It is a rare dish that can take you to another place and time. Every time I make a batch of my mother’s sorpotel, an unctuous stew of slow-cooked pork, piquant with vinegar, spices, and a dash of sweetness, I am filled with a nostalgia for the places that the dish has been, and the changes it has gone through before arriving, finally, in my kitchen in New York. Sorpotel appears in different forms in many parts of the southwest of India—some people like it with more vinegar, others like it with big chunks of meat while yet others insist that the pork has to be cut into tiny cubes. (As a child, this was the one culinary task I was entrusted with—to reduce kilos of chilled, parboiled pork into mountains of evenly bite-sized cubes.)
More than for any other reason, sorpotel appeals to me because of the link it represents between generations of cooks in my family and with the Anglo-Indian and East Indian heritage of my mother. My maternal grandmother, Joyce, grew up in the South Indian city of Bangalore, one of five children in an Anglo-Indian household. My grandfather Kenneth, her husband, was a part-Portuguese East Indian who grew up between Mumbai and a family home on the island of Manori outside the city where my mother and her brothers often went for holidays.
My grandmother inherited her recipe for sorpotel from her East-Indian mother-in-law and eventually became famous for it among her social circle. She in turn handed the recipe to my mother. The dish has passed through numerous kitchens, and still bears the fragrance of lost times, and places that now only exist in the stories of my mother and her aunts.
Many Christmases ago, I happened to be visiting Bangalore at the same time as my mother’s aunt Patsy, who lives in Shillong, as far away from Bangalore as you can get while still staying within the boundaries of the country. Christmas is always a special occasion in our home, a time for fussing over elaborate banquets and sweets for friends and family. But it is less and less common for so many generations to be gathered in our family kitchen for the occasion. Christmas lunch would traditionally be held at my grandmother’s house, though in recent years my mother had taken over hosting duties as my grandmother became more frail.
My grand aunt Patsy cuts an intriguing figure. Her grey hair is always immaculately curled, and her eyes shine with good humor behind her glasses. Yet, within a minute of talking to her, there’s no mistaking her garrulous, bawdy wit. She presides over the kitchen like a sort of rowdy fairy godmother, a traditional khasi apron draped over her neatly pleated sari. My grandmother, in comparison, was a famous stoic. She was equally renowned for her sorpotel as for her love of decorum—though she loved to host grand dinner parties where she cooked all the food, you would never see her working in the kitchen during one of them.
There is little decorum to spare in the house today: the outdoor kitchen is bustling with the activity of multiple dishes coming together at once. Patsy has enlisted the help of me and my aunt Priya in making dhol dhol—a halva made of black glutinous rice flour and coconut milk, cooked over low heat till it forms a viscous, obstinate mass. Priya and her mother, my grand aunt Margaret—Patsy’s sister—hold the sides of the tinned handi while I strain to keep the mixture from sticking and burning. Indoors, Patsy is peering over my mother’s shoulder as she layers ingredients for the baffath, a monumental affair of vegetables and bacon braised with coconut milk and turmeric. “Don’t forget the saffron, Astrid!” she says with mock concern. She notices my curious look and she laughs. “It’s turmeric—we just call it saffron.” It’s an unusual Anglo-Indian convention that I’d forgotten about. What do they call saffron, then? I ask. “Saffron, I suppose,” she answers, abstractedly, before giving an ironic smile and throwing her hands up. “Don’t ask me these questions! Ask your mother!” she says and playfully nudges my mother with her elbow. My mother looks up from her baffath and sardonically parries that maybe Margaret knows. Or perhaps we could ask my grandmother when she shows up later in the day. In the meantime, the laughing and the stories continue over the hubbub of cooking.
The sorpotel is just one of many dishes we cook that day, but it has a ceremonial importance that distinguishes it for all of us. It is the one dish that Patsy defers to my mother on—she still refers to it as Joyce’s sorpotel, and trusts my mother as the rightful custodian of the recipe. Until recently my grandmother could still produce a knockout sorpotel, though these days a bad hip keeps her out of the kitchen.
