Ingesting Culture, or I am a Pork Eater

In lieu of making you read, this post takes the form of a video -- a lecture that I gave at Brandeis University this past fall on cooking, colonialism, and culture as part of the Soli Sorabjee lecture series on South Asia. I sing (briefly), and spend a lot of time pushing the bangs out of my eyes. And then there's the whole talking about food thing. You can watch the video here.

In a way, the talk is really about how my ancestors on my father's side -- the Mangaloreans -- came to eat, and love, pork. It has a tangled and violent history, a remnant of Portuguese colonization and the imposition of Catholicism in the 16th century, but isn't identity always the result of these complications and traumas? The strange byways of this history touch on rural Canada, cannibalism, Queen Victoria's illicit affairs, old boyfriends, and Le Corbusier's architecture. Among other things.

I loved giving this talk; the only thing I regret about the lecture is not being able to end with a demonstration of one of the iconic dishes of my father's family. So instead, I offer it to you here. Enjoy.

Pork Indad
Serves 6

This dish is typical of the region my father's family hails from, Mangalore, on the western coast of India. It has the Portuguese elements of chilies, vinegar, pork, and garlic, and the sweet-sour of tamarind, along with a range of Indian spices. The best cut of pork to use for this dish is something with a bit of fat -- loin won't work, but pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt) or fresh ham would; my grocery store had boneless country ribs the other day, and they were ideal. 

3 large, dried, red chilies (Guajillo, New Mexico, or another of that type), seeds removed and broken into large pieces
10 peppercorns
10 cloves
1 TB cumin seeds
1 large cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 tsp turmeric
kosher salt
3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
5 plump garlic cloves, peeled
2 green chilies
5 dates
1 tsp tamarind concentrate, dissolved in a couple of tablespoons of water
1.5 TB red wine vinegar
2 TB canola oil
3 lb pork (see note above) cut into 1" pieces
2 TB rum (optional)
2 large, waxy potatoes (red, white, or Yukon gold), peeled and cut into large chunks (optional)
1 tsp sugar (optional)

1. Heat a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the dried chilies, peppercorns, cloves, cumin, and cinnamon to the pan. Toast the spices, shaking occasionally, until fragrant and slightly darkened. Transfer to a spice grinder (aka clean coffee grinder) and grind until a fairly fine powder. Place in bowl with turmeric and 1 tsp salt.

2. In a food processor, grind onions, garlic, chilies, dates, tamarind water, vinegar, and spice mixture, until you get a fairly smooth (but not totally liquified) paste. If you need to, you can add a tablespoon or two of water to aid with the grinding, but don't add too much.

3. In a heavy casserole, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat. Pat the pork pieces dry with a paper towel and season liberally with salt and pepper. When the oil is hot, brown the pork until seared and golden brown on all sides. You will have to do this in two or three batches -- if you put too much in the pan at once, the pork will steam instead of sear. Set pork aside.

4. Remove all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the casserole. Add the spice paste to the pan, and allow to cook over medium heat for at least 15 minutes, stirring regularly but not constantly. If the paste cooks down and is in danger of sticking, add a few tablespoons of water and continue the process. Keep frying the paste for the full 15 minutes, though -- no cheating.

5. Now add the rum to the spice mixture and allow it to bubble off for a minute or two. Add the pork back into the casserole with its accumulated juices and three cups of water. Turn the heat down to medium low and cover. Allow to simmer for 1.5 hrs, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick. If you're using potatoes, add them in the last 30 minutes of cooking.

6. Once the meat is tender, you need to taste it for salt and for sweetness -- it should have a bit of bite from the vinegar as well as sweetness from the dates. If it's not sweet enough, add a bit of sugar (start with 1/2 tsp). In the unlikely event that it's too sour, feel free to add a splash more vinegar.

7. You can serve this right away, hot with steamed basmati rice, or you can let it sit for a bit (in the fridge if more than an hour or so) to let the flavors deepen. Reheat and serve.