13 February 2017
On how the pig can be a great pet, and also a great meal
(This is an essay from our April 2013 print quarterly ‘Farms, Feasts, Famines’. See more from the issue here.)
For an animal that is so harmless, useful and downright endearing, the pig has aroused surprising levels of animosity, labouring under a burden of humiliation, denigration, slander, abuse and – to crown it all – strict religious taboos in some traditions. Yet the pig has not been rendered extinct with the hatred that it appears to have evoked in the hearts of humankind, and has even come through it all with a smile and a few good-natured grunts, though perhaps not smelling of roses.
Because a pig has many virtues. First, it has a huge evolutionary advantage: a well-cooked pig tastes divine (and I use this hyperbole with complete sincerity and in good faith). Michael Pollan, in his The Botany of Desire (2001), talks about how plants like the potato, the apple and, of course, that indispensable wonder-plant marijuana, have developed an adaptive evolutionary strategy of making themselves irresistible to humans. Seduce homo sapiens into developing a taste for your species, and they will become willing slaves to ensure your wellbeing. Pigs have clearly figured this out – for proof, think pork ribs, pork roast; Goan vindaloo and sorpotel; Naga pork and akhuni curry or pork with bamboo shoots; and Mizo smoked pork, just to pick the first few of an endless roster that comes to mind and sets the saliva flowing. As long as the pig tastes the way it does, it is guaranteed that humans, abuse it as they might, will do all they can to preserve and propagate the species.
Topped off with a ribbon, they can charm even the committed philistine and hater of beauty
Second, pigs – Sus scorfa and all the sub-species – are sweet, gentle creatures that make excellent pets, though house-training can be a trifle tricky. They also look lovely if they are groomed properly using a good-quality pet shampoo. Topped off with a ribbon, they can charm even the committed philistine and hater of beauty. But Maneka Gandhi has written far more movingly about the animal’s sterling character and stunning good looks than I ever could, so let us leave it there.
Third, as a scavenging omnivore, the pig plays a vital role in sanitation. As Claude Alvares writes in the book Fish, Curry and Rice, before the arrival of the water closet and the septic tank, the pig toilet was a feature of every house in Goa (and can still be found in a few homes today). It was a little disconcerting during my initial days in Goa to remain blithely indifferent as the pig sniffed and waited patiently for my humble offerings, but one gets used to it. Eventually one even begins to feel virtuous about providing food for a fellow creature; contributing to rural sanitation in a manner that also yields direct dividends in terms of a succulent food supply. True, direct recycling.
These are the first few, in order of priority, of the many reasons I have for being an unabashed devotee of the pig – particularly when it is freshly slaughtered, cut into pieces and served up well-cooked with appropriate condiments and accompaniments.
We are now done with the disclaimer and the admission of conflict of interest in the writer’s qualifications for a rational analysis of the pig. But how did I get started down this slippery slope? Prima facie, it would appear unlikely given my caste and class antecedents – to confess, a trifle reluctantly, I happen to have been born into the same community that has relentlessly turned out stalwarts the likes of V D Savarkar and Nathuram Godse, and eminent members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). But my father happened to be in England for two years, working on his doctoral research, through which he doubtless discovered ways to produce finer metal, alloys and things along those lines. His fellowship was sufficient to have my mother and myself (all of five years old) join him in England. And there my parents discovered the convenience of cold meats. If you don’t like cooking, want to make minimum effort and yet want something amazingly tasty – and this applied to my mother – head for the ham, salami, bacon et al section. And thus were we converted into eaters of pig meat.
The conversion stuck through the reverse culture shock of returning to India. Back home, pork was cooked about once a year, after ensuring that no relatives or friends were around to see the depths of ignominy to which we had sunk. Ham and bacon were treats to be savoured when one could afford them – my father’s college-teacher’s salary did not go far. These occasional highlights of the family table helped my newfound love of the pig become established deep within, where I have assiduously nurtured it towards maturity.
