Oh, the joys of pigging out on pork: Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar
From lazy Sunday breakfasts to carnivorous feasts, the pig can be a source of much delight.
For someone who grew up in a predominantly fish-eating home, where the meat cooked in our kitchens was restricted to mutton and occasionally chicken, I cannot fathom what prompted my deep and abiding love for pork. In those days, pork typically meant cold cuts, and in the early ’70s, Café Galleries at Breach Candy was our point of supply. Displayed in the chillers were logs of pink marbled ham, long fat obelisks of speckled salami, loafs of luncheon meat, strings of frankfurters, heaps of cocktail sausages and rashers of bacon.
The white-haired, haughty Irani owner would sliver the meats in a whirring steel slicer as per our order, and wrap up the thin slices in butter paper. Then ham was tucked between slices of hot bread from Palmer and Company, the neighbourhood baker, slathered with Polson’s butter and handmade mustard, the crust and edges trimmed and the soft sandwiches slipped into our tiffin boxes for school break.
On some days it was luncheon meat, on others it was salami and sometimes even ham and chicken loaf. Bacon and sausages were reserved for weekends (when we had time for a longer breakfast) served with scrambled or sunny-side-up eggs and toast, all made in butter. Although pork as meat was never cooked at home, no breakfast was ever complete without dried, cured, or smoked parts of the pig. I daresay my ardour started there.
Most Hindus don’t eat pork, especially at home, and after speaking to many and reading up a bit, I realised that I hadn’t really found a reason why. Till I spoke to historian Kurush Dalal. One position assumed is, that while Hindus like the Rajputs and warrior classes may eat wild boar, the local pig is reputed to be a filthy, scavenging animal that wallows in muck and litter and has accordingly been deemed inedible. Another theory emphasises the Hindu’s most inherent quality, the ability to live in harmony. It proffers that ancient Hindus, respecting the canonical embargo on pork by their Muslim brethren, sacrificed eating pork to create harmony and unanimity. That said, there are still large parts of India where pork remains customary, like Goa, Kerala, all of the north-eastern states and even Karnataka.
My first taste of pork outside of charcuterie was Pork Vindaloo and Pork Sorpotel, both Goan preparations full of red spices and vinegar. My granddad was big on seeking out authentic food and bringing it home. He’d found an old Goan Aunty and parceled some of her vindaloo and sorpotel.
To my young palate it was a masala like no other. Distinctly different from the north Indian gravies and Maharashtrian curries, the vindaloo was robust yet nuanced. The vinegar gave it a racy acidity and sourness unmistakably different from the tartness of lemon. And the meat was so salty, gamey and above all fatty. The sorpotel too was pretty much the carnivore’s dream, containing as it did not just meat but pieces of chopped liver, heart and coagulated pig’s blood.
The most commonly available pork dish in the Continental restaurants of Mumbai in those days was Ham Steak Singapore — a huge slab of the cured meat, caramelised with cloves and pineapple. You could also order a pork chop with apple sauce. But pork consumption in Mumbai remained limited to Christian areas like Colaba, Princess Street and Bandra. So much so that the little lane at Marine Lines alongside the Our Lady of Dolours Church was colloquially called Dukkar Galli or Pork Lane, because of all the pork shops in it. Faraway Bassein (now called Vasai) also had streets lined with pork shops, to feed the large population of East Indian Christians there.
Christians in India still remain the mainstay of pork consumption. Easter at any Syrian Christian home in Kerala is in incomplete without Pork Fry or Nadan Pork Ularthiyathu — pieces of pork fried with curry leaves, coconut, shallots, ginger-garlic, fennel, fenugreek, chilli powder and garam masala. With rice or bread, this pork brings home the spirit of celebration. Much like the Pandi Curry in Coorg, the crowning glory of Kodava cuisine. They say the greatness of a Pandi curry is directly proportional to the amount of pork fat in it. Eaten with Akki Rotti, Kadambuttu (steamed rice balls) or Nooputtu (string hoppers), marinated pieces of chunky pork and fat are cooked in a dark black masala and finished with a Coorgi vinegar called Kachampuli. This is a dense and hearty curry that symbolises the brawn of the Kodavas.
If you travel to the north-east, you suddenly find pork everywhere. There is the Naga Pork in Bamboo Shoot or Pork Patod Dia, the Khasi Pork Jadoh, the Tibetan Pork Ema Datshi — all distinctly different and all a proud part of Indian cuisine. It is unfortunate that most of these dishes are still unknown in the rest of the country.
Still, pork is going through a kind of renaissance today. In a study published by the BBC, pork fat was crowned the eighth most nutritious food on earth. Social media and the revival of interest in regional cuisines have given this meat a much-needed fillip. In many parts of India, the consumption of pork has acquired a cult following. There are Facebook communities dedicated to the discovery, preparation and consumption of pork dishes.
If you browse through the pages of home chef and blogger Rhea Mitra-Dalal’s The Porkaholics, or the menus of Gitika Saikia, Madhumita Pyne and Subhasree Basu’s pork pop-ups, aptly called Hocus Porkus, or the almost carnal pictures on groups like The Calcutta Porkaddicts and The Bangalore Pork Lovers’ Club, you could start to think there is no meat to beat pork. You wouldn’t be far wrong.