Vindaloo is one of my favorite Indian dishes, in part because it’s one of the heartier dishes served at Indian restaurants but mostly because the sour and spicy sauce is addictive and delicious. It’s now an Indian restaurant staple, but has its origins in a vinegary Portuguese stew. As such you’ll often find it prepared with pork or beef, which are otherwise uncommon for Indian cuisine. Pork vindaloo is common in the Goan region, but the dish has found its way all over India, prepared with lamb or goat or (occasionally) poultry to jive with regional dietary customs.
Perhaps the best vindaloo I was ever served was at an upscale Indian restaurant in the Bay Area. I ordered the lamb vindaloo expecting the usual stew, and instead was served a braised lamb shank smothered in a bright red sauce in a hammered metal serving dish. I’ll never be able to match this caliber of the plating at home, but I wanted very much to be able to capture the texture and flavor. People often marvel at meat that falls of the bone, but all that this requires is a long slow cook with plenty of liquid. This meat melted off the bone, soaked to the core with the vinegary sauce and whatever magic happens when the collagen and connective tissue breakdown.
And as I was thumbing through my old copy of the Hotpoint Storybook Kitchen Cookbook (1964) this singular restaurant experience came to mind. The opening chapter is a selection of dishes served in the International Pavilion at the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair and includes a recipe for a “Pakistani” lamb vindaloo. (Weirdly, the recipe from “India” includes heroic amounts of beef.) It’s a simple preparation, little more than a lamb stew with a healthy dose of vinegar, some chili peppers, and a cinnamon stick, but it got me hungry for that beautiful lamb shank I’d had a decade before. The recipe in the vintage cookbook wouldn’t do, so I went searching online for alternatives. Most of what I found were British variants made with malt vinegar and jalapeno peppers. They may or may not be delicious, but weren’t quite what I was after.
And so I took a tip from another one of my old cookbooks, Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Curry Cookbook (1980) which has recipes for both pork and duck vindaloos. I took a few tips from the spice mixture in the pork and then went to work. It wasn’t anywhere near as pretty as the dish I was served in California, but I could eat this stuff every day if I had to.
This recipe will work just fine with lamb or even beef stew meat, and if you’re going to go that route you can prepare this easily in a slow cooker or Instant Pot. If you’re using lamb shanks, though, it’s important to lay them out in a baking dish in a single layer to make sure they cook in the liquid.
I served this topped with cilantro micro-greens (chopped cilantro would work fine) with a healthy side of basmati rice and Indian-spiced braised greens, spooning the sauce over top of the whole affair. It’s also common to find vindaloos served with boiled potatoes. This dish will make more sauce than you’ll be able to use but don’t toss it out. It makes a decadent jus for a hot pastrami or roast beef sandwich. Enjoy!
- 4 lamb shanks (4-5 lbs total)
- 12 dried red chilies
- 2 cups palm vinegar (such as Datu Putu brand, or white vinegar)
- 1 tbsp ginger (finely chopped)
- 3 tbsp garlic (finely chopped)
- 1 1/2 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 cup mild paprika (optional, but it makes it such a pretty color)
- 1/4 cup butter or ghee (divided)
- 4 sweet onions (thinly sliced)
- Soak chili peppers in palm vinegar for ten minutes, or up to a few hours in the refrigerator. Add the vinegar and chilies to a blender along with all of the other spices and blend until chilies are pulverized. Place lamb shanks and marinade in a large plastic bag or covered baking dish and refrigerate for 3-4 hours. Do not marinate overnight, or the vinegar will wreak havoc on the meat.
- Preheat the oven to 300 F.
- In a large skillet, heat half of the butter over medium low heat. Add the onions and saute/fry until onions are translucent and slightly browned. Place the onions in the bottom of a baking dish.
- Remove the lamb shanks from the marinade and pat dry, reserving the marinade. Wipe out the skillet and melt the remainder of the butter over medium high heat. When the pan and butter are hot, quickly sear the lamb shanks in batches, about 1-2 minutes on all sides. Place the lamb shanks in the baking dish and pour the marinade over the top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake in the oven.
- Bake for three to four hours, turning the meat every hour or so, until meat is tender and has retracted cleanly from the bone. If the liquid starts to get a little bit low replenish with a 50/50 water/vinegar mixture.
If lamb shanks aren’t available substitute 2 lbs of lamb stew meat.