Week: Aug 18 to Aug 24
Life tends to come full circle—that cliche often holds true, specially when it comes to certain trends. It happens in fashion, in religion and spirituality, in relationship advice, in health and fitness, in alternate medicine therapies, even in food and recipes. The old and forgotten gets reinvented and becomes contemporary and in vogue. Take for example the default meat choice of people in our country. For a couple of decades, if not more, chicken ruled the roost (pun unintended!). A chicken-dish was the star on the dining table and mutton thanks to all the negative publicity of it being loaded with cholesterol and hence bad for health, got relegated to the background. Fish was always popular ~ it being the staple diet of so many coastal regions of our country. The prevalent food fad then became that chicken and fish were healthier choices because of their high protein content and red meat was a strict no-no.
This however was not the case if we just rewind to the food preferences of our parents/grand parents generation. As kids we grew up on a vegetarian diet, my father being a strict vegetarian “brahmin”. My mother on the other hand had grown up on a staple diet of non vegetarian fare…more specifically mutton, or what in their house was simply referred to as ‘meat’. Her ancestors came from the high mountains of Kashmir (most brahmins from the Himalayan mountain regions in India are non vegetarians). She of course gave up eating all non vegetarian food after marriage in the tradition of an ideal Indian wife who conforms to the habits of her husband. Nevertheless, off and on she would reminisce and share stories of how our maternal grandfather had mutton-curry and rice for dinner on a daily basis; and how when they had a cold or flu, they were given bowls of steaming hot ‘paya-shorba’ (which is a broth made from lamb or goat trotters, which are cooked along with aromatic spices for a couple of hours till all the flavours are infused in the soup…a recipe i’m still searching for). The point is, the tales were always about mutton, never chicken!
(Just as an interesting aside, the term mutton in our country is loosely applied to both lamb and goat meat. Not many of us know exactly which meat we buy as mutton. Lamb meat apparently is cheaper in cost and lacks in nutritional value as compared to goat meat. Health and nutrition sites tell you that goat meat is actually lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than not just lamb, pork and beef meats but also chicken meat. Goat meat has 3 gm of total fat, 0.93 gm of saturated fat, 75 gm of cholesterol and 27 gm of protein per 100 gm serving. It has higher levels of iron than other meats— 3.8 mg per 100 gm serving while beef has 3.4, pork 3.1, lamb 1.6 and chicken 1.7 mg for the same amount. It also has higher levels of potassium and lower levels of sodium than the other meats making it the healthier option compared to all other meats. Perhaps that is why our ‘pahaari’ ancestors made goat-meat their staple non-veg fare.)
As luck would have it, i got married to a die hard non vegetarian. At my in-laws place too, lip-smacking stories were always about mutton-curry, with ‘khatta-meat’ topping the list of favourites. (for recipe see appendix below this post!). Cooking a mutton dish though was a bit of a challenge for me. There were a couple of difficulties there…first the sourcing of the raw meat itself. This is most important for if the raw-mutton quality is not upto the mark your final dish will always be a sorry version. My father-in-law generally bought it himself, and over the weekend my mother in law would spend Sunday morning “bhuno-ing” (a technique of braising very typical to Indian cuisine!) it with much concentration for a long time and then everyone would dig into that soul-satisfying mutton curry accompanied with steamed rice for lunch. The second issue was of time. The first principle of my cooking philosophy was (and to some extent still is!) minimum time and maximum effect! Later i discovered that for some traditional dishes time cannot be compromised if you want the taste…mutton being a prime example! Around this time ‘broiler-chicken’ began its ascendancy and since it was so much easier to source and cook, mutton was soon forgotten.
