The isles of Oceania—and summertime roast pork recipe
The beefy Polynesians share with us of the subcontinent a life under a merciless sun. An ode to a distant culture, a 50-year-old home library, and the return of summer
O long god,
O short god,
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O god breathing in short, sibilant breaths,
O god blowing like the whistling wins!
O god watching, peeping at one!
O god hiding, slipping out of sight
O all ye gods who travel on the dark night’s paths!
Come and eat!
In every culture, divinity has a link to food, but I have found few invocations as charming as this, from the people of Polynesia—a vast, remote and watery part of the planet that extends from Hawaii to New Zealand—to their ever-present gods. Younger readers might know of these Pacific islands as the home of Moana. I feel an affinity to the Polynesian pantheon because it closely resembles our own with regard to the diversity of divinity.
The top shelf of my mother’s bookshelf holds many treasures. About half a century ago, she was given to buying large-format, illustrated—you might call some coffee-table books, but these were read, used and treasured for the knowledge they held—publications on instalments. Some have been lost or were given away, but many are still around, each carefully bound in hard plastic and stamped “Shailaja Halarnkar” in running hand, obviously an imprint of her own signature. There are several volumes of an easy-to-read, unconventional encyclopaedia called The Book Of Knowledge, published—from the looks of a young Queen Elizabeth, the cars and locomotives and the absence of Dubai in the Arab world—sometime in the 1950s. There are 16 volumes of Life Nature Library, encompassing subjects from “Early Man” to “Tropical Asia”, and 10 volumes of mythology, African to Scandinavian to Oceanic. The last dwells at great length on the oceanic culture I mentioned, of “great gods and audacious heroes”.
The Polynesians come to mind because summer is firmly upon us in once salubrious Bengaluru, the city that once had no fans, let alone air conditioners. It is 38 degrees Celsius as I write this column. My friends in the baking north may well snicker, but this is all too much for us in the southern crescent of Karnataka. Apart from all those gods, the peoples of Oceanic share with us the merciless sun. They are, however, exposed to another harsh element: a vast, relentless ocean which, in an age of global warming, threatens to swallow their myriad islands and archipelagos.
But let me return to our common theme, the sun and the pitiless heat. All those centuries of rowing and navigating the wild oceans under a harsh sun have made the Pacific islanders some of the beefiest people on earth. My 10-year-old recalls the whole pigs being roasted in Hawaii when she travelled there with her grandparents. Ever since, she has taken a shine to pork, and, as summer got into its stride, my mind was filled with porcine thoughts.
As regular readers of my ramblings know, summer is a time when I feel challenged to strip my cooking to its essentials, infuse it with some craft and spend more effort constructing entrées. For some reason, standing and sweating in the kitchen reminds me of eras past, the ages of heroes, gods and myths.
So it was that I chose the spices, roasted them, waited till they crackled and smoked and pounded them by hand in a mortar-pestle, until the black of the cloves merged into the dark red of dried Byadgi chillies to deliver a rich, crimson powder. When the pork emerged from the pressure cooker after seven whistles—alas, there wasn’t enough time to let it simmer for hours on the stovetop—I let it sit in the oven for one-and-a-half hours, turning rich, brown as it softened in its own fat.
When it came to the table, this symbol of summer was bubbling and steaming, an invocation, as it were, to eras of human experience. I like to think those hardy, ancient Polynesians with their barrel chests, rich appetites and vast, ancient pantheon would have approved.
SUMMER PORK ROAST
2 large onions, sliced
3 tsp ginger-garlic paste
Half cup Old Monk rum
Half cup white vinegar
3 tsp vegetable oil
Salt to taste
For the masala
1-inch piece cinnamon
3 dried red chillies
3 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
Roast the masala ingredients on a griddle until they start to crackle and smoke. Remove and pound to a powder in a mortar-pestle. Set aside
Heat the oil in a pressure cooker. Sauté onions on medium heat until golden brown. Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté, using vinegar to prevent sticking. Add ground masala and sauté, again using vinegar to prevent sticking. Add the pork, increase heat and sear, mixing well for 10 minutes. Add rum and mix again. Add salt and some water if required, close the lid and pressure-cook on medium-high for four whistles, reduce flame and allow three more whistles. Once the pressure dissipates, remove pork to an oven-proof dish.
Roast in a preheated oven at 160 degrees Celsius for one hour, using liquid to baste every 10 minutes or so. Increase the heat to 200 degrees Celsius and allow the pork to brown nicely for 20 minutes.
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.