Aisa bhi aadha musalmaan
Among one of the first animals to be domesticated for food was the pig. Before that, their ancestors were hunted in the wild. Given the omnivorous food habits of both humans and pigs, the excellent taste of pig meat, and the animals’ manageability and good nature, it was a no-brainer. Human civilisation arrived with the pig in tow or, possibly, vice-versa.
In his masterful Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond mentions that over the years the pig, like every other domestic animal, has spread plenty of disease. With pigs one could recite an entire litany of zoonotic ailments for which they are source or vector, but if so, all domesticated animals are culprits. So it becomes difficult to understand the bilious invective attached to pigs, especially from certain religious quarters. For Jews and Muslims, the pig is taboo, and this taboo is observed far more strictly and universally than the Hindus observe the prohibition on eating the cow. This difference, paradoxically enough, is because pork is considered unholy, while the cow is revered as holy. After all, organised religions define their adherents in practice by what they don’t do, rather than by what they do, and usually focus on avoiding sin rather than performing good deeds. In India, riots take place when pork is hurled at a mosque as they do when beef is flung at a temple. I know hundreds of Hindus who happily break the taboo on the cow, but I know only one taboo-breaking Jew and no more than ten Muslims, all of whom subscribe only to nominal religiosity, and some who are frothing-at-the-mouth atheists.
Social scientists, be they academic or pop, have trotted out various explanations for the roots of this taboo. The American anthropologist Marvin Harris has speculated about the roots of this taboo in some of his writings, notably in Good to Eat: Riddles of food and culture – originally titled The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig which excellent title was changed for reasons upon which we can only speculate. As Harris says, on the subject of ‘the abominable pig’, “An aversion to pork seems at the outset even more irrational than an aversion to beef.” So why then do Muslims consider it haram, and Jews place it at the opposite end of the spectrum to kosher? Well, one popular explanation is the fact that pigs, the ultimate omnivores, happily eat excrement, both human as well as their own. Then there is the more modern theory that the taboo is due to their role as carriers of trichinosis, helping lodge tapeworms in the guts of humans. But other animals display these faults too, without attracting similar censure. Why target the pig?
A Jewish friend once spent a long time explaining to me that the reason for the taboo is that pigs are both cloven-hoofed and non-ruminants. Apparently, no other animal shares this combination of attributes. Why the combination should be considered so lethal was something I must have missed as I dozed off. I would do much better to hear the explanation of the prohibition by the great Rabbi Maimonides, physician in the court of Emperor Saladin (of Islamic conquest fame). In a convincing argument the revered rabbi intoned: “I maintain that food forbidden by the Law is unwholesome.” That is, the law forbids it because it is unwholesome, and it is unwholesome because the law forbids it.
Frankly, I don’t believe any of it. The problem with the Don Quixotes of the academic world, as they tilt at the windmills of reality and weave their fancy theories, is that they fail to recognise the simple dictum that people often make rules just because they can. So the pig’s turn probably came up in the celestial lottery when Jews and Muslims were composing their list of prohibitions, just as the cow’s number was the pick of the draw when the Hindus were at the same pastime.
In India, riots take place when pork is hurled at a mosque as they do when beef is flung at a temple
But if you must have a theory fancier than that, I rather prefer some speculations that have recently been doing the rounds in the dark corners of the cyberworld. These are based on rumours that the indefatigable anthropologist/sociologist/religious scholar Dan Brown has uncovered an ancient pig-nama buried deep in the sands of the Arabian desert. Early attempts at deciphering this manuscript – the alphabet seems to consist entirely of pig hooves of various shapes and sizes – indicate that a master-pig called Snowball was behind it all. Of course, since there is no word for snow in Arabia, the name is literally ‘white, powdery, unseen wonder’, but we can guess what was meant, and now we also know from where George Orwell got the name for his pig-hero. Snowball advised his fellow pigs to spread calumny about themselves and arouse hatred in the hearts of men to help ward off those who would cast a hungry eye upon them. Wise pig that he was, he also advised them not to take a good thing too far, but to keep working on making themselves tasty enough so that humans would not exterminate them entirely. Now that sounds like an explanation, rather than superficial anthropological and sociological guesswork, or prohibitions based on circular reasoning.
