Opinion: From Blandings to the Karnataka Ham Shop
- About a conflicted relationship with pigs—how to love them, cook them and eat them
- Slow cooking brings out the best of things porcine, but sometimes a short cut gets you there
I have a conflicted relationship with pigs. I love them, everything about them—their demeanour, their appearance and their place in the books I read.
But I also like to eat them, perhaps more than anything else.
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by those little black piglets snuffling near drains and trash heaps. They were always so busy and industrious, chasing down some dirty morsel with porcine determination.
Then I learnt that foreign pigs were pink. Pink! It was a revelation to someone who had only known the black pigs of the Deccan Plateau, where I spent my early school years. The firang pigs appeared to have brighter eyes and seemed to be always smiling—of course, this was chiefly because their eyes and mouths were easy to see in the books.
As I reached my pre-teens, my mother introduced me to the Empress of Blandings, a creature familiar to English-speaking Indians of a certain vintage and Britons of a possibly older vintage. The Empress was an enormous sow, the pride and joy of the ninth earl of Emsworth, or Lord Emsworth, a woolly headed character created more than a century ago by P.G. Wodehouse. My reading days in baking Gulbarga and balmy Belgaum were filled with tales of the Empress, awarded three silver medals for being, well, fat.
I did not really connect the Empress with the ham, sausage and pork that my family so loved. She was in my mind, and the ham was on my plate. As I grew up, I gradually realized that if the Empress were real, she or her ilk may have wound up as breakfast or lunch.
Now, after half a century of life, pork and pigs appear as omniscient in my life as ever. They receded during three years of caution driven by newfound health awareness, but I realized a life without pork is no life at all. And with an eight-year-old daughter, who loves ham and until recently nonplussed people asking her what her favourite food was by replying “pork fat", pigs are back in my life.
For her, it began with Peppa, the pig who lives in cartoons with her mummy and daddy and little brother George. I never understood what children like about cheeky Peppa, who speaks in a clipped British upper-class accent. But I have now learnt that the Chinese adore her as a subversive symbol—getting Peppa tattoos—after she was scrubbed by censors online for being a “gangster character" (perhaps because she has a mind of her own?).
But I digress. Peppa has faded from my daughter’s life, and her early fascination with pork fat is waning, but ham is her leading comfort food, and, unlike chicken, pork is never refused. Regular readers—yes, there are some who like to torture themselves—of this column will recall that cooked pigs make a frequent appearance here.
However, I have often focused on the craft of cooking pork, usually without my customary haste. I make Khasi pork, which is cooked on an open stove and takes up to 90 minutes. I make Coorgi pandi curry, which can be produced in a pressure cooker but is best on an open flame. I have used synthesis—combining open flame with an oven finish so the pork darkens and roasts.
What I have never done is to subject pork to my quick cooking style, which is what I am doing as I write this column. Indeed, I stopped at the previous sentence to marinate three pork chops and dunk them with garlic and onion in the pressure cooker—it took all of 10 minutes. Now, I can hear the urgent whistling as the cooker lets off steam. This time, I intend to let the pressure do its job, while I sit back and subject you to my porcine ramblings.
Ham is a favourite in school lunches as well. I offer it to my main client in two ways. The first is her favourite, a plain sandwich, with the ham brought from the Karnataka Ham Shop under the benevolent gaze of Lord Hanuman. The only other adornment allowed is a bit of butter. The second is my creation—a double-fried egg sandwich with olives, cheese, jalapenos, basil leaves and ham.
I know she would like to remove the egg, but she is still at an age where, even if her father’s word isn’t exactly law, it’s something she will strongly consider.
Four whistles on high and two on low and my quick pork chops are done. Imbued with the sweetness of carmelized onion, the light sting of garam masala and sourness of sumac—all amalgamated into a light flavour and thin gravy speckled with melted fat—I think my quick pork chops should be a hit.
I tasted them, and I am excited. But who am I to speak for an eight- year old?
QUICK PORK CHOPS WITH SOY AND GARAM MASALA
3 pork chops, 1 with fat, 2 without
1/2 onion, sliced long
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tsp sumac (eliminate if unavailable)
1 tsp garam masala
1/2tsp turmeric powder
3 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sunflower oil (or any)
Salt to taste
Marinate the pork chops in ginger-garlic paste, salt, soy, garam masala, sumac and turmeric for an hour. In a pressure cooker, heat oil and sauté garlic until lightly brown. Add onions and sauté until soft. Add the pork and sear both sides, 5 minutes each. Add water, just enough to cover the pork. Close cooker and cook on medium-high for four whistles. Reduce flame and cook for a further two whistles.
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 tweets at @samar11