As my mother sautés the ginger and garlic that are the foundation of the dish, it almost seems like my grandmother is cooking with us. As my mother adds a healthy dose of East Indian “bottle masala” to the pan, she and her aunts recall the narrow-necked bottles the spice mixture used to come in. “It was solid in there, and they sold it just like that, you see. Most people didn’t make it at home—you just went and bought ‘bottle masala’,” Patsy explains. “If you wanted to use some you put a knitting needle in and broke some up—that’s how you had to get it out.”
As the afternoon wears on, the sorpotel and the baffath cook slowly down, filling the house with their aroma. Priya’s children occasionally run into the kitchen to talk to their grandmother or grand aunt or to report the latest goings-on from the front verandah. Perhaps they’ve seen one of the owls that sits in the eaves of the house, or my father has just told them some unlikely story that they need to verify with their aunts. Invariably Patsy will supply them with a cheeky answer to take back to my father and they run back to the front of the house, delighting in their grand aunt’s mischief. Patsy shrugs and laughs as they go.
It is late in the afternoon when my brother pulls up in a car with my grandmother in the back. Even bent over the cane that she hates to use, her bearing is impressive. Someone gets a picture of the three sisters sitting together on the verandah. It is the last time I will see these three formidable ladies together. Not long after that Christmas, my grandmother would pass away—I get the call in New York and immediately think of this last feast together.
We all sit out on the verandah to eat. I take an extra large serving of sorpotel with two sannas, the slightly sweet steamed rice cakes that Mangaloreans typically eat with the dish. The first bite is euphoric—fatty, spicy, tangy, and sweet all in one—the taste of a perfect Christmas afternoon. Though we’ve all traveled so far to be here, for the moment those distances seem immaterial. Remote memories—of places and people—suddenly feel close and precious. I take a second helping of sorpotel, and even as I eat, I’m already planning the next morning’s breakfast: two slices of toasted white bread piled high with piping hot sorpotel. In some ways, I prefer to eat it this way, in small servings in the days and weeks after Christmas, when the festive mood of the holidays has faded. My mother always kept a store of sorpotel handy in her freezer, like a portion of celebration kept in reserve, ready to be taken out and enjoyed when you need a taste of a faraway place, a memory of happy times with loved ones.
Serves 6-7 people with soft white bread or sannas
1 lb pork belly, skin removed, cut into large chunks
1 lb pork shoulder cut into large chunks
3 tbsp distilled white vinegar
East Indian bottle masala (see note)
1 or 2 green chillis
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, crushed
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
3 tbsp ginger/garlic paste
sugar to taste
A note on bottle masala: Most East Indian cooks still buy their bottle masala. The exact ingredients vary from cook to cook and from region to region, but some quick googling will give you some representative recipes.
A note on presentation: You'll note that the picture above shows some endive, too. This is purely a frippery of my own, albeit one that is actually delicious. If you feel up to it, try serving the sorpotel with some caramelized apple or pear and some braised endive or barely grilled radicchio. The combination of flavors and textures is incredibly winning.
Place the pork belly and shoulder meat in a large saucepan with 1 cup of water, 2 tsp salt and white vinegar. Bring to a vigorous boil and cook for five minutes. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate so that the pork firms up. Remove the pork from the broth and chop into fine dice no more than ¼-inch across.
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat with 3 tbsp of vegetable oil or pork lard. When the oil begins to shimmer, add 2 whole green chillies and the crushed ginger and garlic. Stir in the hot oil till fragrant. Add the finely chopped pork and sauté for a few minutes. Add the ground ginger-garlic paste. Continue to fry, till the ginger and garlic lose their raw smell, and then add the reserved pork broth.
Add about 3 tsp. of the bottle masala and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for half an hour, adding more liquid as needed, or until the pork is fork-tender. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar and check seasoning Add salt as needed.
Enjoy warm with toasted white bread or with hot sannas. The sorpotel tastes better after a day or two and freezes exceedingly well.