Mirza Ghalib, who wrote his verse and lived his life with tongue-in-cheek defiance of just about everything, was not immune to the taboo. When arrested and produced before the judge as a suspect after the 1857 Indian uprising, he was asked to state his religion: “Mussalman ho?” Ghalib’s answer was typical of the man: “Aadha musalmaan. Sharab pita hoon, sooar nahin khata.” (Half a Muslim. I drink alcohol, but do not eat the pig.) One cannot but chortle at the trademark irreverence, but upon further reflection, why did he consider foregoing the most succulent of all meats to be the biggest marker of his identity as a Muslim, even more than eschewing alcohol, which the Quran condemns strongly and unequivocally?
Going by the great Ghalib’s definition, I must be aadha Musalmaan myself. Having accepted my inability to imbibe wisely rather than too well, I am compelled completely to avoid the cup that cheers. But if there’s some pork going round, I can hardly wait to get my greedy hands on it. Sooar khata hoon, sharab nahin pita.
Searching in earnest
Life in most of India can be difficult for the lover of pig meat. While not outright taboo among Hindus, pork is difficult to obtain, and is generally considered unclean, a meat to be eaten by the lowest castes. Once I left the protective embrace of my parental home, finding pig meat during my sojourns in various parts of the country has been a complicated experience. In North India, in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, one first had to find a lower-caste Hindu basti. And then one could occasionally get hold of pig meat if an acquaintance there were to tell you the day of the week when a pig would be slaughtered and the meat sold, discreetly if not surreptitiously.
Even in South India, the sacred cow is surprisingly easy to procure – just head for the nearest Muslim mohalla, as I would do in Mysore. But even in a tolerant city like Mysore, I could find only one shop where the meat of the abominable pig could be found. The shop was run by a Kodava, that enterprising community which is among the very few that openly savours pig meat in India. Yes, the pig was easily available in the fancier stores, in the form of ham, salami, bacon, sausages and suchlike, but for fresh pork, which is in a class of its own, one had to go to the Kodava’s shop.
In Mysore, I also made a few Kodava friends. The Kodavas are from Coorg, the tiny hilly region in the extreme southwestern corner of Karnataka, bordering Kerala. A hardy people, they are known for their martial traditions, having produced eminent warriors including, in modern times, Field Marshall Cariappa, the first Indian Chief of Staff of the Indian Army and one of only two men to ever hold the rank of Field Marshal; General Thimayya, ex-Chief of Army Staff; and more lieutenant generals and major generals than one can reasonably keep count of. The Kodava have many fascinating customs – and add much variety to the ocean of diversity of Hindu practice and custom – but the one that concerns us here is their abiding love of pork. When I am down in the dumps and feel like putting an end to my journey through this vale of tears that is the modern world, I cast my mind back to some of the Kodava pork dishes that I sampled in Mysore, including the strange but compelling Pandi pork curry, which I first ate at a Kodava wedding.
But after Mysore, I hit rock bottom in Sirsi, a small town at the crest of the Western Ghats in northern Karnataka. It is a town dominated by Hindutva-wallahs of various stripes. Here even beef was difficult to obtain – the small Muslim community, realising that discretion is the better part of valour, would quietly slaughter the occasional cow in a nearby village, and one had to go there at the crack of dawn to buy beef. As for pork, it was a complete washout. I hardly ever saw a pig, except among the Siddis, a small forest-dwelling tribe of African origin. Dinners used to be a rather depressing experience as we munched mass-produced broiler chicken with the consistency and flavour of vulcanised rubber, but once in a while a Siddi friend would supply us with some wild boar meat, and light would shine upon the table. The illicit nature of the meat under the Wildlife Act possibly enhanced the pleasure by making it guilt-ridden.
