Tender cubes of pork are cooked in a richly spiced, tomatoey sauce that’s sharpened with tamarind and vinegar, mellowed by sugar, and fired with bird’s eye chilies. With its long pedigree, pork vindaloo is an outstanding fusion of Indian and Portuguese cuisine.
One of the world’s truly great curries gets its name from a Portuguese stew called carne de vinha d’alhos – meat with wine and garlic. Popular throughout Portugal, especially at Christmas, it’s strongly associated with the island of Madeira where it originated. Modern recipes for carne de vinha d’alhos call for a mix of wine and vinegar which may well be how the dish was traditionally made using meat that had been preserved in a pickling liquid of garlic, vinegar, and wine.
The fusion begins – moving from vinha d’alhos to vindalho and on to vindaloo
Those beginnings go back over 500 years to imperial Portugal’s voyages of trade-motivated discovery. Vindaloo’s history stems from a coastal region of west India called Goa. In 1510, that’s where when a naval commander, Afonso de Alburqueque, established a colonial outpost that was to remain under Portugal’s control until 1961.
Now, nobody knows exactly when a cook came up with the delicious idea of combining the porky, garlicky, wine-and-vinegar dish from Madeira with some local, Goanese delights.
Although this curry was certainly triggered by the arrival of the Portuguese, it didn’t become what we now know as vindaloo until many, many years later.
For a start, back in 1510, India had no chillies and no tomatoes. Although we often think of those two wonders as fundamentals in Indian cuisine, they weren’t a feature before the Portuguese introduced them.
And vindaloo wasn’t created overnight just because the Europeans had rocked up. It would have evolved gradually as the colony grew and the convert-community of Goanese Catholics increased. It was this community specifically that developed and refined the dish until its ingredients and preparation became pretty much consistent.
And that all took some time. The first standardized, modern recipe for ‘Vindaloo or Bindaloo – A Portuguese Karhi’, didn’t appear until 1888 in a British book, The Wife’s Help To Indian Cookery. It offers recipes for vindaloo with pork, beef, and duck, and features almost all the ingredients in our vindaloo.
Fortunately for curry lovers, the Indian influence won the day
Although carne de vinha d’alhos gave vindaloo its name, that’s pretty much the strongest similarity shared by these two very different dishes. Both dishes use a combo of pork, vinegar, and garlic, but beyond that, the ingredients are very different indeed.
Over time, the Goan version switched the wine for vinegar alone, and added an entirely new selection of multiple spices to a sauce that’s based on plenty of onion, garlic and cherry tomatoes. That gently softened, slightly browned, thick-bodied foundation is then enriched with coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, ginger, mustard seeds, paprika, lime leaves, and tamarind.
As they cook with the onion and garlic, the tomatoes produce a little juice which gets bolstered by a third of a cup of apple cider vinegar and half a cup of water. Those are pretty small amounts, adding just enough liquid to the sauce, so it’s ready for cooking the pork. These minimal quantities are important because a vindaloo’s sauce should almost have the jam-like consistency of a chutney.
Rich, sharp, sweet, and hot
Aside from its intensely rich flavors, another defining characteristic of a traditional vindaloo is its wonderfully fresh, enlivening sharpness. For sure, a lot of that comes from the distinctly fruity tang of the apple cider vinegar. But that essential tang is boosted and given far greater depth by the unmistakably sharp, plummy bite of tamarind paste. Nothing else tastes quite like this paste, and it’s an ingredient that a proper vindaloo just can’t do without.
All that arresting sharpness is beautifully balanced by the rounded, caramel sweetness of jaggery or palm sugar. These both have similar flavors to the molasses-rich tastes of demerara and muscovado. So, if you can’t find palm sugar, those two are pretty good alternatives to act as counterpoints to the vinegar and tamarind.
Hot? Yep, hot. I say that because this is a curry that owes a great deal of its global fame and adoration to versions that became mega popular in thousands of British curry houses during the 1970s. In those years, many of these eateries gladly went right over the top with the heat when devouring insanely hot vindaloos became a macho badge of pride.
