Unlike the molten vindaloos served in many restaurants, a vindaloo should not bite back. An authentic vindaloo is a glorious balance of heat, tartness, spice, and subtle sweetness. Vindaloo comes from the corruption of vinh d'alho, meaning wine of garlic in the Portuguese creole spoken in India. In Portuguese, vinho de alho means a slow-cooked stew with wine vinegar and garlic. The Portuguese introduced this method of cooking to Goa, a tiny state on India's southwestern palm fringed coast where it evolved into a spicy braise. Along the way tamarind slipped into the pot, as well as tomatoes and chiles brought from the New World. The vinegar works as a tenderizer and preservative, important in a hot humid place with little refrigeration until recently. Cooking over low heat also helps tenderize the pork and allows the flavors to meld. To learn about genuine vindaloo, I spent a day with Premila Fernandes in the enormous smoke-blackened kitchen of her friend Mario Miranda at his 300-year-old estate in Loutolim, Goa. Built in a baroque blend of Iberian and Indian architecture, the mansion is a reminder of four and a half centuries of Portuguese occupation of Goa. Another reminder is the pork. Rarely eaten in the rest of India, pork is a favorite of the Christians in Goa, who roast whole pigs for feasts and turn ground pork into spicy sausages. Over centuries Latin influences mingled with tropical ingredients forming a fusion cuisine unique to Goa. Premila starts with the basic spice blend of Goa (piri piri masala), blending toasted spices and lots of mild red chiles with tamarind pulp and vinegar into a smooth paste. After marinating in the dark red paste, the chunks of pork and the marinade are sautéed with onions, then braised until the liquid reduces down to a thick sauce with only a flicker of heat. Vindaloo tastes even better reheated a day after making it as the flavors meld.
Pork and Spice Paste Marinade (Wet Masala)
2 pounds boneless pork leg (fresh ham) or shoulder (often labeled pork for stewing)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 dried ancho chile, snipped in several pieces and seeded
1/2 cup malt or apple cider vinegar
8 whole black peppercorns
One 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
1 generous teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
6 large or 12 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 generous tablespoon tamarind paste (or substitute lemon juice)
1 teaspoon turmeric
To Finish the Vindaloo
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1-pound), peeled, quartered, and finely sliced
1 large tomato or 2-3 plum tomatoes (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste, thinned with 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 whole star anise pod
2 tablespoons thick, aged balsamic vinegar, optional
PREPARING THE PORK. Blot the pork dry with paper towels. Trim any excess fat off, leaving a few flecks for flavor and moistness. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in a non-reactive mixing bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Mix and toss with a spatula to coat all the sides in salt.
MAKING THE SPICE PASTE. Place the ancho chile pieces in a small bowl, add the vinegar and soak about 15 minutes. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in the peppercorns, cinnamon, mustard seeds, cumin, and cloves. Roast, shaking the pan from time to time until seeds start to crackle and smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee or spice grinder and blitz, pulsing on and off several times and scraping down the sides with a small spoon until fairly finely powdered, about 2 minutes. Pour the ancho chile and vinegar into a blender. Add the ground spices, garlic, tamarind, and turmeric. Blend, stopping once or twice and scraping down sides with a rubber spatula until the mixture is smooth, about 2 or 3 minutes (you should have 1/2 a cup of thin mahogany colored paste). Pour over the pork and, and toss with a rubber spatula until evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to three days.
COOKING THE ONIONS AND PORK. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet (not nonstick) or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the pork and marinade, and cook, stirring frequently and scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, until the pork changes from pink, becoming firm and light brownish, about 4 to 5 minutes. The pork will begin to exude rich reddish-brown juices that bubble and foam. Stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, tomato paste, sugar, star anise with 3/4 of a cup of hot water and the balsamic vinegar, if using. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer, checking and stirring every so often to make sure it is proceeding at a gentle bubble and the pork is not sticking (add a little water if it is), about 1 hour. The sauce will become shiny as it thickens and the pork will be fork tender. Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with paper-thin red onion rings and a few sprigs of coriander (cilantro), if you wish.