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Sorpotel: The Essence of Christmas

Marked as one of the foundation dishes of modern-day Goa, this pork stew celebrates the very essence of winters – and the big holidays, says culinary custodian Crescentia Scolt Fernandes as she shares her family heirloom recipes.

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures: Crescentia Scolt Fernandes

Sorpotel, says Crescentia Scolt as she sets the clay pot on the stove, “isn’t a daily dish. And neither it is a dish that one easily takes to, given its intense flavour. And yet, Christmas (or for that matter any of our festivities) isn’t complete without the presence of this laboriously delicious treat. It is after all one of the finest foundation delicacies that stands testimony of the era that transformed Goa, from a sleepy fisherman town to one of the ports and colonies known for its vinegar, arrack, feni, coconut, churches and a culture of happiness.

True to Scolt’s claim, the story of sorpotel begins with the colonialization of Goa by the Portuguese, who found this port town conducive not only for their business – they came garbed as traders – but also for settling down. Story has it that the iteration of the Sorpotel that travelled to erstwhile Goa was in form of Sarapatel, a dish from Alentejo, Portugal. The word ‘sarapatel’ stood for a miss-mash, and was literally a flavoursome dish that got much of its taste from the offals such as pork heart, liver and one key ingredient - pork blood – and one twist – this version of Sarapatel had chillies that were brought to the Goan shores from Africa.

Many believe that the dish which was evolved by the African slaves in Brazil before it landed in Goa – and hence had that spice appeal for popularity. Others are of the view that it was the collective introduction of sarapatel and vinegar that the Portuguese made from the Palm Toddy that made it popular. After all, it added that typical sourness that not only made offals interesting, even likeable, it gave the dish its shelf life. For any place back then, says the culinary custodian, “that was a life-saver as it took care of the cooking and feeding part at least – small mercies.”

Fascinatingly, Sarapatel, in true Indian style, went through a few changes before it was adopted into the Goan culinary space. An immediate inclusion was of the spices like cumin, clove and of course fat – that still gives Sorpotel its rich, velvety taste. Then came the chillies and the use of Feni! But the big change was in terms of the meat that truly Goan-ised this culinary import, says the Goan food specialist, whose own family version is not as much about the ‘blood’ as it is about the perfect pairing of pieces and meat selection. The Sorpotel, she continues, “which I make has meat and mutton liver which gives it that intense flavour and texture.”

Developed and perfected over the last few years, Crescentia begins the process of making her Sorpotel (a favourite among those who have tasted it, who have marked hers as the best version of the traditional one) by boiling the meat with whole spices. “Ensure they are tender but have the bite and slight tug to it – we are serving meat after all. Once done, cut the meat into small pieces and fry in its own fat. This gives them that amazing mouthfeel, richness and texture. Once done, finely chopped onions, ginger, garlic and green chillies are fried in the same fat. The masala meanwhile is ground in vinegar (try the malt vinegar if you are cooking for the first time) and then add to the fried onions, add the meat, incorporate all well, and then let the meat simmer cook till you begin getting that aromatic, slightly vinegary whiff, signing that the dish is ready – this could take about an hour and patience to not fall into the urge of opening the lid to check.”

The trick however for a great tasting sorpotel to the lack-lustre gloop that one often is doled out these days is the resting phase, continues Scolt. “Much like any good meat dish, Sorpotel too needs to sit for a few days preferably in a clay or ceramic pot stowed closer to a warm place so that the flavours incorporate well. It is like any other meat dish that gets better when turned stale. In Sorpotel case however that ‘better phase’ begins only 3-4 days later much like the Plum Cake. So never serve the Sorpotel the first day.”

While that explains why Sorpotel is today made only on special occasions, however, culturally, the delicacy echoes the very essence of winter holidays – when dishes were made to last, so that people had the free time to visit friends, indulge in little get togethers and yet work out a delicious dish when the occasion demands. In Goa’s case, it is, ends Crescentia, “the Sorpotel – a dish that is sustainable, addictive with that complexity of flavours and textures that makes it memorable.”