Goan pork vindaloo and the spice connection

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Who would have thought that spices can change the whole world? Personally, I never did. But that doesn’t say a whole lot. Spices were very precious and not only used in cooking, but also as medicines. The Spanish and the Potuguese were the first to set out on pioneering voyages to the Indies to find spices at their source rather than as astronomically expensive commodities that oriental traders brought to their countries in small amounts. It’s a different story that Columbus ended up exactly on the opposite side of the globe. All I can say is that he was much better than what I am now, after 521 years and WITH a GPS attached to my car. When my GPS says “head southwest toward such n such street”…I am like “Southwest?” I have no idea which way is Southwest.

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After Columbus came back from America claiming to have found the Indies and got a royal rap on his knuckles from the Spanish throne, it was Vasco Da Gama’s turn to take a shot at it but luckily for him he chose a different route, starting on 8th July 1497 from Lisbon, Portugal and reaching Calicut on 20th May 1498 via the Cape of Good Hope. Calicut back then was the main port for the global spice trade, although the main cargo was black pepper, the so-called “king of spices”. The discovery of India acted as a catalyst for a whole new era of world history. It opened up a route to reach India from Europe. Blood was shed, ships were drowned, seamen died from scurvy but that didn’t stop the Europeans from coming to India.

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After many years, Portugal attacked Goa and took hold of the whole island. Goa remained a Portuguese colony from 1510 to 1987 when it returned to being Indian territory. Needless to say, 500 years of Portuguese rule led to a very different population and culture in Goa compared to the rest of India. Among other things, their food was highly influenced by the Portuguese. The Goanese food item most commonly known (or rather, stereotyped) in the West is vindaloo. You’ll get hundred different varieties of the vindaloo often with tastes so removed from the original that a Goanese might ask which continent the dish came from.

DSC_0745The vindaloo comes from the Portuguese Carne de Vinha d’ Alhos, that is, pork with wine and garlic. As wine was not readily available in India, it was substituted with palm vinegar and Kashmiri chilies. It does not contain tomato. A vindaloo is not supposed to be fiery hot and does not contain aloo (potato), as is commonly assumed. I have tried to stay as close possible to the authentic one. Any recipe can have variations I must stress that just as my husband has no place in my kitchen, tomatoes and potatoes have no place in a vindaloo.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Pork shoulder: 4 lbs

Onion: One large chopped fine

Kashmiri chilies: around 12-15 nos.

Garlic pods: 3 big fat ones/ 4-6 small ones

Ginger paste: 1 ½ tbsp

Red wine vinegar/regular white vinegar: 1/3 cup

Turmeric: 1 tsp.

Red chili powder (the hot variety)/Cayenne pepper: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

Oil: 2 tbsp

To be roasted:

Whole cumin seeds: 2 tsp.

Black peppercorn: 1/2 tbsp.

Cinnamon: 2” piece

Cloves: 4-6 nos.

Fennel seeds: 1 tsp.

Black mustard seeds: 1 tsp

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

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  • Roast the spices under ‘to be roasted’ list in a dry skillet.
  • Soak the Kashmiri chilies in vinegar for 2-4 hours.
  • Grind the chilies with the roasted spices along with the vinegar. You should not need water while grinding, but if needed, add a little bit of water (just enough to help the blender motor).
  • Make a paste with the ginger and garlic.
  • Marinate the meat with the red chili powder-turmeric-chili-spice-ginger-garlic paste for 6 hours-overnight. Mix the meat once or twice while marinating.
  • Heat up the oil and add the onion.
  • Sauté until translucent.
  • Add the meat and cook on medium flame until all the moisture is absorbed and oil starts oozing out.
  • Add enough hot water to cover the meat. Add salt to taste, mix it well and cover the pot with a heavy lid.
  • Turn down the flame to medium low. Cook covered until the meat is cooked and it reaches the desired consistency.

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Cook’s note: If you do not find whole Kashmiri red chilies, add Kashmiri red chili powder or paprika to the vinegar and let it soak for an hour or so. Then mix it with the roasted spices and grind.

Vindaloo is like pickled pork, it tastes better after a day or two in the fridge. Served best with plain white rice.

I buy the pork shoulder with a little bit of fat in them. Otherwise pork gets dry very quickly while cooking. If you buy lean pork, add a little bit more oil.

Try to pat dry the pork pieces a little bit in the beginning to avoid the release of water from the meat while cooking.

