Opinion | The role of roast pork in my father’s 88th year
At an age when many older people turn to spiritualism in life and frugality in food, a retired police officer keeps his faith in more earthly desires
My father just turned 88, an age that I cannot comprehend at 55. He is slower and more silent than he once was, but as meticulous with everything he does, whether getting his bank passbook filled—yes, he does that—or reminding me to renew my driving licence or insurance.
I have often written about my mother here, but rarely about my father because he has never been a presence in the kitchen. That is not to say he has not been a presence in my life. Growing up, much of his time was taken up by his work as a policeman but he taught me many things, among them Sanskrit, driving and to be decent and do the right thing.
But he is here in this column because I cooked the main entrée for his 88th lunch.
What would you like, I asked him a few days earlier.
Nothing, he replied grimly, I don’t want any celebrations.
The family laughed at his faux grimness.
I asked him again, with greater specificity. What would you like to eat?
He turned to me slowly and replied: Pork and fish.
That was not so hard, was it? My mother offered to make the fish and I was left with the pork, which was perfect because it is the easiest meat to cook.
My father’s eating habits are more conventional than my mother’s or mine in the sense that he prefers food with chapatis, looks at pasta with disfavour and expects everything to be just right. He drives my mother nuts sometimes by remarking that the spice is “slightly" excess or the salt a “little less" or demanding to know why the curd is sour or watery.
Ask him how the food was and if he really likes it, he will say “good" without a smile. That is what he said about the pork when I asked him at lunch.
“Good." No smile.
Even though he has eased off on the quantity, he likes his fish and meat and has no taboos. He eats all manner of vegetables but makes disparaging comments about them if there is a dead-animal option.
Growing up as a boy in his home state of Goa, then a part of the Portuguese colonial possession called the Estado da India (the state of India), my father mainly remembers eating fish, meat and vegetables. The descendants of sailors who served in Shivaji’s navy and later turned to piracy, his family likes simple, robust food, redolent with spices and well cooked.
My grandfather wanted him to learn Portuguese, so he was packed off from their home in Vasco da Gama to live with a relative 42km south in Quepem. He did learn some Portuguese. “What people learnt in three years, I learnt in one," he told me, rather immodestly. My grandfather later wound up as a railway line inspector in Dharwad, Karnataka, where the family of 12—my father had nine siblings—ate on the floor.
He got himself a law degree and became a clerk at the government secretariat in what was then Bombay, before qualifying for the Indian Police Service. At home and in service, there was no occasion to pay much attention to the kitchen. Like most women, my mother, a physiotherapist, multitasked, and there were cooks, orderlies and official banquets.
After staying honest to personal and professional ideals and garnering considerable acclaim, my father finished his last posting in Delhi as chief of a paramilitary force and returned home to Bengaluru, where he at last learnt to make tea and turned his attention to the kitchen. It has been three decades since he retired and he has not stopped irking my mother with his interest in, and unwarranted advice about, culinary matters. My wife recently told him he sounded like the stereotypical “mother-in-law".
He may now require a walking stick, swallow an array of pills, but at an age when many of his friends talk about matters spiritual, my father enjoys his earthly pursuits. We both got ischemic heart disease at the same age, 48, but when we dined out—before the pandemic—my search for healthy, grilled-fish options frequently contrasted with his orders of rack of lamb or his favourite almond-encrusted fish in some sort of a creamy sauce.
So, it was no surprise that pork graced the table on his 88th. I kept it simple and low-spice, in keeping with his requirements, which he shares with his granddaughter. They were the biggest consumers of the pork, which finally garnered the biggest compliment I have ever received.
“Samar," he said, after his afternoon sleep had refreshed him, “the pork was the best I have ever eaten." I gawped, and my 10-year-old’s eyes widened. “Dada never says that appa!" Indeed.
1kg pork, with some fat
2 onions, chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp garlic, chopped
1 tbsp ginger, chopped
2 green chillies, slit
3 tbsp garam masala
Three-quarter cup rum (about 120ml)
Half-cup vinegar (I used pomegranate vinegar)
4 tsp vegetable oil
Salt to taste
In a pressure cooker, heat the oil with cumin, green chillies and mustard seeds. When they start to splutter, add onions and sauté until brown. Add ginger and garlic and sauté further for a minute. Add garam masala and sauté for a minute, drizzling in the vinegar so it does not stick. Add pork and salt and sear for 10 minutes. Add rum and mix well. Add 1 cup water, close cooker and cook for four whistles on high, then two on sim. When steam leaves, open and transfer to ovenproof dish. Bake for 2 hours at 150 degrees Celsius.
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.