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Updated: November 5, 2011 18:38 IST

Gourmet Files: …to buy a fat pig

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Those were the days...
Photo: Special Arrangement
Those were the days...

Once bacon, sausages and pork ruled the table. But now cholesterol count and other warnings have reduced their importance.

There have been two distinct phases in most of our culinary lives: when we were allowed pork and when it became taboo. I remember clearly when Sunday breakfast was fried eggs, tomatoes and either sausages or bacon. With crisp toast on the side. Buttering it was allowed then before cholesterol was discovered and bacon or sausages were real, fatty pork products. The bacon had a rind, from which you tore off the fatty striations with your teeth, and ate them with the lean bit, saving the rind for last. Refined eaters abandoned it.

Then the question used to be whether to fry the bacon till crisp, or more lightly cooked, so that it wasn't crumbly and you could taste the meat.

Now the question doesn't arise because, one, pork and fat are not allowed and, two, even if one ignores medical wisdom and buys bacon, there is no rind. What we get today is some reconstituted “streaky” bacon with only a trace of flavour. And sausages used to burst while frying, the skin splitting to let small bits of the filling out into the skillet and these would get crisp and caramelised. What made them burst their seams and casing was probably the high fat content. But now we have chicken sausages, which taste of nothing. Fortunately the poultry processors haven't let their imaginations run wild, and don't pretend to make bacon.

Contradiction in terms

But even chicken “ham”, which is everywhere, is a contradiction in terms. Isn't a ham, gammon, jambon, a part of a pig that chickens can't have? “Ham is the hind leg of a pig above the hock joint, cut from the carcass and cured by salting and drying, and sometimes smoking, so that it will keep for months at room temperature” (Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food). Today the more general meaning of ham includes cured meat from the hind leg of other animals like wild boar, mutton, goat and venison. But not chicken. Like Winston Churchill, “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Although my fondness comes from different reasons, all to do with taste.

The second phase of our culinary lives started when pork was blamed for giving us worms that caused problems, sometimes fatal, all dire. Wild boar alone was exempt from the taboo, but very hard to come by. Sometimes, after a successful shoot my mother made a pickle, with small cubes that included a layer of fat. It was cooked with lots of spices in a hot vinegary masala that she gave us in miserly portions. The masala was stretched far and thin with rice or roti and whatever boring dal-sabzi had been cooked. The cubes were dark and chewy from having been fried and then simmered in malt vinegar, but they had a layer of fat that was paler and, in contrast to the sharpness of the masala/gravy, soft and buttery – almost bland in its creaminess. I thought it tasted of marrow.

Yesterday I was taken back in time when Nirmala brought across some pork vindaloo. This was from Kerala but so similar in taste to my mother's wild boar pickle that I looked up vindaloo in The Essential Goa Cookbook (Maria Theresa Menezes, Penguin Books, 2000) and yes, they were very similar. Like Kodava or Coorgi food, Goan cuisine seems to suffer no proscription of pork and there are very many recipes to choose from.

Almost a pickle

Vindaloo appears in Indian restaurant menus across the world, Madhur Jaffrey calls it Goa's most famous export to the Western world and analyses the name - which, correctly, is vindalho - to be comprised of alhos, garlic, and vinhos, wine vinegar. Tessa Menezes says, of “vindalho de porco”: “vindaloo, as this dish is commonly known, is almost a pickle; no water is used and the slow cooking ensures that the spices penetrate through the meat. This dish keeps so well that it used to be carried on long journeys.”

Vindalho de porco

Spicy Pork Curry

Serves 6-8


1 kg pork belly, cut into 2-inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped fine

11/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp sugar

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp chilli powder

20 cloves garlic, ground fine

11/2 inch piece ginger, ground fine

500-650 ml malt or toddy vinegar

8 cloves

10 peppercorns

3-inch piece cinnamon, broken into bits

Method: Wash meat and pat dry with kitchen paper towel. In a large non-reactive pan or glass bowl, marinate meat with onion, salt, sugar, ground dry spices, ginger and garlic and 4 tbsp vinegar. Leave, covered, in refrigerator for at least 12 hours.

Put marinated meat, along with marinade, into a heavy-bottomed pan and cook over low heat. Juices and fat will start coming out. Stir occasionally to prevent meat from sticking. Continue cooking, adding a spoonful or two of vinegar when the mixture seems in danger of becoming dry.

When the meat is half done, add whole spices and cook, covered, till tender. The process should take about an hour. Check if done. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve hot, with bread or rice.

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