Worship at the shrine
What about the pig as cultural icon? In Hindu mythology, Varaha, the boar, is celebrated as the third avatar of Vishnu, playing a starring role in the Hindu version of the deluge, the Pralaya. At the end of the rains, Bhudevi (the mother earth) remains submerged under the water, in the clutches of the demon Hiranyaksha who had abducted her and dumped her in the ocean. There are fascinating Gorakhpur-style kitsch prints available of Varaha rising from the depths of the waters holding the earth on his tusks, offering Bhudevi to Brahma. But apart from this one exception there seems to be very little admiration for the pig in Hindu mythology. Goa and the Indian Northeast accord the pig a central role in their cuisine, so they’ve probably got their pig-namas, as do the Coorgis, but that’s about it.
For some serious respect for the pig, one has to turn to Christendom. Since Christians needed to distinguish themselves from Jews, what functioned as a clear separator was the taboo on the pig. It seemed pointless anyway and, besides, there was the not-inconsiderable benefit of sudden access to the king of all meats. Across the Western Christian and pre-Christian world, the pig features in myths, nursery rhymes, epics, movies, novels – usually in the supporting cast, but surprisingly often even as the main protagonist. Most impressively, the Norse fertility god Freyr drives a golden chariot across the sky, drawn by his golden boar Gullimborsti – the pig thus becomes associated with masculinity and the life-giving sun itself.
Coming up to modern times, there are, as always in history, those who look upon the holy creature with a jaundiced eye. Robert Graves, in typical dyspeptic kill-joy fashion calls it the “beast of death”. But such carping aside, to note only my absolute favourite porcine cultural icons we have The Empress of Blandings in P G Wodehouse’s Blandings tales, Babe the sheep pig in the eponymous movie, The Three Little Pigs of the nursery rhyme, and Piglet in A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh novels. A glittering cast indeed. In the beloved and iconic Asterix comics series, wild boars are the focus of attention of the brave Gauls from the little village by the sea, who believe that a boar is at its very best on the dinner table. The final panel of every Asterix comic is the grand village feast, with the Gauls celebrating with wine and merrymaking, and right in the centre is the star of it all, the wild boar, turning slowly over a fire. Finally, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm the pigs are both the movers and shakers, heroes and villains, Snowball and Napoleon, always in charge, holding the other animals in thrall or terror.
I sometimes wonder whether the pig has not been a Moses guiding my subconscious self towards the promised lands where Sus scorfa reigns supreme
One of my favourite pig tales is Roald Dahl’s little gem titled ‘Pig’. At the cost of many omissions and gross injustice to a typically macabre tale by Dahl, the narrative goes broadly as follows. A baby named Lexington, whose parents die at the outset of the story, is raised by his eccentric Aunt Glosspan. Glosspan is a great cook, but a vegetarian fundamentalist. Lexington learns cooking under her able guidance, and he can render even celery and cabbage, as well as dandelions and nettles, into something you may actually want to eat.
Anyway, one day the old lady dies, leaving Lexington, now of age, a rich man. Visiting the big, bad city for the first time (though warned against the evils, sins and iniquities of that vile place by his late aunt), he goes to a restaurant. Most of the items on the menu are unknown to him, and he ends up being served roast pork and cabbage. The cabbage earns his censure, as befits a true master of using that uninspiring vegetable, but the roast pork leaves him wonderstruck. He speaks to the staff, who convince him that the dish he has just eaten is made from a formerly live animal, a pig to be precise. It takes him some time to get his head around the idea, since the notion that animals can be eaten has never been allowed near his pure mind. Finally, convinced, he visits a meat-packing establishment to see for himself how this wondrous product is assembled. During the guided tour, a worker calmly slips a chain round his ankle. Dragged along the assembly line, experiencing all that happens to an animal in a slaughterhouse (for the truly gruesome details, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), Lexington ends up in a can of pork, doubtless relished heartily by the eventual consumer.
