My friend, Gautam Anand, told me the story of Nagpal’s which he regards as one of the more influential restaurants in post-Partition Delhi. According to Gautam, Nagpal’s was owned by refugees from West Punjab who fled to Delhi and started all over again by popularising kulchas and tikkas. The kulchas were justly famous but it was the tikka that had the most fans. The flavour was so delicious that nobody worried too much about the meat it was made from.
Then, one day, word spread that the tikka was made from pork. It is easy to see why this would have provoked outrage in Pakistan. But for some reason the news that Nagpal’s used pork caused great consternation in Delhi. Public opinion swung against the restaurant and by the time its owners became embroiled in a series of other problems – a dispute with the municipality and the construction of a road across the restaurant – patrons had begun to stay away.
Eventually, says Gautam, Nagpal’s closed. But for people like Gautam, who must have eaten there as a small boy, the excellence of its pork tikka lingers in the memory.
Gautam says that he has rarely come across a pork tikka of that quality again. And while I have only heard the story of Nagpal’s rise and fall from him, I have to go a little further: I have never come across a decent pork tikka of any kind anywhere in India.
I don’t know why this should be so but even though Hindus face no religious injunction against consuming pork, north Indians have traditionally been reluctant to introduce it into their cuisine. According to the food historian KT Achaya, this reluctance goes back many centuries. In the 5th and 7th centuries, Chinese travellers wrote that pork was forbidden meat to many inhabitants of India.
There are two interesting things about this aversion to pork. The first is that wild boar – which is basically a kind of pig – seems exempt from this disdain.
Rajputs treat the wild boar as a great delicacy and many recipes of royal cuisine call for wild boar meat. The second interesting thing is that this aversion does not extend to other parts of India. In Kerala and Coorg, they are quite happy to eat pork. In Goa, it is considered a delicacy. And in the north-east, it is the staple diet for the majority of the inhabitants.
Why should the rest of India not share the north’s reluctance to eat pork? One theory is that pork is a non-Hindu meat. In Kerala, it is the Christians who have the best pork dishes. The north-east is largely non-Hindu. And in Goa, the consumption of pork was loaded with religious significance.
When the Portuguese converted Goan Hindus to Catholicism, the church insisted that they eat pork to indicate the complete severance of ties with the Hindu community. According to Lizzie Collingham’s definitive study, Curry: A Biography, at first upper-caste converts were uncomfortable with pork but eventually they decided that their best course was to identify completely with the lifestyle of their Portuguese masters.
The great pork dishes of Goa all emerged out of this identification with Portuguese culture. For instance, those delicious Goan sausages are no more than an attempt to imitate the Portuguese chorizo. Vindaloo is an adaptation of the Portuguese dish, Carne de Vinhos e Alhos, which means meat cooked in vinegar and garlic. The word ‘vindaloo’ is simply a Goan mispronunciation of Vinhos e Alhos.
Because Goan Hindus – even the non-vegetarian ones – do not like pork much, the consumption of pork dishes became a means of asserting a Catholic identity. The Goan chef, Julia Carmen Desa, who now runs Delhi’s Tres restaurant, says it is not unusual for a Catholic feast to include three or four dishes all made from pork and all with some Portuguese influence.
Julia is less sure about where the famous pork curry of Coorg has its origins. But its base is the black local vinegar of the region and on the whole, it was the colonialists who popularised vinegar in India. Certainly, the pork dishes of Kerala seem to have either colonial or Christian roots.
I am less sure about the north-east’s affection for pork. It could be the Christian influence in the area. Or it could simply be a
geographical thing: in Burma and Thailand, pork is a popular meat and perhaps there was an intermingling of cuisines over the centuries.
Certainly, the north-east rivals Goa as the centre of pork cookery in India. I asked my former colleague, the journalist and food writer Hoihnu Hauzel, who grew up in Manipur, what memories she had of the local cuisine. It turned out that Hoihnu’s memories were largely pig-centric.
In common with many other families in Manipur, she recalled, her parents maintained a pig sty in their backyard. They would look after their pigs and lovingly fatten them by cooking a special meal of wild yam and rice every day. (Lovingly? Well, up to a point. Eventually, they would kill the pigs and eat them.)
Hoihnu is a member of the small Christian Paite tribe (around 60,000 people), one of the 33 tribes of Manipur. According to her, nearly all of the tribes have a pork tradition though she says, perhaps a little harshly, that some of the recipes are quite
primitive: chunks of meat cooked with ginger, garlic, mustard leaves, chillies or local herbs.
All over the north-east, pork is readily available. In many towns you will see pork shops selling meat from freshly-slaughtered pigs. If there is too much pork to consume at once, it is salted and sundried. Preserved this way, pork can last for a long time. In Manipur, it is not uncommon, says Hoihnu, to put a slice or two of sundried pork in a dal or a vegetable dish to give it more body.
