There are some days for me when NOTHING hits the spot like a really good Indian curry. Not a generic add an MDH masala curry but the real deal. Made from scratch. Like a good fish curry. Mom style. Red, fiery, coconutty, tangy…with shiny curry leaves, crackling mustard seeds and plenty of spice.
Even better – grand mom style – smoky fish curry cooked over a wood fire in a blackened earthen pot. Or dry roasted beef with shallots, garlic and curry leaves in an iron cheen-chatti (kadhai). Stir fried mussels with plenty of onions, grated coconut and ground pepper. Rice dumplings in a gluey rice paste with a chicken curry. All of which bring to mind my grandmoms outside-the-house kitchen with the wood fire, our stollen cashewnuts roasting hidden away in the dying embers, slanting rubber trees in the green plantations around, the mushrooms we picked from the sloping hills, flowers of mace and bunches of pepper drying in the sun, bunches of bananas ripening in the attic … fragrances, flavours, sights, sounds of a time long gone by. Flavours we don’t find anymore.
What brought some of this back was an unlikely event. A couple of days back I visited the newly opened swanky Nature’s Basket store at Bandra on an invitation for Chef Vikas Khannas demo. Rather cynical about most of what comes out of the Indian food shows, I was unsure about what I felt about this too good looking, naked chested chef; Michelin Star notwithstanding. I know …that’s reverse sexism but justice was served and my prejudice thrown back in my face. Chef Vikas turned out to be much more than a pretty face after all. Beyond the glib eloquent entertaining talk his love for honest Indian food was convincingly real. Not the hoity toity food of the Nawab’s variety. Not the much maligned rich restaurant-ised variety. But the food of our homes. With its kaleidoscope of flavours, techniques and ingredients. It was great to meet someone who made it big in the world of fine dining on his own terms. On the food he himself grew up eating. On the merits of what he truly believed in rather than what he allowed himself to become. And so I left Natures Basket with a conviction to search out and cook more of the old recipes we don’t find anymore….and a lighter wallet thanks to Vikas Khanna’s new cookbook and the unnecessarily inviting Natures Basket store.
The trip had made me think back to something I have always felt passionate about. The loss of real food all over the world, not just in India. To me, the loss of real food is about more than the availability and the so-called superiority of any particular cuisine, about more than the generic one size fits all Kitchen King masalas, more than the pre packaged Dal Makhani we buy off the super market. It is about a change in a world order. A loss of slowness. A loss of tradition as across the world, we move away from the slowness of old and embrace the fastness, the uniform shinyness of the new. And a resulting loss in age-old wisdom, recipes and traditional processes. The end result – a sameness that’s creeping in everywhere, a loss of diversity, a loss of nuance.
Inspired hence, to make a dish from my own heritage, I came back to cook this dish that always hit the spot with me. Not an unusual recipe; yet it’s certainly one that hasn’t gotten its due recognition outside Kerala. Spicy with the addition of the traditional spices of Kerala- pepper, coriander, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, this is a beautiful dish of mutton cooked to melt off the bones in a rich garlicky gravy. Perfect paired with soft and fluffy white rice.
- 6-7 cardamom pods
- 7-8 cloves
- 2.5 inch cinnamon stick
- 1 kg goat or lamb meat, cubed
- 6 cups of water
- 5 tablespoons of powdered coriander seeds
- .5 to 1 teaspoon chilli powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- ¼ of a coconut, thinly sliced and then cut into 1.5 cm peices
- salt to taste
- ¼ cup oil (I absolutely love the taste of coconut oil in this dish for the authentic flavour but you can use vegetable oil as well)
- 8 sliced onions (about 2.5 cups)
- 8 tomatoes, quartered
- 2.5 full pods of garlic, cloves peeled and crushed (about 5 tablespoons)
- 4 sprigs of curry leaves, leaves removed
- 2 tablespoons od black pepper - coarsely cracked
- In a heated skillet or kadhai, toast cardamom, cloves and cinnamon carefully without burning. Grind coarsely with a mortar and pestle or with a spice grind.
- In a large pot, combine the mutton with water, coconut pieces, turmeric, chilli and coriander powders. Season with salt, bring to a boil and cook uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes till the meat is tender. At this point you will have 2 to 3 cups of water remaining in the pot.
- Heat oil in a large kadhai, add in the onions and cook till lightly browned. Add the curry leaves and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Throw in the tomatoes and stir fry till soft and the skin starts to wrinkle. Add in the mutton along with the water and simmer till the water reduces to a thick gravy of the consistency you desire. (Sometimes I reduce the water that I add to the mutton while boiling and then stir fry the mutton till the water/stock all but disappears and meat starts frying in the oils, at others (like this time) I just reduce the water till I get a thick gravy that can coats the rice we eat this with. The drier preparation goes well with breads like appam, porotha, roti or even sliced white bread)
- Add the cracked pepper and saute for a couple of minutes before adding in the ground spices and sautéing till well blended.