You can adjust the chilies or the chili powder according to your preference. Vindaloo as I said should not be very hot. It should be a little bit hot and tangy.

The pork can be substituted with lamb if you do not eat pork.

Khorisar lagot gahori mangxo/Assamese style pork with bamboo shoots for Burra baba

A guest post by my husband

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I read somewhere that to really understand how we change with age (and here I mean change as a person), one has to go back periodically to a place from one’s childhood that stood still in time. I grew up mostly in India, which is in quite a state of flux these days. But, in one corner of the northeast, time has been even lazier than a Bengali clerk on a summer afternoon after his nice machher jhol-bhaat lunch and a Charminar cigarette.

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This special place is the tea gardens of Assam, where the ghosts of the British Raj are still eminently tangible, as in yours truly having been a burra baba having his chhota hazri in bed as late as 1990. Anyway, to reconnect with my childhood identity and find out how I got so messed up in the head since then, I went back to visit Maijan Tea Estate just outside of Dibrugarh, where my happiest childhood days were spent.  I rode around the kuchha roads on a loaner Hero Jet bicycle with hilariously colorful decals and a seat that weighs more than all of Bradley Wiggin’s über-bike.  I travelled the sandy banks of the Brahmaputra, soaked up stunning sunsets and sat in yogic postures waiting for my life’s purpose to be revealed.

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Sunset over river Brahmaputra

After two days of doing this, I had my moment of truth, which consisted of the realization that unlike Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, I was not going to have any sudden epiphanies. Disgusted and thirsty, I rode the ten dusty miles back into town and drowned my disappointment in some good strong rohi, a seriously awesome country brew that may explain the chronic laziness of Assam. As the cloudy and herb-infused alcohol seeped into the innermost recesses of my soul, suddenly I saw a pig. He was healthy and pink, and speaking in a human voice, he said to me “It’s probably not in my best interests to tell you this, but spicy pork curries go awfully well with that stuff you’re drinking”. Before I could grab him by his juicy hindquarters, he disappeared, leaving me with one more nagging disappointment to add to my long list.

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Rohi with freshly fried boriyali fish

As it is, I’m thirty-three and life is passing me by. Simply too many things to do before I kick the bucket. Anyway, I came back home to the US a few days later, and told this story to my wife. Being the lovely girl that she is, and a good shot with her .38 revolver as well, she found the pig, shot him and cooked me this lovely Assamese pork curry with bamboo shoots. As usual, my stories have a happy ending.

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The bowl is placed on a vanishing Assamese handmade ceremonial towel called “Gamochha” (the Bengali equivalent word is gamchha)

Assamese style pork with bamboo shoots:

Ingredients:

 Pork: 2 lbs with some fat left on the meat

Bamboo shoots: 1lb (preferably shredded or thinly sliced)

Onion: One large, thinly sliced

Dried red chilis 8-10 nos. (depending on how hot you want) ground to somewhat a fine powder.

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp (I have crushed the ginger and garlic in a mortar-pestle, you don’t have to grind it to a smooth paste)

Oil: 1 tbsp

Cilantro: a handful

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the pork pieces well and drain properly.
  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot.
  • Add the sliced onion and sauté them until translucent.
  • Add in the pork pieces and cook the meat on medium heat for several minutes. The pork pieces will change color from pink to medium brown.
  • Add the ginger and garlic paste, followed by the red chili powder.
  • Mix the ingredients well and cook for several more minutes.
  • Add hot water just enough to cover the meat(do not add cold water, the meat will become tough)
  • Cover the pot with a tight lid and cook on medium flame until the pork is half cooked.
  • Add salt and the sliced bamboo shoots, cover and cook until the pork is fully cooked.
  • Give it a good stir and add chopped cilantro.
  • Serve it with hot rice.

PS: I have mistakenly bought the wrong style of bamboo shoots, so I had to add the shoots at the beginning. If you can find fresh bamboo shoots, it’s better or buy the thinly sliced ones.

Do not add turmeric powder. The gravy will be a deep reddish-brown in color, NOT the regular yellowish color we see in the turmeric added gravies.

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Chhota hazri: chhota=small, hazri=attendance. A small breakfast/tea served in bed (Sometimes a glass of fruit juice or a banana) during the British Raj.

Burra baba: Burra=Big/elder, Baba=baby (usually referred to the elder kid in the house).

Kuchcha=raw (here it meant a country road)

Machher jhol bhaat: Rice with fish curry (a staple Bengali lunch meal)