In the last couple of years a role reversal of sorts seems to have taken place and we are back to the food those earlier generations so loved. Health research in recent times has begun to focus on the general living conditions of the animals that meat is sourced from. The worst culprit in this regard has been found to be chicken. Most broiler-chicken available in the market comes from poultry farms that keep them caged in restricted spaces and feed them on substandard fare such as genetically modified grains. Chicks reared in such an unnatural environment are not the best food for humans. People are advised to opt for free range chickens and their eggs—not the easiest things to source in a city. Even in the case of fish, with the amount of toxins being spewed into our rivers and seas, heavy metal toxicity of these water bodies and the animals living in them has become an issue of major concern. Goat and lamb in comparison, they say come from farms and being larger animals cannot be reared in restricted spaces. We thus have the triumphant return of mutton, the default meat choice of our grandparents, once again on our meal tables! Perhaps like all comparisons, at some level this too is an unfair one, for each food source has its own nutrient content. As in so many other things, consuming with discretion remains the key.
A recipe as an appendix for this meaty-tale!
After much cajoling and asking around and some experimentation, i have managed to standardise a recipe that comes from the childhood foodie tales of my husbands extended family. It’s called ‘pahari khatta-meat’ (‘khatta’ translates to sour, the dominant flavour of the dish), so it is basically a sour mutton curry. Also be warned that you should be ready to spend a couple of hours on the preparation for a delectable dish on the table…
# The Ingredients:
Mixed mutton pieces : 1 kg
Finely chopped onion : 2 cups
Finely chopped garlic : 3 tbsp
Finely chopped ginger: 4 tbsp
Mustard oil : 1/2 to 1/3 cup
Haldi/turmeric powder : 1 tbsp
Salt to taste (approx 2-3 tsp)
Bay leaves : 2-3
Jeera coarsely powdered : 1 tbsp
Dhania/coriander powder : 2 tbsp
Saunf/aniseed powder : 2 tbsp
Methi seeds/fenugreek powder : 1 tsp
Amchur/dry mango powder : 4-6 tbsp
(This ingredient depends on how tangy you would like the dish to be. I am using MDH brand amchur here)
Degi mirch powder : 1 tbsp for medium spice (or to taste)
# The preparation:
~Wash the mutton pieces well. Apply half the salt and haldi and cover and keep aside. This can even be done a day before and the meat left overnight in the refrigerator.
~Peel and chop the onion, garlic and ginger. Avoid making a paste in the mixer for an authentic taste and to prevent it from getting burnt during the roasting.
~Roast and grind the dry spices…methi, jeera, dhania, saunf. (Ready to use powders may not be as flavourful.)
~For the cooking use a thick bottomed and wide-mouthed pan…a 5 litre pressure cooker can do provided it has a wide mouth and a thick bottom. Remember the meat needs to be turned often and traditionally it is cooked for long hours on low flame. If your pot is not thick enough, the mutton will start burning halfway through.
~ Heat the pot and pour in the mustard oil. (For those who don’t like the mustard oil flavour, allow the oil to heat till it smokes. Then take it off the flame and allow to cool before using it for cooking.)
~ Add the onions and sauté for about two minutes till they turn transparent.
~ Add the mutton, remaining salt and haldi and the bay leaves.
~ Allow it to cook for one hour (by the clock…that’s how long it takes!!) with the burner flame kept at its lowest setting. Stir gently every five minutes or so to make sure it does not start burning from the sides.
~ After about half an hour the juices start reducing and oil will start separating from the sides. Add the garlic and ginger and continue cooking. Keep watch and turn the pieces more frequently so that they are braised evenly.
~ Once it’s well cooked and almost dry (takes 45 to 50 minutes) add the dry spices…jeera, methi, saunf, mirch and amchur-in that order and stir constantly to coat the pieces well with the spices. It should be further cooked for 5-7 minutes after the amchur is added for the dark colour so typical of this dish.
~ Once the hour is up check to see if the mutton is cooked through. If it is, add about two cups of hot water (or as much you would need for the thickness of the curry you like), stir well and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and allow the curry to cook for another five minutes or so. If the mutton is still rare, pressure cook it after adding the water. This is the tricky part for if you overcook in the pressure cooker the meat will break up into small pieces. Generally one or two cooker whistles should be enough.
~ Check for spices and add more salt/mirch/amchur powder if needed.
~ The ‘pahari khatta meat’ is now ready to be enjoyed with hot steamed rice.