Marathas’ three-year campaign to oust the Portuguese from their northern domains bordering the Maratha state. The Marathas gained control of Vasai, Salsette, and other northern territories of the Portuguese, confining the Portuguese presence primarily to Goa from thereafter. While the Marathas vandalized many major churches in the region to seize their beautifully casted bells, they left the local Catholic community and lifestyle largely untouched.

The Marathas ruled the region till 1818 when their empire was finally dissolved by the British, following the Battle of Khadki. The local Catholic population of Salsette and Vasai pledged loyalty to their new overlords and joined in their services. The British government termed them as the ‘Bombay Portuguese’ due to their lingering Portuguese heritage, primarily evident in language and architecture. The arrival of British rule in Mumbai and the ensuing economic boom led to competition in job opportunities amongst the Bombay Portuguese and the immigrant Goan and Mangalorean Catholics. To distinguish themselves from the Goans and Mangaloreans, and demonstrate their loyalty to the British government as the earliest Roman Catholic subjects of the crown in India, the Bombay Portuguese community adopted the new title of ‘East Indians’ in 1887, the golden jubilee year of Queen Victoria’s reign. They chose this name, perhaps, as many of their ancestors had been in the service of the East India Company.

Image 2: Map of the Mumbai region showing the distribution of East Indian community.

The Masala

Long before the expansive urbanization engulfed the greater Mumbai area, many quaint East Indian villages thrived across the city spanning from Uttan to Kurla and Thane to Bandra. With the onset of summer months from February onwards, every household in these villages buzzed with activities related to the making of the bottle masala. It all started with procuring the raw material for which the natives travelled to the spice markets in present-day south Mumbai. A traditional East Indian house consisted of large surrounding spaces such as a backyard and an open veranda called Oli which were integral to the masala-making process. The Oli served as a drying space for chillies and other spices. Drying of the chilies and spices was and still is a fundamental part of the masala-making process. and each family dried their ingredients for three days. Once the chillies and spices were thoroughly dried, the roasting process commenced, usually in the Oli or the house’s backyard. A wood fire stove, known as a Chool, was created for this purpose and the constituents were roasted in a clay vessel with a ladle made from coconut shell. Then came the most labour-intensive part of the process, the pounding of the spices. Every household possessed its own wooden mortar and pestle, known as Ukhal and Musal respectively. The dried and roasted mixture was poured into the wooden mortar, and multiple women would simultaneously pound it with their pestles while humming traditional songs. It was akin to a well-coordinated musical performance set to the beats of the pounding pestles. Once the mixture was ground to a fine consistency, it was left to cool before being sifted multiple times to remove any chunky bits. After the entire batch of the spice mix was sifted, it underwent multiple rounds of mixing before being stuffed into beer bottles, which the families would have saved up, using wooden sticks. The spice mix was tightly packed to avoid the formation of air bubbles, which could spoil the masala.

Traditionally, the bottle masala was prepared in bulk for the whole year before the onset of monsoon. Like many Indian spice mixes, each East Indian family has and still maintains its own unique recipe for making the masala, with specific quantities each for spice. This recipe is often a closely guarded family secret, and sharing it outside the family and close circle of friends is frowned upon. The number of ingredients in the masala can range from 25-35, and in some households, even up to 60. There is also debate over the types of chillies to be used, with common varieties including Kashmiri, Bedgi, Reshampatti, Pandi and Madras. Each family typically uses any of three of these chilies for their masala, with a key point of contention often being between Kashmiri and Bedgi chillies, particularly regarding which one imparts a brighter hue to the masala. What also makes this masala unique is the inclusion of ground whole wheat and grams, which act as natural thickeners for curries and gravies to which it is added.

Many families, especially those with a shortage of manpower, hire specialist women known as Masalewalis, who are skilled in the art of making the bottle masala. These women often have a fixed clientele and would oversee every aspect of the masala-making process, from drying the chilies to grinding and packing the masala into bottles for their patrons. In the town of Vasai, where the East Indian culture remains strong, porcelain jars with narrow mouths known as Kus are still used alongside glass bottles to store the masala. The jars and the bottles are sealed with a wooden knob called a Khunta to make it airtight.

The bottle masala plays a vital role in enhancing numerous East Indian delicacies such as Khuddi, Moile, Indal or Indyaal (East Indian Vindaloo), and Sorpotel. While it is primarily used to enhance non-vegetarian dishes, it is also commonly used in the preparation of several vegetarian recipes among the community.

Despite the changing times and economic landscapes, the epicurean charm of bottle masala still holds strong amongst the East Indians. Even as members of the community have migrated across the world, they ensure that they have the provisions of their beloved masala stocked, either by making annual trips to India or by asking their relatives to send it to them.

Food is not merely sustenance, it is intertwined with individual and collective identity. Hidden within its flavours lie layers of history, recounting the cultural journey of a group and reflecting their way of life. The appetizing flavours of the bottle masala mirror the vibrant spirit of the East Indian lifestyle. As Sunil D’mello, an East Indian content creator from Vasai, aptly puts it, ‘the bottle masala is the symbol of the centuries-old cultural heritage of the East Indians!’


1. Machado, Alan (Prabhu). Sarasvati's Children: A History of the Mangalorean Christians. Bangalore: I.J.A. Publications, 1999.

2. D’mello, Sunil. ‘East Indian Bottle Masala’. May 28, 2020.

3. Image References

Figure 1: Plant of the Baçaim Fortress (1635). Photograph. Wikipedia. June 23, 2022.

Figure 2: Map of the Mumbai region showing the distribution of East Indian community. Firstpost. December 26, 2016.