While lean meat has its own honoured place in the orchestra, the fat and bones are required to create a true symphony
There are many other great stories about pigs, but Dahl’s is the one that I have focused on at some length because I suspect it tells us something about why humans are so fond of pork. In Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, the gang boss Bill ‘The Butcher’ (Daniel Day Lewis) gives Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo di Caprio) a philosophical exegesis on gang ethics while carving up a freshly slaughtered hog. As an aside, amidst the blood and gore, he holds forth upon the similarity between human flesh and pig flesh, leaving Vallon to draw his own conclusions.
The conclusion we can draw on our part can be a bit disconcerting. Do we like pork so much because in consistency and taste it is similar to human meat? Is this an indication that cannibalism is part of our hidden, atavistic selves? In many of the Pacific islands, for example, cannibalism was fairly widespread due to the exigencies of island biogeography. In some cannibalistic communities of the region, human meat cooked and served ritually was called ‘long pig’. Perhaps one more secret of the evolutionary success of the pig, providing us with the closest approximation of that sustenance which our secret selves, hidden even from ourselves, unknowingly crave.
On the true path at last
We humans all live with the illusion of autonomy in our lives – we are deeply convinced that we have made choices of our own rational will. Sigmund Freud decisively punctured such hubris – we are the creatures of forces that reside within our own minds, unrecognised and unacknowledged by our conscious selves. But while Oedipal complexes, castration envy, anal fixations and other Freudian dark forces are all very well, things are usually far simpler than that. Man marches on his stomach, after all, and I sometimes wonder whether the pig has not been a Moses guiding my subconscious self towards the promised lands where Sus scorfa reigns supreme.
My marriage to a Goan Catholic came with many benefits – most importantly love and happiness, of course, but the sudden easy access to the world of pork was a magnificent by-product. Many Goan Catholics are wizards in the kitchen, particularly when it comes to pork, and most are connoisseurs of the art of fine pig-meat preparations. Once they were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese 400 years ago, the effort to establish a clear separation from the Hindus of Goa was launched during the Inquisition. Beef and pork were vital tools in this effort. It took some doing, but the result supports my hypothesis that anybody who is exposed to good pork preparations over a period of time is likely to become a committed convert to its joys.
Following three years in the Hindutvavadi heartland of Sirsi in Karnataka, we needed to chill out in a tolerant, laid-back place. Goa was the obvious choice for various reasons, of which not the least was the pig – we were in pork paradise. The fusion of Portuguese and Goan cuisine produced myriad delights. Heavy on vinegar, red Kashmiri chillies and garlic, pork vindaloo was a revelation and remains my favourite Goan pork preparation. But it is a close-run. The Goan pork sausage (an adaptation of the Portuguese chorizo) is a ready-made meal, almost as easy to prepare as instant noodles. Just cut it fine and fry it up with a few potatoes and vegetables and you have something worthy of a chef. And then there is sorpotel – a combination of pork, pork liver and dried pig blood, all cooked up in a cornucopia of spices.
There is a downside, though. How do pigs know for hours in advance that they are due for the chopping block? Why do they scream so piercingly and agonisingly as the moment approaches? The most dislocating experience I had in this regard was at the first formal Goan banquet I attended. The centrepiece of the sumptuous spread was a roast piglet, and it bothered me on some level to have it rubbed in so brutally that my meal was coming at the cost of the suffering of a young, innocent creature, squealing till just the last moment.
The piglet looked cute even dead and cooked to a turn. After I cut myself some slices – oh, the taste, the succulence, the flavour of the sweetly flowing juices! Too bad about the young pigling sacrificed to my base appetite; at the beginning of my next banquet in Goa I will permit myself an additional moment, after grace is said, to reflect in silence on the impermanence of all beings. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and pigs to the banquet.