I asked both Julia and Hoihnu whether they worried about the diseases traditionally associated with the consumption of pork, tapeworm for instance. Hoihnu said that fresh pork that was well cooked rarely caused any health problems. Julia agreed that pork from diseased pigs could be a problem but said that Goans had been eating pork for so long that they were careful about the quality.
The question is important because one reason offered by Indian hotels and restaurants for keeping pork off the menu is that the risk of parasitic infection is high. Until about a decade ago, most chefs at Indian hotels would advise you to steer clear of pork. Wherever possible, they would try and find pork substitutes: hence the popularity of the chicken sausage, a disgusting, tasteless,
plastic-filled cylinder of gunk served at many five-star hotels.
That’s changing now because of a rise in pork farming and the easy availability of imports. Ananda Solomon says that field-bred pork from Goa has a good flavour and can easily be used in sausages or vindaloo without any loss of taste. But, he adds, as do many other pork-lovers, that farmed pork, while safe, can also be bland. Hoihnu has difficulty with pork in Delhi because it does not have the flavours she is used to in Manipur. One of Julia’s most popular dishes at Tres is the pork belly. She says she tried hard to use Indian pork but the dish just didn’t taste right. Eventually, she switched to Belgian pork.
The success of dishes such as Julia’s pork belly suggests that hoteliers and chefs are being needlessly cautious about introducing more pork dishes on their menus. Ananda says that till a few years ago, guests would ask where the pork was from before they ordered it. But now, they don’t care. Concerns about safety seem to be a thing of the past. Julia was advised by nearly everyone not to put pork on the menu – people in Delhi don’t like pork, she was told – but went ahead anyway. Now that it is her most popular dish, she feels vindicated.
Of course I’m not sure we’ll ever get something like the Nagpal’s tikka. But you can’t say that Gautam is not trying. Last year, he encouraged chefs Manjit Gill and Madhu Krishnan to make a pork tikka (marinated in malt vinegar) at Bangalore’s ITC Gardenia hotel. I was among the lucky guys who got to try it. Perhaps it was like the Nagpal’s version or perhaps it wasn’t. I don’t really know. But I do know that it was absolutely terrific.
If only more hoteliers and chefs would show that kind of courage! There’s no point restricting the use of pork to the breakfast menu or the Chinese kitchen. It’s time to introduce pork to the mainstream. And yes, it’s time to go the whole hog.
Pork Tikka (Chef Madhu Krishnan’s recipe)
500 gm imported pork loin
30 gm black pepper powder
20 gm mace powder
20 gm cumin powder
10 gm kebab chini powder
15 ml lemon juice
75 gm brown onion paste
50 gm ginger-garlic paste
20 gm red chilli powder
30 ml vinegar
80 gm hung curd
25 ml ghee
Salt to season
Cut the pork loin into cubes measuring 1.5”. Retain the fat.
Marinate the pork with salt, ginger-garlic paste and lemon juice; allow it to rest for 20
Mix the rest of the spices in hung curd and beat it to a smooth consistency.
Incorporate the curd and the pork and allow it to rest for 1 hour.
Take the marinated pork cubes and cook on a medium hot grill or pan sear it.
Baste the pork cubes with butter once during cooking.
It is optional to serve the pork with a squeeze of lime juice.
Pork in Dry Gravy
If you want to cook a nice south Indian-style pork dish at home, this recipe is for you. It is fool-proof and designed for the home cook. I use local pork bought from my neighbourhood Godrej Nature’s Basket
500 gm pork, cubed
For the masala paste:
3-4 dry red chillies
2 tsp dry coriander seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
3-4 tsp black peppercorn
1/2 tsp fennel
3-4 cardamom pods (take only seeds)
2 cinnamon barks
2 bay leaves
7-8 garlic cloves finely chopped (keep
aside 1 tsp for later)
1 medium sized ginger, finely sliced
(keep aside a pinch for later)
3-4 button onions or 2 shallots
4 medium-sized onions, finely sliced
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp vinegar
1/4 finely-sliced fresh coconut
Curry leaves and chopped coriander leaves
2 green chillies, deseeded and spilt in the middle
1 tbsp cooking oil; Salt to taste
Blitz all the ingredients for the masala into a smooth paste.
Marinate the pork in this masala for an hour or so. It softens the meat.
Cook this marinated pork by adding the ginger, vinegar, salt and water. Take off the heat once 3/4th done.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet, pop the mustard seeds, curry leaves, chopped garlic and then fry the finely sliced onions to golden brown.
Now take the pork, remove excess water (this will help pour out the excess pork fat too in case you are a health junkie), and mix into the onions. Let the gravy mix and cook together till the pork is done (do the fork test to know if the pork is cooked). Throw in the finely sliced coconut, coriander leaves and sliced green chillies. Cook for a minute or so, mixing it all in.
Serve with rice or bread.
From HT Brunch, September 16
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