India is seeing the emergence of an enthusiastic culture around pork ♦
A version of this story was originally published in India Today.
Being in a close relationship with a pork lover isn’t something you take lightly. Once, at a party, a large ham made a brief appearance before the guests prior to being whisked into the dining room. My husband spent the rest of cocktail hour lurking in the doorway, making eyes at its scored and clove-studded curves. I’m fairly certain our relationship took a turn toward serious the night I roasted pork belly for dinner. For the first year of our marriage, a smoked pig’s head from China lived in our freezer, diminishing bit by bit as he shaved little pieces off to fry and add to everything.
Sacks of frozen meatballs sent to friends, stockpots full of trotters and bones, packets of oily choriz and smoked meat smuggled in suitcases from Goa and Meghalaya respectively—pork has its own gravity in the constellation of our social relationships. We’re in Whatsapp groups called Pork and Oink. When husband wants to text in the affirmative, he sends a pig emoji to say ‘sewar’, as in ‘sure’.
And despite swine’s entrenched associations with the gutter, we’re not alone. Consumption of the meat is up and, to its growing band of acolytes in India, pork is perfection. Online and offline clubs include Porkaholics on Facebook, Bangalore’s Pork Lovers Club, Calcutta Porkaddicts and others. While historically India’s pork-eating communities have sourced from small-scale unregulated producers, and our English breakfast-eating elite consumed imported meat, the last decade has seen the rise of farmers, producers and buyers who are pushing the market towards greater standardization and quality control. And also, fuelled by shows like this year’s Chef’s Table BBQ, tastes beyond bland frankfurters and anodyne bacon.
On one side are larger producers who emulate international-standard preserved meats. On the other is a tribe of professional chefs and home cooks who’ve been curing, smoking and— once the first phase of the lockdown released its stranglehold on the supply chain—delivering.
“The number of pork shops in Bangalore has gone up threefold,” estimated Jacob John, who sells small batches of bacon and other preparations under the Instagram handle East of Bangalore, and who has in the last two years gone from using a simple cardboard smoker to building a brick one that can accommodate around 20kg of meat. Through the pandemic and lockdown in his city, chefs like Gautam Krishankutty (Gonzo Garbanzo) and Karishma Sharma (The Tenth Muse) have pivoted towards small-batch delivery powered by social media, along with Coorg recipe specialist Curly Sue.
Similarly H Man bbq in Delhi converted from a tiny, coveted dining counter to a pork-forward delivery kitchen selling raw, cured and cooked meats. Sambaran Mitra, a chef and consultant in Gurgaon, started his service Meathead “on a lark” just over two months ago because other work had stalled and “my smoker was just lying there.” He now smokes 20-plus droolworthy kilos of pork every two or three days, using rubs and marinades from around the world.
In Mumbai, there’s Goan sausage company Pedro Pão and Joshua Pereira, who customizes bikes and smokes hog at Incendiary Motorcycles and Incendiary Kitchen. Smoke by the Sea does weekly menus and items on pre-order, smoking garlic, nuts and cheese along with pork and other meats.
Mumbai’s Kaavo and Gurgaon’s Smoke Freaks also both proffer the smoked hunks of meat typical of small-batch producers, but through slicker websites not just social media or word-of-mouth. In Kolkata, pop-ups like Pig Boss and charcuteries with strong online communities, The Whole Hog and Calcutta Deli, have replaced legendary Kalman Cold Storage, which according to some reports shut shop early this year because of the difficulty of finding new workers who would handle both beef and pork. With intolerance now the bitter spice of life in India, as Artisan Meats co-founder Meherwan Bawa points out, “Pork is the new beef.”
Noida-based Artisan is among the crop of quality-and-hygiene obsessed charcutiers, some of whom have scaled up to delivery through online portals or retail counters around the country. “Our tagline is ‘Eat Clean Meat’,” Bawa said, referring to most traditional suppliers as selling “garbage pork”. When your USP is ultra-hygienic meat, it’s not hard to extend this marketing to suit pandemic conditions. Primo Foods (LionFresh.com) and Prasuma (selling through Meatigo) are two such purveyors. Lately, Japanese Standard Processing, a company related to the Japanese chain Kuuraku, is heavily advertising its pristine, baby-pink “Japanese Clean Room Technology” pork on Instagram.
These brands have adjusted to pandemic conditions with the whole-hog attitude typical of pork lovers. When Bangalore’s Arthur Foods had to stall plans to open a Delhi counter for its German-standard, Indian-produced Meisterwurst brand, its representative in the capital, Harathi Reddy Rebello, decided to just convert her basement to a cold storage and start delivering from home. Reddy Rebello, who’s worn many stylish hats, began looking for good Indian pork when her sensitive young son swore off chickens after a farm fieldtrip.
For her, pork is both personal and tied in with building a community. “I’d say 80 percent of the people I speak to, like me, didn’t eat pork in India,” she says. “And I have a nice long extended conversation with each of them.”