Forget all about garam masala. Bottle masala is an East-Indian spice mix with a dizzying number of spices that doesn’t hold a candle to the packaged Badshahs and MDH stuff that a lot of us end up stocking at home. A few spoons of this is all you need to up your staple chicken curry game, add tons of flavour to meaty stews that cook long and slow, or just to bring punch to a robust Chana Masala recipe.
The moniker bottle masala comes from the fact that the freshly roasted and ground masala is stuffed into dark beer bottles to keep the sunlight out. Making the spice mix at home can be quite daunting because it requires 28 spices, some of which are still new to me. Instead of investing time in making it, you could pick up a ready packet of Sandra Bottle Masala from Joseph’s Cold Storage in Mumbai or follow the link to pick up this superb homemade bottle masala by Shaila Colaco. Shaila states that the authenticity of a bottle masala doesn’t lie in the spice list or even the proportion they are added in, but rather the temperature at which you would activate them. “Some ingredients need a light roast for aroma, while others a bit more to release oils, and the rest added in for flavour” she says. Some East Indian families add wheat grains to their bottle masala, which also helps as a thickening agent in gravy dishes.
I have started to keep Bottle Masala within arm’s distance when cooking because it’s a great addition to even the most boring dishes, giving them an instant facelift. In the recipe below, I use bottle masala as a dry rub for a large piece of pork shoulder that will cook long and slow in the oven, and when done to melting tenderness, can be pulled easily with the tines of a fork.
Start with a pork shoulder that has a good fat to meat ratio. Keep the skin off, and bone in if you like. I’ve cooked it with and without bone, and don’t see much of the difference, except that you make more of a statement if you bring out a roast with the bone in. Guests go nuts for that kind of stuff.
Consult your pork vendor about how you want your shoulder. You don’t want to come home with something that’s going to just render fat and barely yield any meat. So 1.5 kgs of shoulder meat should yield enough for 6-8 people, so using this as a ratio, you should buy accordingly. I usually prefer to buy this much for my family of 5.
Once home, the shoulder should be salted well and transferred to a big bag or a box that fits snugly inside your refrigerator. You’ll be cooking it the next day. Get under all the corners of the pork. Salting your shoulder and keeping it overnight will help tenderise it and really gets the salt all the way in there, which is what we want. Rinse the dry brine off the next day because you don’t want your meat extra salty, and smear 3 tbsp of vegetable oil over your shoulder. Then, rub the bottle masala all over the shoulder. The oil should help the masala stay on. Score the fat on the shoulder and keep aside.
The oven temperature must be low, that is between the 130-150 celsius mark. You will require a baking tray with a wire rack that fits on top. This is because I insist you cook the shoulder over a water bath just to avoid any of the meat from drying out. This is important. Use aluminium foil to wrap the whole large package, then transfer to the oven to cook. During the process when you want to peek just to see how your meat is doing, give it a high five or whatever, you should check on the water bath. The hot and steamy environment caused by the water bath is what yields a super soft, fork tender pork shoulder.
I find that 2 to 2 1/2 hours per kilo of pork shoulder is a good starter’s guide to go by. It could take a wee bit longer and that’s okay, as long as you’re left with incredibly juicy shredded meat. At the end of your cooking cycle when the meat can be pulled easily using the tines of two forks, you could choose to crank up the heat to 200 degrees and get a good colour going on all sides of the shoulder, or just leave it be. Either way, resting time for meat, just like you do with chicken, is very important and is what lends that juiciness all throughout, so don’t forget to let your shoulder rest for at least fifteen minutes after it’s done. That’s it.
Serve this spicy pork shoulder with a side of slaw and some fresh pav. The cooking juices at the bottom of the pan should be strained and this cooking liquor when left to stand will form a layer of fat on top. Skim the fat from the liquid and keep this for your fried eggs. They will thank you. Proceed to reduce the pan juices over medium-heat and add a bit of butter for richness here. Drizzle over some of the reduced jus over the pulled shoulder, some mash, and enjoy it with a side of vegetables.
For me, pork shoulder is the gift that keeps on giving. There’s going to be leftovers, no doubt, and that’s really my favourite part. Reheating pork shoulder with a braising liquid or just plain ol’ stock wasting away in the freezer breathes life into it all over again and it’s ready to be turned into tacos or shovelled into baos, piled up in burgers or swapped out for duck in a dish of Chinese pancakes with hoisin. I love playing with pork shoulder and might secretly eat lesser than usual just to have tons leftovers for later.
P.S: If you don’t live in India, or don’t have access to East Indian Bottle Masala, but still want to try it, chef Michael Swamy includes not one, but three really good recipes for the spice mix in his book The East Indian Kitchen. Since I own a copy, you could write in to me and I can send you the recipe if you need, but you can easily pick it up from Amazon if you like.