“Porkaholism” is a thing, I am told. There are pork lovers. And some are pork crazy. They will leave everything if they see pork on the table. Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world. “Porkaholics” are found across geographies, regions and culture. Though they may eat pork in different ways and forms, it is this synonymy of affection for the pig that sets them apart from other meat eaters.
Some culinary anthropologists trace the origin of pork in Asia from the Eurasian wild boar. But in fact, it could well be the other way around. Noted food historian K T Acharya has cited the Ramayana and Mahabharata to assert pork was eaten in India since the Vedic age. Contrary to popular perception, as per Acharya, pork eating was more prevalent in South India than the North though the Kshatriyas, Rajputs and Sikhs were known to be fond of pork. The reason is not far to seek. Among all wild animals, the boar was the most edible and versatile. Almost every part of the pig is eaten including its blood and internal organs. Pig meat is also easy to preserve -- salted, smoked or pickled. Besides, pigs breed fast and are easier to hunt than deer, though venison was also popular in ancient India. Even when bred at home, pigs require far less tending and care than other livestock. Thus, there has been a long tradition of eating pork in the agrarian, forest and tribal communities. Even now, some of the most interesting native pork preparations come from the tribal regions as the more intrepid “porkaholics” know.
ALSO READ | Thai food in India: It's just 'sawadee kha' time
Neither the British nor the Portuguese introduced pork to India. But the Europeans may be credited for starting modern commercial pig farming in the country. They also taught Indians the art of curing pork, manufacturing cold cuts and delicatessen. Irish Catholic priests introduced pork farming in the hills. The ‘brown sahibs’ continued the tradition till much after the ‘goras’ left. With the exception of Chennai (then Madras), one could get fine pork products in all the metros -- Kolkata (then Calcutta), Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore too. Keventers in Kolkata and Darjeeling were famous and the UP Stores got its supplies from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. Delhi had its Essex Farms, PigPo in Jor Bagh. Bengaluru’s iconic ‘Ham Shop’ on MG Road is still going strong. Come Christmas and New Year - some of them would make special honey-glazed legs of ham and suckling pigs to order. The government-run Mafco in Maharashtra and Haringhata Dairies in West Bengal did a lot to popularise pork products. But somewhere along the line in the late seventies and eighties, pork fell out of favour. With the surge in poultry farming and drop in chicken prices, the older piggeries became unprofitable. So, many old establishments -- barring a few standalone cold stores in some cities -- shut shop. Not being sure of manufacturing hygiene -- there being a fear about parasite infestation -- also turned people away from pork.
Happily, things are changing and pork is becoming trendy again. Pork is being actively marketed as “white meat”, which though debatable is not entirely untrue. With overall cold-chain improvements around the country, there are a host of premium delicatessen and frozen meat brands in the market -- such as Prasuma, Meisterwurst, Buffet, Sumeru, Le Carne to name just a few, selling international quality pork products. Direct to Consumer channels like Meatigo are adding to the momentum. Besides, many mid-priced and hyper-local brands (like Ranchers in the Nilgiris) are also finding space in supermarket shelves. Even the jaded Haringhata has made a comeback in Kolkata. Consequently, at the back end there is a revival of high grade, scientific pig farming in different parts of India catering to the premium end of the market -- especially states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
However, the story of “English pork” is not even the tip of the iceberg. For most of the mainland, the knowledge of pork remains largely confined to Chinese food, momos and pepperoni toppings on pizza -- besides sausages, ham and bacon at breakfast buffets. At best, it extends to pork vindaloo at Goan restaurants. But, pork is not a colonial heritage. Seventy percent of the country’s pig production is consumed in the North East. The region thrives on pork. Be it pork with bamboo shoot, smoked pork, pika pila pickle (made of pork fat, bamboo-shoot and king chilli), pork with black sesame seed, pork bhorta, pork dry-fry, pork with anishi (a Naga preparation of fermented leaves smoked or dried), the range is mind-blowing.
Thanks to the opening of North East food restaurants in Delhi and a few other cities, opening up of tourism in the region and rural food start-ups like Manxho (which incidentally was conceived during the COVID-19 pandemic), the rest of India is beginning to discover some of these delicacies. But it is a matter of acquired taste and still has a long way to go before it catches the national imagination. That will require a good deal of marketing by food entrepreneurs and innovative restaurateurs. The same is true for the Coorgi pandi curry, which many have heard of but few tasted. Though the black pandi curry masala is now easily available from online grocers, the secret ingredient is the Kachampuli (Garcinia gummi-gutta) vinegar which is not easy to come by.
ALSO READ | Let’s make the GOAT great again!
What makes pork unique is the interplay of fat and meat. That is why different parts of pork yield distinct taste and flavour in any style of cooking -- not just a variation of texture like in other meats. A roasted pork belly is a world apart from a roast leg of ham. Vindaloo without skin and fat is not vindaloo at all, just as sorpotel is nothing sans blood and liver bits. Medallions of pork tenderloin, pork chop, knuckles and spare ribs all form a category and have a fan following of their own.
The fat in pork makes it more amenable to pickling. Thanks to the post-pandemic e-commerce boom, pork achars from remote regions are making their way into people’s homes. Though imported chorizos are in with the hip set, its humble Goan cousin -- the “chourico” -- is yet to get its due despite being the most amazing comfort food, which can be converted into a pulao, curry, omelette or just plain mouth-watering sausage-fry to be devoured with poi bread or pav in its absence.
Alas, one cannot get wild boar in India anymore as shooting them is prohibited. For that one has to travel either to Nepal or the German Black Forest. But I would give anything for my friend Sulu (Mahendra Suwal - founder of Prasuma)’s “bandel” grilled over charcoal - with a dash of rato khursani (crushed red pepper), jeera (cumin) powder and salt - and single malt on a chill Kathmandu evening sitting by the fire in the lawn. Though his daughter Lisa is doing wonders with the brand, even she cannot get me “bandel” in India. The next best to that is pork tikkas and seekh kebab in Gol Market or Khub Chand in Connaught Place, Delhi. Or come to my humble abode in the Nilgiris for a Bar-B-Que evening.
(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. Twitter handle @SandipGhose.)