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Pigging out on pork
If you're looking for meaning in life, have a slice of ham.
The other day, as I bit into barbecued ham and Emmental sandwich from Mumbai's newest deli, Freeman and Baker in Juhu, I felt a deep sense of relief. It's a feeling I often get when I eat ham bought from a deli or a shop selling imported cold cuts. The relief is for the deliverance from locally made ham.
Before the sudden entry of 'gourmet' foods and their swift spread across the city, the only ham most people had access to was the type you got at the local cold storage. This sort is leathery, fibrous and about as tasty as a rubber slipper. It only offers a hint of the pig's real potential. But there are a few exceptions. Some clubs still cure their own ham. The Royal Bombay Yacht Club for instance sells a supremely tasty ham. It's not as refined as store-bought hams - it's rough and cut in a manner that suggests that someone has gone at a leg of ham with a machete. But it has a wonderfully smoky flavor.
Now with deli counters opening faster than you can say 'oink' - even the Ratan Tata Institute, that fusty chain of Parsi shops where doleful aunties in lab coats man counters of farcha and frilly cutlets, sells fancy meats and cheeses - one has an unprecedented amount of choice. Sreejith Mohan, the head of merchandising at Godrej Nature's Basket, which has one of the largest selection of cold cuts in Mumbai, says that he tries to stock 'variants' of meat that fall under the categories of type, cut and country of origin. There's ham from the Black Forest region, from Parma, salamis from Naples, barbecued ham, honeybaked ham, ham with the flavour of apples, chorizo and even Iberico ham, which costs a staggering Rs 900 for 100 grams. During an interview once, a major importer of foods was annoyingly taciturn till he began talking of Iberico. He launched into a rapturous eulogy of the Iberian pig, a big, black hog that roams the countryside of southern Spain eating acorns and acquiring a flavour that will make any diner weep with pleasure, I was assured. Good pork often evokes a sense of beatitude, a feeling that what one has imbibed is not just a piece of meat but something meaningful. (And, obviously, the tendency to get sentimental. ) So it's sad that pork is underappreciated in India. It's almost never well represented in menus, even in restaurants that serve Chinese, a cuisine that makes heavy use of pork. Ling's Pavilion is one of the few places that has an entire page of pork items on its menu. If you call in advance, you might even get the restaurant to make you dishes that are off the menu - crispy pork skin or - you have to have developed a taste for this - aspic. One of the most popular Goan restaurants in the city, Soul Fry in Bandra, has no sorpatel or Goa sausage. This is a richly spiced local version of chorizo that's usually eaten with pao or in a pulao.
Indians continue to be distasteful of the pig, which is perceived to be an unclean animal. They can't entirely be blamed as pigs in India are usually seen mucking about garbage dumps. Few farmers actually raise swine. "I wouldn't eat Indian pork, " admits Vishal Mehra, the owner of Freeman and Baker, whose display case brims with logs of ham. Instead most non-vegetarians prefer chicken. Inoffensive in its whiteness and mildly fleshy taste, it's the Brahmin of meats. Mehra says that his turkey and chicken cold cuts are "madly popular". He admits that Indians are more experimental with food now than they have ever been. But that's largely those who go abroad often and are familiar with foreign cuisines. One restaurant in Mumbai has taken up the gauntlet of popularising pork in the city. Every few months, Salt Water Cafê in Bandra hosts an event called Swine Dining. For a fixed price, you get to pig out on an entirely porcine menu. Being an East Indian, chef Gresham Fernandes has a natural fondness for pork and he's trying to pass that on to the larger public. On offer are items like crackling pig's ears, pork belly in chocolate, sorpatel, roasted pork loin, vindaloo and other "piggy wiggy delights".
As most good pork is imported, consuming it is a guilty pleasure when you think of the fuel that has been spent to ship it from one continent to another. If only more Indian farmers would raise quality swine so we could have local ham that didn't remind us of our hawai chappals.
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