While it’s common in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago to see garlic pork served on Christmas morning and during the holiday season, that was not the case in our home. Pork dishes did make it to the table, but it was stewed, baked in the oven, grilled and even fried, but no garlic pork as far as I recall. On the islands food plays a huge part of the Christmas celebrations and as a kid I remember getting excited with the scent of cake and ham baking in the oven and the many other delicacies being prepared in the kitchen, than I would to open gifts on Christmas morning. Christmas memories for me surround scents (food, new curtains, paint and the new sheets on the bed that had a hint of moth balls), sounds (parang, people singing and the odd intoxicated person rambling on) and joyous emotions (the smiles, inviting people to your home and everyone in an overall good mood).
Garlic pork is one of those dishes where the influence came from people who arrived from other countries and settled in the Caribbean. This is why it’s mainly popular in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, since this is where most of the Portuguese settlers called home. Looking at the preparation I can only assume that this was done out of necessity, as there were no readily available refrigerators back then, to keep the meat for long periods of time.
Here’s my take on this classic Christmas dish called garlic pork.
4 lbs pork
2 cups vinegar (everyday white vinegar)
1 scotch bonnet or habanero pepper (any hot pepper you like)
1/2 cup shado beni (optional)
2 tablespoon salt
20 cloves garlic
oil for frying (vegetable or any oil which can handle high heat)
* You’ll need some patience as this must marinate for a few days at least.
Notes. Shado beni may not be traditional to this dish, but it’s what make’s it uniquely Trinbagonian so you know I had to add it. Thyme works great with this as well as oregano, but I didn’t have any fresh herbs so I couldn’t be bothered. If using thyme and/or oregano, I’ll recommend using about 1-2 tablespoon chopped. After marinating, I’ve seen some people boil the pork, then fry.. not my thing, so I just fried. You may also see some recipes call for cider vinegar.. since this will be marinating in a ton of garlic, I really don’t see the use for anything but basic vinegar.
It’s now time to trim the pork. In my case I purchased a leg portion with the middle bone… so all I did was cut away into 1 inch cubes. You’ll notice that I did leave back a bit of the fat.. that’s just my preference. Try to use a cheap piece of pork and not something expensive like a tenderloin (unless you have the coins). For those of you worried about the fat, a regular loin would be a great option for this.
I then rinsed the pieces of cut pork with a little vinegar and water and drained. Then I chopped the shando beni, garlic and pepper very fine. Again, this is just my way of doing things, but you can certainly put everything except the pork into a food processor or blender and make a paste instead.
In a bowl I placed the vinegar, salt, shando beni, pepper and garlic and gave it a good whisk.
Up next is to marinate this (I did say you’ll need some patience). Traditionally this is marinated in an earthen jar or anything that’s non reactive, but in my case I’m using a freezer strength zip lock bag (which I will double up on in case of any leaks). First I placed the washed and drained pieces of pork, then I poured the seasoning mixture in and made sure every piece got coated. I also try to remove all the air I can, so the only thing the meat gets into contact with during the marinating process is the seasoning/vinegar.
After doubling up on the bags, I placed it in the fridge and allowed it to marinate for 4-5 days. During which time I’ll massage it a couple times at least, to move the pieces of meat and seasoning around a bit. You will notice a couple things…. if your bag/s is not sealed good, you will have a very strong garlicky scent when you open your fridge (not good) and the pieces of meat will go from being pink to a very non attractive pale white. That is normal. The vinegar is breaking down the meat and curing it at the same time. BTW, I’ve been told that traditionally this was left in a cool dark corner of the kitchen/house and not in the fridge as I did.
After 5 days I removed it from the fridge and drained it using a colander. I then removed most of the big pieces of garlic and discarded them. Now try to get as much liquid/moisture away from the pork. Squeeze, then place on paper towels, as we all know what will happen when liquid hits heated oil.
In a heavy saucepan, heat a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil (enough to cover the bottom of the pan) on a med/high setting. Ensuring you’ve dried up most of the liquid the pork was marinating in, start adding a few pieces to the pan. Try not to overcrowd the pan or if they touch they can form steam and you’ll get boiled pork rather than fried.You may have to cook the pieces for about 7-10 minutes or so and flip them around so you get that golden brown color on all sides. You’ll obviously have to do these in batches. I had a paper towel lined plate waiting to soak up all the excess oil when they were done cooking.
During each batch you may be required to add a bit more oil to the pan to avoid the pieces of meat sticking. While this fry you may notice that (if you have pieces of fat as I did) it will ‘burst’ and splatter, so use a splatter screen if you have one. How long and how brown/crisp you want your garlic pork pieces is entirely up to you. If I was making this for my dad I know he’d want it crispy, so I’d have to keep it cooking for a bit over the 10 minutes I mentioned above.
I do hope you guys give this garlic pork a test drive this holiday season and if you’re stuck in the bitter cold of Northern climates, pretend for a second that you’re enjoying a tropical Christmas.