That show-off daring gave vindaloo a bit of a bad-boy image. However, all that silliness had a positive flip-side. Why so? Well, there definitely is merit in adding the sort of chilies that will give this traditionally mild, Goan-rooted curry a bigger blast of heat.
And that’s because the oh-so-lovely trio of rich, sharp, and sweet is made even lovelier by the pretty potent firepower of something like the bird’s eye chilies (or Thai peppers) used in our vindaloo.
A word about the pork
Boston butt, a.k.a. pork shoulder or neck, is the way to go. This is a fairly fatty cut and that’s important because its flavor-packed fat creates much of the richness for which a vindaloo is so renowned.
And to preserve all that flavor, the pork isn’t browned before being slowly simmered in the sauce. Unlike many other curries where the meat often gets fried-and-sealed in hot oil first, a vindaloo is cooked in a way that encourages the rich fattiness of the meat to flow freely through the sauce.
For the pork’s marinade
- 1 heaped teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 heaped tablespoons paprika
- 6 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 6 green cardamom pods finely ground, seeds and all
- 6 cloves finely ground
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground fenugreek
- 2 teaspoons mustard seeds finely ground – I used black mustard seeds but yellow will be fine.
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
For the pork and the sauce
- 4 fresh red bird’s eye chilies or Thai chilies, sliced into ¼-inch thick discs, seeds and all. The ones I used were each about 2 inches long.
- 1 ¾ pounds Boston butt a.k.a. pork shoulder or neck, cut into 1 ½-inch cubes
- 1 pound red cherry tomatoes halved
- 1 pound yellow onions peeled, halved and cut into 1/3-inch slices
- 10 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 heaped tablespoon fresh ginger root finely grated, skin and all
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste diluted in 8 tablespoons boiling water
- 8 dried lime leaves
- 1 tablespoon jaggery or palm sugar
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil I used the odorless, cooking variety
- 2 tablespoons full-fat salted butter
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
Making the pork’s marinade, and marinating the pork
- This is really easy. In a bowl that’s easily big enough to hold all the pork, mix together all the marinade’s ingredients.
- Add the cubed pork, and use your fingers to give the pork a really thorough coating of marinade.
- Set the bowl aside and let it sit – with the occasional stir – while you prep and begin cooking the sauce.
Cooking your pork vindaloo
- You only need one pot for this, so use one that’s big enough to hold all your vindaloo’s ingredients. I used a big, cast-iron Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. A big, saucepan with a good lid will be just as good.
- So, set your big pot onto a medium-high heat and add the coconut oil and butter. As soon as the buttery oil starts foaming, stir in the onions and drop the heat to medium-low. You want to gently fry the onions so that they soften and begin to pick up a pale golden color all over. With a few watchful stirs, that will take about 7 minutes on that medium-low heat.
- Stir in the garlic and keep frying for another 2 minutes. The onions will darken a little more as you fry them with the garlic – that’s grand.
- Now add the halved cherry tomatoes and let the whole lot fry with a few encouraging stirs for about 5 minutes until the tomatoes soften and begin to lose their body.
- Once the tomatoes have softened, stir in the chilies and ginger and fry for another minute.
- Now add the pork and all its marinade. Give the pot a thorough stir so everything gets mixed together, and then stir in the tamarind paste (together with all the water in which you dissolved it), the jaggery or palm sugar, and salt.
- Drop the heat to low, cover the pot and let it simmer gently for 60 minutes. You’re aiming to keep the pot just barely bubbling at that slow simmer, so check that keeps happening and stir the pot to prevent the sauce from sticking. There’s not a lot of liquid in the sauce, so be careful to maintain a slow, gentle simmer beneath the lid.
- After 60 minutes, remove the lid, and let the pot simmer on its low heat for another 30 minutes. This will help thicken the sauce even more – but it does mean you need to give the pot a few stirs, making sure that nothing sticks to the base.
- That’s it. Your vindaloo is done and is ready to be served.