When in doubt, reach for the cold cuts, says Kunal Vijayakar
Nibblish? Peckish? Home alone and hungry? The easiest way out is to head to the freezer, for meatloaf, ham, salami.
For a single man, living alone, without a cook you’d think salvation would come in the form of the local Udupi joint or kababwala or online food delivery platform. You’re wrong.
With the grace of God, I have a few friends who are the custodians of my famishment and their hearths are open to me for most meals. But there are moments when I am so ravenous that I need a guardian angel in my home, at my beck and call, there and then. At times like these, my liberator is my freezer and the cold cuts that are always there in abundance.
Even as a child, I remember our freezer was always stuffed with cold cuts. Small bags of sausages in assorted sizes, meatloaf, bacon, ham and salami in a variety of shades of pink stuffed alongside raw meat, fish and chicken. If I ever felt peckish, which was several times a day, as a matter of course I’d open the freezer and pick out a slice of pink pork salami or ham and pop it in my mouth.
In those days our cold cuts came from two or three cold storages. There was Café Galleries at one end of Breach Candy and Great Eastern Stores at the other, and there was Francoise Maison up Cumballa Hill. As kids we’d eagerly watch large blocks of ham, luncheon meat and long sausages of salami being sliced on a shiny rotating meat slicer, the portions then wrapped in thin plastic or butter paper as we went off in hungry anticipation.
Today eating cold-cuts may be kosher, but back then there were just some partakers, including a few Parsis, Christians and Anglo-Indians who rejoiced in charcuterie.
Charcuterie is an ancient art that goes back at least 6,000 years and can be explained simply as the preservation of meat through curing, smoking and salting. In India, though, it’s a little more recent. Though pork eating in India can be traced as far back as the 11th century, in modern times, the demand for processed pork and meats dropped anchor with British troops stationed in India sometime around World War 1. The soldiers could not deal with our spices, curries and vegetables (such fools), and yearned for food and meat that tasted like home, and so they turned to the Sonkars.
The Sonkars were a Hindu community from in and around central India. Legend says they were traditionally butchers who reared goats, but converted to rearing pigs and selling pork to prevent Aurangzeb from converting them to Islam. That was jolly for the British soldiers, who taught the Sonkars their recipes and the Sonkars in return started manufacturing ham, sausages and bacon, and earned the epithet Baconwallah. The Baconwallahs even travelled with the battalions, ensuring that the soldiers had a steady supply of processed meats.
By the 1940s and ’50s, India’s big cities had enough Christians, Parsis, Anglo-Indians, foreigners, five-star hotels, and ship chandlers with an appetite for pork products to warrant a whole pork-processing factory. And the Emprassa Sausage Factory, along with Shalimar Cold Storage and Farm Products, were born.
Large-scale refrigeration was still a predicament and so the first pork slaughtering and processing unit in Mumbai came up next to Arthur Road Jail, with an ice factory for storage right across the road. By 1968, the Government of India under the aegis of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, thought it worthwhile to set up four bacon factories across the country. And in 1971, the iconic MAFCO or Maharashtra Agro and Fruit Processing Corporation was launched to market and distribute products like ham, sausages, bacon, luncheon meat and salami.
Cold cuts were by then quite readily available and if you were very rich, then you could buy tinned meats like DAK branded sausages, and processed pork imported from Holland and other parts of Europe. Of course these meats were nothing compared to traditionally made meats like Liverwurst, Bratwurst, Chorizo, Pepperoni, Cacciatore and Black Forest Ham, to name a few. Time-honoured charcuterie that was made by artisans in England, Spain, Italy, France and other European countries was still unheard of here. Salami was just spicy and non-spicy, ham was just thick or thin and sausages were commonly cocktail, Oxford or frankfurters.
That was then. In the last eight years, words like smokery, charcuterie and delicatessen have become common parlance. We easily hold a twenty-minute conversation at a society party discussing the differences between Prosciutto di Parma, Jamón Ibérico, Jambon de Bayonne and York or Wiltshire Ham. All thanks to a talented bunch of chefs, entrepreneurs and food lovers who are scorning modern processes and are bringing back traditional practices of handling, curing and preserving meats to international quality using local produce.
I salute them all but in my infinite wisdom would like to give them only one word of advice. Guys, ham and bacon are made with pork… not chicken. Know what I mean?