I've never been a particular fan of fiery food. That's why I've always sidestepped vindaloo, which I thought topped the list of the Indian subcontinent's spiciest dishes. But it turns out that I'd been mistaken about this stew, at least in its original form.
The blazing-hot vindaloo often served at Indian restaurants in the United States and England is actually an offshoot of the original Goan version, which is composed of moist nuggets of pork braised to tenderness in their own juices and a fragrant paste of spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, mild dried Kashmiri chiles, and fresh ginger and garlic. Plenty of coconut vinegar (or sometimes tamarind) balances the rich pork, but the dish has little to no other liquid, so the potent, bright-red sauce thickly coats the meat. Rice, naan, or Goan pao, which are nearly identical to America’s soft, slightly sweet dinner rolls, are ideal companions. This sounded like a vindaloo I could get behind.
Before I could follow a traditional Goan recipe, I needed to source two of the key ingredients: coconut vinegar and Kashmiri chiles. I was able to locate coconut vinegar—an acidic and sweet-smelling but not coconutty product made from coconut tree sap—at my neighborhood Indian grocer, and I ordered whole dried Kashmiri chiles from an online source.
Following the Goan recipe, I used a blender to grind together a spice paste, sometimes called a wet masala. Along with ¾ cup of the coconut vinegar and 12 Kashmiri chiles, many other flavors typical of the cuisine were represented: cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, fresh ginger, and garlic.
Given the option of pork belly or pork butt, I opted for the latter because it’s easier to find and leaner, though still plenty rich. I trimmed the roast and cut it into 1-inch chunks. Recipes called for marinating the meat in the masala for anywhere from 4 to 48 hours; I was worried about the pork being damaged by all the acidity, so I opted for the shorter time.
I sautéed some onions in oil, added the marinated meat, and cooked the curry over low heat. I lingered nervously near the pot for the first 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, worried that the dry-ish mixture would scorch before the pork’s juices loosened it up. After 90 minutes, when the paste had transformed into a sauce that was thick and fragrant, I took a bite.
With one taste I understood why the original vindaloo was so venerated. The coconut vinegar contributed a pleasing brightness tempered by a hint of sweetness, and the Kashmiri chiles gave the masala rich complexity and a touch of heat that complemented the spices. But just as I had feared, the 4-hour bath in the acidic masala had turned the meat dry.
I made the Goan recipe again, skipping the marinating time altogether in the hope that the meat would emerge juicier. I also moved the pot to a 325-degree oven once the mixture was bubbling on the stovetop so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it scorching. After 90 minutes, I sampled the meat. It was still dry, even though I’d skipped marinating. That’s because there was still plenty of vinegar in the pot. This acidic treatment lowered the pH of the meat to a point where the proteins squeezed out moisture.
And thus my conundrum: I couldn’t get rid of the vinegar because vindaloo needs a certain amount of tang. But vinegar doesn’t just add an acidic taste, it also affects texture. What’s more, when you add the vinegar matters because it is volatile—meaning that its flavor and acidity dissipate easily during cooking. Ultimately, the solution was to add less vinegar, late in the cooking process. Instead of adding ¾ cup of vinegar at the start of cooking, I poured in just 1⁄3 cup halfway through the cooking time. The lesser amount of acid wasn’t enough to adversely affect the texture of the meat, but enough of the vinegar’s tang remained for my dish to taste like vindaloo.
My final challenge was to find better substitutes for the coconut vinegar and the Kashmiri chiles so that in the future I could make vindaloo without sourcing specialty ingredients. The vinegar was easy: Its sweet aroma made the cider vinegar I always have on hand a good sub.
My dive into the world of dried Kashmiri chiles was not as straightforward. Most sources describe them as vibrantly red but mild in flavor, so some cookbook authors suggest substituting paprika. Confusingly, others recommend swapping in arbols—among the hottest of dried chiles—one for one.
To zero in on the flavor of Kashmiri chiles, I softened some of my dwindling supply in water, blended them with a bit of salt to bring out the flavor, and tasted the bright red puree. It was only slightly hot and a little fruity, and it had a subtly astringent finish, reminiscent of well-steeped tea.
Guajillo chiles provided the slight fruitiness and mild heat, and just 1 tablespoon of paprika boosted the color of the masala. The Kashmiri chile profile was almost complete, but the notion of adding tea for astringency kept nagging at me: I considered making a strong tannic infusion and mixing it into the masala, but I knew it would make the sauce too soupy. Finally, I just emptied a couple of tea bags into the masala. It worked. These substitutions produced a vindaloo that tasted almost exactly like the one I’d made with Kashmiri chiles and coconut vinegar.
I’m content to leave modern versions of pork vindaloo to lovers of fiery heat; this version, deliciously intense in its own right, is the one I’ll return to again and again.