A rather self-reflexive columnist in The New York Timesa couple of years ago simultaneously exulted in the joys of having discovered goat meat, and admitted to the “white” foolishness of “discovering” something that has been a staple for many communities for centuries. Goat meat, or mutton, as it simply slips into being called in India, is the mainstay of some of the most celebrated cuisines in the world: Mexican, Greek, southern Italian and north-west Indian—more specifically, Kashmiri, which might well be one of its greatest proponents in India. Ask anyone who’s had gushtaba.
Gushtaba is usually the grand finale to the main course in the traditional 36-course Kashmiri wazwan. The journey towards making the velvet-textured meatballs is a lesson in the perfect mutton-cooking technique. According to Rafiq Khan of Srinagar, who is visiting Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, right from the time the goat is chosen, to the way the meat is cut, tenderized and cooked, all are instrumental in getting the meat right.
Sumptuous: Khan says a wazwan can have as many as 36 dishes, including rogan josh (left) and gushtaba.Photo by Ankit Agrawal/Mint
First, choose a healthy young goat that grazes on “good grass”. “This is for fragrant meat. Goats that graze on good grass will be fragrant and the best grass—and, therefore, the best meat—comes from Rajasthan,” says the waza(cook) whose family has preserved its recipes for 700 years.
Because goat meat is low in fat (lower, in fact, even than chicken), according to Khan, it needs to be tenderized as it is prone to becoming tough and chewy. Gushtaba is a notch more demanding of the meat, requiring it to be soft and spongy—yet firm so that it doesn’t crumble. “Don’t let the meat sit in the freezer for days—the best meat is one that is most fresh. For gushtaba, we take the meat and immediately chop it up into cubes, and then mince it. When it’s being minced, along with the spices, we add some lamb fat to it,” says Khan, a specialist in Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim cuisines. The process of mincing the meat breaks up the fibres, making it more tender; adding the fat gives it a delightfully creamy texture.
The spices and the gravy that gushtaba is cooked in are all tenderizing agents. “The ghee lends a chiknahat (glaze) to it that regular oil won’t achieve,” he says. The yogurt itself is treated: first beaten, then boiled for an hour until it becomes thick, before the pieces of mutton are added to it. The spices that go into gushtaba—and the Kashmiris avoid the north Indian triumvirate of onion-ginger-garlic—are all designed to help digest the meat. “The perfect gushtaba—like a phulka—balloons out slightly when it’s hot and goes back to its usual size when it’s done. It just takes a few of these steps. And a good heart,” says Khan.
300g fresh minced mutton
200g fresh yogurt
5 cardamom pods
15g dry mint powder
150ml lamb stock
15g dry ginger powder
100g desi ghee
100g lamb fat
Salt to taste
For garnish, a pinch of saffron
Mix the minced mutton and the lamb fat together. Traditionally, it’s done on a wooden block with a wooden mallet. Make dumplings that are 1.5-2 inches in diameter. Boil them in water and keep aside. To treat the yogurt, boil it in a pan until it thickens. In a separate pan (preferably thick-bottomed), heat the desi ghee, add cloves and cardamom. Into this, add the yogurt, lamb stock, all the spices and cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Add the dumplings and cook for 30 minutes. Garnish with saffron and serve with naan or Kashmiri pulao.