It was when Jashan Joshi’s face froze and he stopped chewing that I knew.
I was steadily getting irritated watching Så var det jul igjen, or in English Christmas As Usual, a Norwegian-English movie about an Indian, the aforementioned Jashan, who goes to the backcountry home of his fiancée.
It irritated me that this Jashan character—repeatedly called Shazam by ma-in-law-to-be—is culturally insular.
Jashan says he’s open to experiencing a white, Norwegian Christmas, but it turns out he’s anything but, refusing to understand and absorb his girlfriend’s culture (although he tries to follow the family into freezing water and ski cross-country for fun). He makes a mess of the family kitchen and their gastric systems by cooking spicy chicken curry and disrupts a debut solo by his fiancée’s little niece in a church choir by talking loudly to mummyji on his cellphone.
Now, you may ask—as indeed my wife did—why I was watching this movie. The lead pair appear to have little chemistry. But, it is one of Netflix’s leading movies for festive season, and I have a weakness for cross-cultural romcoms.
India-first cheerleaders will be pleased to know that despite Jashan’s whininess and disruptive behaviour, it is the girlfriend, Thea, who realises she was somehow wrong and chases him to the airport when he leaves. A year later, the Norwegians are wearing Indian bling, dancing the bhangra, and all is well.
All this irked me, but what irritated me most was Jashan’s stricken reaction at his first bite of the juleribbe or pork belly, the centerpiece of the family Christmas meal. He grimaces, he groans, and Thea skitters around fetching him fiery sauces under the table.
Now, I am a firm believer in eating local, whether in India or abroad. I make and eat dosas every day at home, but I cannot eat one on the Dal Lake in Srinagar. I refuse to eat chicken vindaloo in New York or gol gappas in Singapore, and I could not see how this juleribbe could be as bad as Mr Shazam makes it out to be.
After switching off the movie, I trawled google for juleribbe recipes. There are many ways to make it, but I settled on the traditional way: no spices except pepper. I did add some Old Monk to give it an old Bangalore twist, but otherwise, it emerged from the oven pretty much as Jashan may have encountered it. It took three hours to get done, with the first hour spent steaming above a pan of water and beer.
The juleribbe is traditionally served with lingonberry jam and rødkål, a sweet-sour, braised red cabbage. There are no lingonberries in Bengaluru. I could have substituted them with cranberries, but I was done in after carefully nurturing the juleribbe to good health and golden crackling—the tough outer skin that needs to be roasted, so it crackles and collapses in your mouth. The rødkål, I realised to my consternation, also takes three hours to make, so I did not.
I served the juleribbe with potatoes and carrots, both dressed with sumac and harissa, a bit of spice to counter the blandness of the juleribbe I thought. That’s just it. Even I, who can easily do without spice, feared my guests might behave like Jashan—okay, not as bad—so I tarted up the accompanying potatoes and carrots.
I need not have bothered. The juleribbe was a runaway hit. The three hours of roasting had rendered the meat soft, the crackling was perfectly golden and the fat below it creamy. The only problem was that the hunk of pork belly had shrunk and the number of guests had grown, so those who ate meat were rationed to a slice each.
The greatest difficulty I encountered was in scoring the skin, the crackling. The recipe called for a cross-hatch design to let the salt and pepper be rubbed in, but the skin was super tough. None of my knives could make a scratch. I remembered then that my cousin and her husband had gifted me a fancy Japanese knife on my 50th birthday, eight years ago. I am sure my tendency to hoard had dulled its edge substantially, but it managed the cross-hatch scoring, although at one point it slipped a bit, barely touched a finger, and drew a bit of blood.
I have never been to Norway, and don’t know if I ever will. Getting there seems very expensive and working through the visa is likely to be so onerous that I doubt I will get to eat a juleribbe with lingonberry jam and rødkål in its original, snowy Christmas setting.
Oh well, I can make a reasonable juleribbe myself now. I suppose I have the otherwise insufferable Jashan to thank for it.
800g pork belly, uncut
3 tsp fresh black pepper
120ml Old Monk rum
1 pint of Kingfisher
1-2 litre of water
Salt to taste
Using a very sharp knife, score the outer skin of the pork belly in a cross-hatch. Rub in the salt, pepper and rum. Marinate for a day (the Norwegians recommend two to three days). Wrap in foil, skin side down and place on a rack, above a pan filled equally with water and beer, in a preheated oven. Cook for an hour at 250 degrees Celsius. Remove the foil, turn skin side up and continue roasting at 200 degrees Celsius for two hours, adding water to the pan when needed. Remove when done and cut carefully into slices.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.