After gorging myself for over a decade in Goa, I now find myself in Guwahati, the transit hub of the Indian Northeast, that heaven where all great pigs come to die. Naga pork and akhuni, and pork with bamboo shoots, are in my humble opinion the very pinnacle of the art of treating the pig with the respect it deserves. Clean, fresh flavours, succulent meat cooked slightly rare. Our Naga friend, Salony, stayed with us for some time in Goa, and there he was able to introduce us to what he could do with a pig. But the spices and greens necessary to give full expression to his virtuosity were simply not available – besides which the pork generally at hand in Goa is no comparison to the sheer quality of the meat in Naga areas. You get nifty Naga pork in Guwahati itself, but when we visited Salony, back in his village in the Senapati district of Manipur, and he served us our first meal of pork with bamboo shoots… mere words cannot do justice to the experience. Needless to say, I visit Salony as often as possible – once again, as so often in my life, the pig leads me around, salivating with nose upturned in search of fresh pork in the pot.
The Nagas love meat. All animals are rightly treated as deserving of the highest respect in the kitchen, but above all is pork. The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland is a rich feast of delights centring on the pig. Each Naga tribe cooks it slightly differently, with marked yet subtle variations in the ingredients used to support and accentuate its myriad wonders. At Hornbill, you can try them all – and I did, or at least as many as I could. There was even a pork-fat-eating contest. Mesmerised, I saw the competitors perform prodigal feats of gluttony with a substance that even many pork lovers avoid. But the Nagas love the fatty parts of pork almost to excess and accord it pride of place, rightly seeing the fat as a vital component of the complete experience. It was through my Naga friends that I learned over the years that while lean meat has its own honoured place in the orchestra, the fat and bones are required to create the symphony.
I was once bamboozled into watching the first showing of a Naga friend’s wedding video, a sub-section of the art of documentary-film that I am willing to do almost anything to avoid, irrespective of nationality, ethnicity or class background of the chief protagonists. The first 15 minutes of the video were devoted to the preparation of the wedding feast. The first five minutes had the pigs and buffaloes clubbed to death with great glee, anticipation and laughter from the butchers and the onlookers. For the next ten minutes, the camera lingered lovingly on the process of cooking the meat. Looking at the audience assembled for the premiere. I saw indulgent smiles all around as the animals were rather painfully dispatched from this world and sent packing off to the kitchen.
I have had the opportunity to eat Mizo pork only a few times, and each time it was deliciously smoked, and then boiled in its own juices to prepare a curry to be eaten with rice. The flavours of the meat were great, but why was it merely boiled up with no spices? One could do so much more with it. Doubtless the Mizos are hiding something from me, but I am determined to prise the edifices of culinary virtuosity that the sheer quality of Mizo smoked pork clearly invites.
My vote for the best pork I have ever eaten? It goes to the pork at Swastidweep Hotel in Gossaigaon, a small town in the Bodo District Council Areas of Assam. What is it that the Bodo community feeds their pigs? For sheer quality of meat, it is unmatched – you know you are eating an animal that has led a happy, fulfilling life. While Goan and Naga pork dishes probably have more complex spices and flavours, the cook at Swastidweep has such a clear advantage due to the quality of the pork itself that he sneaks ahead by a short nose at the finish line, as the creator of the greatest pork dish in my experience.
What about foreign climes? Apart from the two years spent in England as a child, the only other time I have ever been out of India was a two-year stint in Kathmandu. I fell in love with Nepal but I do have one criticism – pork is pretty difficult to obtain except in upmarket restaurants catering to expatriates, tourists and the Nepali elite. Nepalis do wonders with buffaloes, and I have eaten buff momos to die for (probably literally, considering what I have heard about the parts of the buffalo that are used as the delicious meat filling), but the pig remains off the menu.
There remains an entire world to explore. Two places where I wish to worship at the shrine of the pig are the American South and France, regions that are reputed to serve some of the best pork dishes, maybe even rivalling Naga pork and akhuni. Well, this is where things stand at present, but I remain ready and willing to be led around Northeast India by Sus scorfa, discovering many more of his wondrous qualities. May he prosper and thrive, bringing happiness to all those blessed enough to quaff of his limitless bounty.
Vidyadhar Gadgil’s wanderings have most recently led him to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus, where he currently inflicts his dubious wisdom upon hapless students, and pigs himself out at every given opportunity.
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