Sorpotel: The Goan Curry That Brings Catholic Families Together

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Sorpotel: The Goan Curry That Brings Catholic Families Together

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

“A pig resembles a saint, in that it is honoured more in death than when he was alive.”

– Irma S Rombauer. Author, Cook, Badass

Pigs, reviled as animals that wallow in the mire, used to refer to everyone from cops to filthy children, are simple, happy animals whose lives revolve around eating, sleeping, and being social with other piggies. On a cuteness scale of zero to puppy, pigs lie somewhere in the middle. They are pretty intelligent animals, the fifth most intelligent animal to be precise. Ahead of dogs, but behind chimpanzees, even though they are able to focus on tasks better. They also form long-term memories, like us, remembering significant events that affected them all through their lives.

Let’s leave aside the exaltations, though, because one fact trumps all the above — they taste heavenly. I wager pork is what everything in heaven tastes like. Though I scoff at the very concept of it (heaven not the taste of pork), I’d like to go there someday. Bacon, hot dogs, ham, salami, chorizo, pepperoni, roasts, ribs, chops, crackling, the list is long and delicious. Combine their powers and you get an iteration that is spades better than the rest: Sorpotel, the pork curry that lies at the culinary epicentre of every Goan kitchen.

Comprising of unctuous nubbins of pork fat and skin, little shreds of meat, the magenta curry glistens with a slick layer of melted fat that gleams ruby red when light hits it. Making it is a labour of love. If your idea of cooking is two-minute Maggi, then you won’t get it. But if cooking is your thing, there’s nothing as rewarding as the smell of sorpotel. It catches you by surprise. You walk into a room, and there it is, the sour topnote of malt vinegar riding a hint of freshly cut green chilli. You feel this at the base of your tongue. The next is the sweet heavy aroma of cooking pork, vastly different from the usual kitchen smells, it hangs thick and heavy, reminiscent of apples mixed with a savouriness that borders on salty. At the end there is that sweet undercurrent of stewing garlic and onions, almost imperceptible under the heavy blanket of porkiness.

Everytime you eat sorpotel, you’re reminded of the army of people who spent hours making it, the long conversations and banter that comes from people united by a single purpose.

There’s no bad sorpotel, only bad people. The recipe is pretty smart and utilitarian, using everything a pig has to offer, except the squeal, or the hair or the bones. Apart from that, nothing on the pig is wasted. It’s all boiled with salt, shredded into perfect geometric cubes and ensconced in a fiery red masala paste that is heavy on chilli, onion, garlic, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves. Add in a bottle of vinegar, a shot or five of feni and let it go for a couple of hours. The end result is velvety smooth, luxuriously rich, sexy, red curry that is culinary gold. Thanks to the vinegar, salt and a layer of liquid fat, sorpotel has a pretty long shelf life and, just like Monica Bellucci, only gets better with age. It is guarded, stashed in tiny takeaway containers at the back of the fridge. It’s a moment frozen in time. Everytime you eat sorpotel, you’re reminded of the army of people who spent hours making it, the long conversations and banter that comes from people united by a single purpose. After all, making sorpotel is a family affair. The men usually buy the meat, and the women craft the masala, blending the spices so that your first bite of sorpotel is the exact same as your last. The kids scrounge for scraps of boiled pork. Or at least I did.

I went to sorpotel school when I was 12, helping my dad cut the meat into scarily even cubes, washing the knives with hot water when they got slick with fat, putting an edge on them that could cut glass. By 16, couldn’t stand my father and began to learn the art of sorpotel masala from my mum, who learnt it from hers and… you get the drift.

The recipes handed down from generation to generation haven’t changed because they use eerily specific measurements such as 30 red chillies, 50 black peppercorns, seven cloves, etc. You don’t fuck with sorpotel. By 25 I’d graduated to stirring the pot and cooking the sorpotel, which is a feat of strength. Thanks to the sheer number of ingredients that go into the masala itself, plus the amount of meat, fatty meat, offal, then the onion, garlic and green chilli that is added to it, sorpotel is an extremely large format dish.

My extended family of 10 would converge in my grandmum’s house to crank out upto 10 kilos of the stuff with military precision. Because it uses just the meat, the plentiful bones, usually still coated with flesh, fat and gristle, are cooked into a satisfyingly luscious side-curry, thanks to all the collagen and gelatin from the bones. This lesser curry, the ugly friend of sexy sorpotel, is hella wholesome. Devoured with kadak pao, it’s sure to mess up your hands and leave your mouth and lips slick and glistening. The primal satisfaction of eating the side-curry merits its own section on FoodPornHub, should that ever exist. If oral sex wasn’t a sin, thanks to all the practice we get from chewing on pork bones, Catholic people would be legends. But alas, we’re all pork loving prudes.

Legend has it my mum ran out of baby food and my grandmother turned sorpotel and khichdi into Cerelac on crack and fed it to me.

The reason I love it so much could be because it was my first solid meal. Legend has it my mum ran out of baby food and my grandmother turned sorpotel and khichdi into Cerelac on crack and fed it to me. Even today, there is nothing more comforting than a steaming bowl of khichdi, accentuated with a few tablespoons of sorpotel.

The truest joy however, is smashing freshly steamed sanna, or idlis fermented with coconut toddy, into equally hot sorpotel. Anyone who merely dunks their sanna into the curry is viewed with suspicion. One needs to smash the sanna into the curry, until it loses all shape. Then you scoop up the gruel and chew in silence. Not a tough task, the meat is tiny and tender, the sanna is soft and spongy. Small wonder then that sorpotel ends as soon as it begins, calling you back for more.

Since it was my first meal, I’d also like it to be my last. Should I sense the moment of my passing, a frozen container of sorpotel shall be thawed, and I shall free myself from the shackles of mortality as I scarf it down. If I cannot chew or eat solid food, standing instructions are to shoot me full of sorpotel. Settling into its sweet embrace like a smack head getting his fix won’t be a bad way to go.

This year I’m making sorpotel by myself. My mom and aunts too tired to deal with huge, sloppy hunks of meat that aren’t their husbands. My dad unable to grasp the knife he once used to deftly divide the pork into bite size portions. My cousins now grown, doing their own thing. I’m almost 30, in the throes of adulting, wondering how to save, which car to buy, watching my friends get hitched and have kids and feeling my own nesting instincts kick in. It’s scary, but it has to be done. So this Christmas, with my grandmother watching me from her vantage point on the wall, wearing a fresh garland, and my mom in my face reminding me to use less vinegar, and my girlfriend asking for photos of every step of the process, I am going to make it myself. On my journey to becoming a fully functioning adult, sorpotel is my in-flight meal.

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