It may be referred to as the other pork dish from the land of coffee, but if there is a dish that waxes eloquence of a region’s rich culture and culinary supremacy, it’s Malenadu or Malnad Pork, a hog-worth’s dream dish.
Say Malnad, and chances are you may be met with a blank glance. Bring it down to Chikmagalur or Kodagu (Coorg) and pat comes to the answer — Pandi Curry and coffee and in that order. It was the same for Chef Sandeep Sadanandan who currently heads the kitchen at Byg Brewski, the largest, open-air microbrewery in Bengaluru. But that was till he began working with culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai to put together a menu that would soon earn the title of best “gastro-bar food in town”, especially noted for their rendition of traditional Karnataka dishes, especially Malenadu Pork or Malnad Pork as it eventually came to be known and loved as.
“It was during our R&D days that I first heard about Malnad Pork and immediately mistook it as an offshoot of the more popular Pandi Curry until we tasted one made from a legacy recipe of a family that hailed from Chikmagalur,” recalls Chef Sadanandan as he begins roasting the dry whole spices to create the Malnad dry spice mix for a dish that is today a bestseller. Then, last year, Chef Sadanandan drove to the little-known region of Malnad, particularly the virgin areas, by bike. Hidden among the curves of mountains, swathe of greenery and quaint sleepy right out of Malgudi Days, he discovered his favourite dish.
Recalls the pork aficionado, “There is something zen-like about this pork curry that in texture and taste is somewhere between a semi-dry curry and a pickle. The best part: it’s multi-dimensional flavours are in sync with the rain-soaked regions of Malnad which is known for its coffee plantations. Slow cooked in indigenous clay pots, the pork is an integral part of this region — and can be experienced through the different versions of pork that are prepared across this densely forested area of Karnataka.”
The story goes that when the Gowdalu tribes settled in the Malnad regions, they turned to the forest not just for livelihood but food as well, and built their culture around seasons and whatever else the dense forest offered them aplenty. Aside from the plethora of wild yams, bamboos, jackfruit, and green leafy vegetables was wild boar. These built-to-survive scavenging omnivores provided not just food for little communities but soon became the main source of nourishment. One wild boar that was hunted in a group often meant weeks of good food. To ensure this, the community, says Chef Gorai, “like most forest-dwelling tribes, developed cooking methods that not just made food that was satiating and nourishing but also had that extra shelf life. Wild boar, whose meat is tougher than its modern-day, domesticated relatives, yielded beautifully to this technique.”
Eventually, as pastoral tribes became agrarian and grew rice and tamed other produce, including the wild pigs, the cuisine developed to accommodate more dishes depending on the season and what nature would offer in abundance. What didn’t change, adds Chef Gorai, “was the cooking technique that made food functional, and one dish that exemplifies that more than any other is the Malnad Pork which is easily one of the oldest dishes of this ancient cuisine.” Trade and immigrants only added more ingredients to the basket, some that could also be grown in the region, like coffee. Legend has it that it was the Malnad region where Baba Budan escaped to with the fabled seven beans of coffee — and it was here that the coffee plantations began in hilly terrains that before coffee (and after it too) remained the best spice steppes of the country.
The role of pork, says culinary custodian and restaurateur Sourabha Ajay, “in the Malnad region, particularly for the Gowda community I hail from, is much more than just a meat that we love to eat. For a region that is dependent on the monsoon and the forest, it is the best source of nourishment as well. The cooling meat that is made in a variety of ways provides most of the denizens settled here their share of necessary nutrients to survive the hardships of forest life.”
Sourabha, whose family home is close to the forest region of Chikmagalur, still calls the people there “excellent foragers.” Even though, she says, “we grow a lot of the food we consume today, there is some produce that is still foraged like wild yam, wild colocasia leaves and such, which are an essential part of our culinary culture. Each of these ingredients is cooked on its own and even with pork depending upon the sub-region.”
Such is the love for swine meat that there are pork dishes designed for every meal of the day, including breakfast. Each of them is called Malnad Pork, served either with Akki Roti, rice or Kadabu (steamed dumpling). In that sense, Malnad Pork is very much what Mutton Curry is like for the rest of India, says Sourabha, “It is not just one dish but comprises all the different forms of the pork delicacy that are made across the region. The only similarity among themall is that the dish is slow cooked, traditionally made in a clay pot or kal-chitti, and can be stored for a few days without the need to refrigerate. In fact, in my grandmother’s house where Malnad Pork was cooked in clay pots which added a different aroma and taste to the meat, it was stored in the cooler side of her room along with the fish curry and pickles. Her room would waft with such heady aromas that you would feel hungry even if you had just had a bellyful.”
It was her grandmother’s recipe that the culinary custodian mastered growing up as the family shifted to the urban areas of Karnataka, and the pork dishes turned into a “treat that could be had only during school vacations when the family went home for a few days. I would plonk myself in the kitchen and watch the whole process of making it. For good quality Malnad Pork, unlike Pandi Curry, the spice — both the dry powder and the wet masala — has to be prepared fresh and starts with roasting the whole spices till they take on a brown shade and give a heady mix of sweet-spicy aroma.”
Traditionally, she continues, “fresh pork is used to make the dish where meat pieces and those with a good fat layering are kept aside for the dish that gets its flavour from the caramelisation of the meat, how well the masala has been cooked, and the ratio of mixing.” Sourabha, who has eaten many versions that have developed with newer ingredients coming in to the region, eventually evolved her own recipe which included the use of curry leaves and “double sautéing of the pork meat.”
“It took me around two years to come up with a recipe that I liked and could own,” says the Gowda scion, who finally set up Rasa along with her restaurateur better half in 2002 serving traditional Malnad fare, and being “the first in the city to do so.” It is her recipe with its distinct use of curry leaves that eventually made it to the menu of Byg Brewski where it is served the same way it is had today at Ajay’s household. The only difference, reveals Sourabha, “is in the gravy consistency. At home it is thinner to the one served in the restaurant.”
But how is it different from Pandi Curry? While Pandi Curry is all about the bottle masala and the use of garlic, and is more a delicious curry, Malnad Pork has the appearance and taste texture of a kassa, and gets its distinct taste not only from the pork quality which is considered the finest in the country thanks to the grazing grounds the pigs have even today, but also the spices and Kachampuli that give it that amazing sour layer and make it “deliciously meditative.”
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.