The Lost Secret of Grandma’s Sorpotel


The Lost Secret of Grandma’s Sorpotel

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Pauline Philip Pereira died on the April 4, 2009 and with her went her recipe for the perfect pork sorpotel.

We laid her to rest on a hot summer day and went on to celebrate her life through food, music, and copious amounts of alcohol. All of grandma’s favourite foods were dished up – the dal vadas that she loved so much, her favourite bhajiya pav, which she’d painstakingly eat even though she had difficulty chewing after a paralytic stroke ravaged  the right side of her body, her favourite sardine curry, and of course, sorpotel. I gingerly dunked a pillowy sannan (it’s like an idli, but don’t ever call it one) into the ruby red fat-laden liquid and took a bite. I was hoping to be flooded with a bout of nostalgia that would make me tear up for my mai. But I wasn’t. The sorpotel was good, but there was something amiss. I dissected the dish in my head. Sour, hot, sweet, and porky, check; tender meat, check; pieces of tripe and liver, check. But this wasn’t it. A lot of people present concurred with me; this sorpotel was slightly different. It was good, but it wasn’t the original recipe mai was famous for.

When Grandma Pauline was alive and kicking, most of her recipes were a closely guarded secret. She’d gladly rattle off the recipe for a generic chicken curry, the kind wedding buffets fuck up with impunity, but ask her what went into the masala of her sorpotel and she’d omit a few ingredients here and there or forget to tell you to toast the spices, often chalking it up to old age. Or she would simply call for a timeout and go take a nap. But I wager there was more to her faulty memory than what met the eye.

Mai’s sorpotel was the stuff of legend. Ten-year-old me would walk into the kitchen on All Saints’ Day, enticed by the aroma of pork, slowly simmering in a huge vat. I would wait in Oliver Twist-esque anticipation for those steaming, unctuous pieces of pork that would later be chopped into nubbins of fatty meat, which eventually morphed into fiery red sorpotel. I would greedily scavenge for scraps of meat or even a strip of chewy pork rind.

Mai’s recipe for sorpotel was probably acquired from her mother, and then rehashed by her mother-in-law after marriage to better suit her son’s (and my grandfather’s) palate. Years of marital servitude had helped shape these recipes into a work of art. These very recipes were probably a way to curry favour. Grandma Pauline was damned if she’d simply throw away her bargaining chip on demand. You had to work for it. And it’s not just the women of the house, I’ve worked with cooks who’ve pulled knives the minute someone so much as touches the dog-eared, food-smeared notebooks they painstakingly chronicle their recipes in, adding their own personal touches to an otherwise standardised recipe. Shit, I’ll pull a knife if you touch my dog-eared, food-smeared notebook. In fact, closely guarding recipes has a place in history too.

Then came the internet and a host of overzealous food bloggers (who’ve got a special place in my version of hell).

Legend has it that the daughters of the royal families of Awadh and Hyderabad were forbidden from entering the kitchens of their households. The daughters, the nawabs and the nizams believed, would be married outside the family and take the recipes – hitherto shielded like royal secrets – to a wider palate. Sharing these exclusive preparations, for the royals of the early modern period, was unacceptable.

Before the interweb and its blogs made finding recipes for obscure preparations easier than the hallowed G spot (though the internet does have invaluable information on its secret hideout), they were cherished like family heirlooms. To trade a recipe is to let someone into your head. Your thoughts, your persona, your world view, your entire psychological makeup immediately becomes evident through something as basic as a recipe. Okay I may have exaggerated a bit, but recipes are more than just words and figures; they’re spells that bind. And by sharing a recipe, you are in essence giving someone else a part of you. Hence, in the good old days recipes were only shared with people you could explicitly trust. Then came the internet and a host of overzealous food bloggers (who’ve got a special place in my version of hell). They wanted the world to know that their grandmother’s cooking was the best in the land. What was once an exchange of knowledge suddenly became a dump on the side of the information superhighway.

When mai finally did divulge one of her complex recipes, like the one for a delicately steamed mackerel, stuffed with a pungent, sour red masala, and then delicately smoked using coconut husks, she’d diligently tell you to use only red chillies that crackled when rubbed between your thumb and forefinger, how to measure the vinegar using your pinky. She’d then go on to explain how to grind the masala in a pestel and mortar until it made a particular “schlap schalp” sound and how you’d mess up the recipe if you used mackerels that didn’t leave a thin film of fat on your index finger after you ran it through the freshly gutted stomach cavity. Some food blogger/recipe poster might give me a scientifically accurate description involving weight, time, and temperature, but I’ll be fucked sideways if they’d be able to bring a recipe to life the way my grandmother did.

After mai died, I did some digging. I spoke to my mum and three aunts separately, asking for the recipe for my grandma’s famous sorpotel. They all had the same recipe, except for a few ingredients, one version omitted the two shots of feni entirely, the other had just one, one version demanded more Kashmiri chillies, while yet another stated a varying proportion of Kashmiri to bedgi chillies. Then it hit me, in all her wisdom, the old lady had shared parts of her recipe with her daughters, to safeguard and pass on. I’d like to think this was a Hum Saath Saath Hai-level stunt to ensure her daughters never drifted apart because they’d need each other to complete this recipe. But all she probably wanted was for her daughters to work on improving this incomplete recipe, the same way her mother probably passed on an incomplete recipe, and left the rest to her daughter.

I finally did try an amalgamation of all the familial variations, and while it did come close, it didn’t taste like sorpotel would after a 10-year-old was chased out of a sultry kitchen by an old woman brandishing a hot ladle. I think what was missing was having that woman sit me down later and feed me an assortment of pig parts, with a generous side of love.