So many mutton curries and so little time
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My dadi spent a lifetime ministering to the needs of her large brood, sacrificing her own needs and pleasures to the point that it wasn’t real clear that she was flesh and blood and not a holographic image of the Adarsh Bhartiya Nari. But when all her kids were settled and my grandfather had gone to meet his maker, my grandmother staged a small but significant rebellion. Unlike most other pahari women who quit eating meat when they became older, she decided to spend all my grandfather’s pension on it.
So for the last years of her life, my dadi ate meat as often as she possibly could. Choice cuts of the goat that she adored, which she chose and bought and cooked with great care herself. The transfer of her entire pension to the butcher every month raised many eyebrows in the village and the blood pressure of her entire clan, but she was intractable.
I love this story for so many reasons — my grandmother’s late but significant assertion of her own selfhood, the insouciance with which she threw off the shackles of her abstemious frugality but, most of all, for the fact that she chose food as the arena in which to stage her individual mutiny. That too not just any food, but GOAT. Because no matter who you are and what you believe in, if you grew up in India eating meat, goat is it. There’s something about meat, mutton, goat—whatever you call it—that anchors each of us to the place and the family and the time we grew up in, something that no dal or bhindi or even chicken curry can do. It’s like there’s a red meat-shaped hole in our food awareness and landscape that nothing else can ever occupy.
I am my grandmother’s granddaughter in this if nothing else; my love for goat. If I had to choose a last meal, for sure goat would feature in it. (I spend disproportionate amounts of time planning and cooking elaborate last meals for myself; totally out of mindfulness, not gluttony, I will have you know.) So here’s what I have to ask myself afresh every time: Would I have goat in a curry? A dry fry? Chops? Kebabs? Biryani? Depending on the mood and the moment, the answer changes but my love for the core ingredient is steadfast.
But because the only thing I truly craved like a sickness in the years I spent as a pescetarian was the taste of my mother’s goat curry, I have decided that a mutton curry is the origin, the true north, the lodestar of my love for meat. So while I have reams to say about every single form of goat, this is only my love song to goat curries, starting with my mother’s. Everyone has one food like that, which roots them to all that is good and solid in their lives, that harks back to a time when things didn’t need to be made grand to taste grand.
My mother’s goat curry is divine: A standard onion-tomato-whole spice gravy in which perfectly cooked meat pieces luxuriate in abject surrender. But it’s how she cooks it that sets it apart: The meat is browned slowly in very little oil with whole spices and caramelized onions, and cooked unhurriedly over a low fire in its own fat and juices. I love how its simplicity allows the meat to shine through and for me, even today, happiness can be measured in mouthfuls of mummy’s mutton mopped up with rice.
That’s the thing about most goat curries: while they have the same standard ingredients in differing proportions, the way they are treated makes all the difference. For years I begged aunties and friends to tell me the secret to making Bengali kosha mangsho but I just never managed to replicate that signature taste. Till I stumbled upon Pushpesh Pant’s excellent recipe for it, in which he suggests marinating the meat in mustard oil before cooking it. That mustard oil tang is balanced perfectly by the slight hint of sweetness from the caramelized onions and the pinch of sugar that all Bengali cooking uses and it’s what makes the kosha a thing of beauty.
The Parsi zardaloo salli boti is another masterful example of balance: Chunks of tender meat are simmered in a gravy made slightly tart with vinegar and sweetened with dried apricots and sprinkled with crisp fried potato straws to add crunch. In this, as in many other ways, I would absolutely blindly follow the example of the Parsis. If I ever had to flee my country to escape persecution, one of the first things I would tuck away in my suitcase would be the recipe of zardaloo salli boti.
Another goat curry that makes my heart beat faster is the iconic laal maas from Rajasthan. The recipe specifies almost equal amounts of fat, chillies and meat and the jury is out on whether the fat used should be mustard oil or ghee. This matters since you need a tanker load of fat to cook laal maas, and so what you use has a disproportionate impact on the taste and flavour of the cooked dish. Even though I use roughly 1/10th the amount prescribed by the purists, I come down firmly on the ghee side, because the mellowness of the ghee rounds off the fieriness of the chillies perfectly, the meat tender and falling apart in the lava hot curry. And the thing I enjoy most with laal maas? It’s actually, blasphemously enough, aapams, which are the perfect way to mop up all that rich fieriness and heat.
Never having lived in the south, I am sadly unfamiliar with all the different ways goat can sing in curried Dravidian. Nevertheless my last meals often feature a Kerala nadaan goat curry or a Chettinad goat curry to escort me to the afterlife—fierce, coconutty and divine. The simple mutton curry you get in any Maharashtrian home is slightly less hot, but equally hard to beat, with dry coconut and red chillies acting as a perfect foil to each other, the gravy creamy with the addition of ground poppy seeds. Another bonafide yummy is the Bihari mutton curry made by first sealing the goat pieces in lashings of mustard oil and then using both fresh cut and caramelized onions at different stages of cooking for both texture and sweetness. Eaten with either a plain ghee roti, or some earthy littis, every mouthful is a penance for every jibe anyone has ever made at Bihar and Biharis.
But maybe because of the way my mother has always cooked, the meat dishes I have always enjoyed most have always been marked by simplicity and flavour. While fat and spices (which are basically the umbra and penumbra of goat curries in India) are wonderful in their own way, there is something to be said for eating meat that isn’t always bathed in a slick of red oil. So the light yoghurt-based Kashmiri yakhni flavoured with saunf and ginger makes me happier than the rogan josh or rahra gosht that leads to mob frenzy that needs to be dispersed with tear gas at North Indian banquets. Another yoghurt-based goat curry I adore is the Himachali Madra: My Himachali friend makes it so well that it’s enough to make me forget my own Pahari roots to leap up to embrace his.
So many goat curries, so little time. There are a million goat curries that I haven’t yet found the time to cook or to learn to appreciate fully. So a heartfelt appeal to all of you. In order for me to be able to achieve my fullest potential as my grandmother’s granddaughter, please send me packed containers of all your favourite goat curries. Remember, there’s a place in heaven for those who help others realize their life’s purpose. And of course, if you find me in a state where it seems like my life’s purpose is pretty spent and I am unable to cook and feed myself a last supper, please be kind enough to source and feed me any of these.
1. My mother’s mutton curry. Be sure to slow cook it in as little oil as possible. It should also have some marrow bones in it so my few last breaths are utilised doing worthwhile things.
2. My mother-in-law’s saag mutton, where the spinach takes on the yumminess of the meat and the meat is covered in this velvety spinach goodness.
3. A zardaloo salli boti but with the crusty brun pao I feel sets it off best.
4. Kosha mangsho with tiny luchis
5. Chettinad goat curry with fat rice and lots of cold beer
Failing this, any mutton curry that you love most will do me just fine. If you like, do put potatoes in it because for a lot of people the potatoes in goat curries are almost more precious than the meat itself. But because I am absolutely not one of those people and I feel that potatoes should only be cooked with other potatoes, please feel free to take them all out and eat them yourself.
That would be a win-win for both of us. And would send me off with a happy smile to meet my maker.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.