The image of a roasting pig on the spit, fat dripping into the fire, is oddly gratifying even when spotted in comic books. Definitely not kosher though. But, peering at Obelix in Asterix comics, chomping away at one irresistible mouthful of boar after another, is enough to make any reader break a few dietary laws. Angamalykkaar (the people of Angamaly, a small junction town near Kochi), quite like the Gauls, love their pork. One way of celebrating Angamaly-ness is to wrap up the day with “two bits of pork and two small drinks”; the other ways we are not too sure about. Besides that, they have fiercely guarded a reputation for selling the finest pork in the state: synonymous with the place, it’s known simply as: Angamaly pork.
Back when it was still a village, the back-of-the-home pigsties and haphazardly fenced-in pigpens had sustained the pork trade of Angamaly; every home had a couple of pigs happily snorting and bleating away. Often pigs were adopted by poorer women in the village, to fatten them for a fee. If you couldn’t afford to buy a pig, you could still make a few bucks raising one. All was well in Angamaly; its pig economy kept it in the pink of health and, culturally, Angamalykkaar continued to enjoy porcine insults with great pride: Porkae! You pork! They secretly admit these are not insults but compliments.
However, Angamaly’s transition to a municipality rearranged the cottage industry a bit: stricter laws saw the closure of these backyard pigsties and the emergence of larger piggeries at the edge of town. People from surrounding towns would flock to Angamaly to buy pork. But, in the mid-1990s—just about when a handful of scribes started bringing home the bacon working for a certain magazine—this business rapidly expanded into organised trade. Around 1995, when Saji Sebastian brought finer, fatless breeds from Bangalore back home to Angamaly, the possibilities of seducing connoisseurs and the health-conscious with their fare began to take shape.
By the end of the ’90s, Sebastian and Prince Anthony were the first pioneers to venture outside the municipality and open a retail stall in Kochi. It was no easy task: they had to dump around 100 to 200 kilos every week, but they soldiered on. As luck would have it, it was a time of great upheaval on the menu front. With medical practitioners actively pushing white meat, red meat lost much of its salivating appeal for health reasons.
Another boost to the trade was the advent of culinary adventurers; virgin palates began enjoying the pleasures of pork dishes. And as the catering sector multiplied briskly, pork was in the ascendant and our boys from Angamaly, Prince and Sebastian, merrily raked in the moolah. Needless to say, Angamaly’s pork trade boomed.
Not that pork needed any endorsement in Kerala; a much-treasured meat among Christians for centuries, it had always occupied centre stage at Christian weddings. Portuguese influence cannot be discounted, though Goan pork vindaloo finds no direct sibling among Kerala’s favourites: pork chaaps (chops) and pork roast. There’s a touch of it, though, in the parangi roast pork, traditional Syrian Christian fare.
Jose Dominic, M.D. of CGH Earth, points out that of the three Abrahamic religions, only Christians eat pork—and that, he thinks, had to do with St Paul emerging the victor of the factional struggle among the early Christians following the death of Jesus. (Who would have thought that Pauline supremacy would someday be credited for the prosperous Angamaly pork trade!) The strife was between the erudite sophisticate Paul and the conservative Jewish brother of Jesus, James. Paul, who was gathering a large number of non-Jews into the Christian fold, did not insist on these neo-converts following the dietary laws of the Jews and pork continued to be a staple.
Interestingly, in Kerala, pork consumption is confined to geographical areas with a higher concentration of Christians. “I remember pork was a must-have dish at Christian weddings. Every household kept pigs for their own consumption; it was also a very innovative way of waste management, as the kitchen waste would be fed to the pigs,” says Dominic. With the migration of natives of the Christian belt to the districts of Kannur, Wayanad, Kozhikode, piggeries and trading have taken root there too.
Even though pork stalls dot the Kerala landscape, it is Angamaly pork that still reigns supreme. Gulf workers, on furlough, yearning for their favourite pork dish, head to Angamaly as soon as they land in Kerala. Says Prince Anthony, “The passengers from the early morning flight are usually my first customers, and they land up at 2 am.” As for locals, pork is so much part of their diet that they most often give vegetables a skip. They figure that throwing a few bananas or Chinese potatoes into their pork can give them that balanced diet.
The Surya hotel in Angamaly serves the local favourites: pork and kaya (raw banana) or pork and koorka (Chinese potato) for their dinner buffet. Executive chef Sibu Joseph explains the intricacies of working with banana and pork: “You need to know when to add banana or you can overcook it. Both banana and Chinese potato have the ability to absorb the melting fat and cook in it, acquiring a special flavour.” Surya also serves a mean pork pepper fry and pork chops. “Pork chops are the mainstay of most weddings or dinners.”
As for grilled pork chops, we go a little nostalgic for The International Hotel in Kochi, which used to serve the most eloquent grilled pork chops on Sundays: it had the ability to render you speechless. Chef Shibu Prabha says that in 2015, they pared down their buffet menu and grilled pork chops was struck off, much to the dismay of many a patron. But equally delightful are crackling pork spare ribs and parangi roast pork that can be ordered at the Casino Hotel (CGH Earth). The executive chef who has been handling these pork dishes for the past twenty years, says, “They are an all-time favourite at dinners and weddings, especially in the Pala and Mundakayam areas.”
However much the pig is the “tattered outlaw of the earth of ancient crooked will” (to borrow lines from the paean to the donkey), literature and arts have been kind to the animal: George Orwell’s Animal Farm propelled the pig into classic-dom. So it was inevitable that Chemban Vinod Jose, an actor and native of Angamaly, would script the Angamaly Diaries that hit the screen in 2017. This film on local gang wars uses the pig metaphor to tell its story. P.A. Jose, 65, a neighbour of Chemban who runs a pig stall with no name, became an accidental star. The film featured his stall, and now people come from all over the world to take selfies with him, he claims. And he is now acting in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s next film Jallikkettu. With one leg in Mollywood, Jose continues to sell “katta local” (purely local) pork in Angamaly.
This last year, the pork finger fry has been all the rage in Angamaly. It’s as addictive as the potato wafer, and its crackling is expected to take Kerala by storm soon. This reminds one of the story of roasting where the pig is the chief protagonist. To paraphrase Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig: For the first 70,000 years, people ate their meat raw and roasting was discovered purely by accident. According to a Chinese manuscript, swineherd Ho-ti left his cottage and piglets in the care of his son Bo-bo, who was fond of playing with fire. Bo-bo burnt down the cottage and a fine litter of piglets. While searching for the piglets, he touched a burning pig and in reflex action carried his fingers to his lips. “Some of the crumbs of the scorched skin had come away with his fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the world’s life, indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted—crackling!” Need we say more?
By Minu Ittyipe in Kochi