The journey of Railway Mutton Curry

By: Madhulika Dash

One of the first few dishes to be served in Frontier Mail back in early 1900s, the Railway Mutton Curry, many believe, was a take on the famous Kolkata Manghso Jhol (mutton curry) that in turn was inspired by Wajid Ali Shah's mutton korma, given the use of culinary techniques like bhunoo (stir frying) and that of roasting spices before grounding them into a powder for use.  

Legend goes that when Wajid Ali Shah was exiled in Kolkata, his mutton quota, which would be a good five lambs per meal, was hugely reduced. Shah was an infamous carnivore like the Nawabs before him, which left his khansama to work upon other ingredients that were readily available, and were not rationed like potato and egg. And that's how the first iterations of the famous Calcutta Biryani and mutton curry were born. 

By the time it reached to the street and the kitchens of bhadrolog (the wealthy), it had changed appearance. One being the addition of vinegar or tamarind to the recipe to give the dish interesting flavour foreplay; and two, give the dish a long shelf life for train journeys. 

How it reached from the Dak Bangla's to the Mail is like a wandering chef story.  

Mangsho Jhol was never a part of the menu for the First Class compartments, which had the likes of the Shahi Tukda, the badam shorba or even the jelly pudding. It's inclusion in the menu was quite accidental. 

Folklore has it that a British soldier while traveling First Class, reached the pantry for a mid-night snack, following the fragrant aroma weaving and wafting through the corridors. Taken by surprise, the cook offered him the staff meal of mangsho jhol and stale dinner roll. Famished as the officer was he burnt his tongue with the first bite. But before he could raise his voice, the clever cook added coconut milk - though there is a version that says water and curd as well – to the dish, thereby reducing the pungency of the spices.  The officer left the pantry satiated, but on his next visit he simply couldn't recollect the dish's name and called it the Railway Mutton Curry, and that's how the dish got its name. 

In fact till the pantry cars existed in the railways, the enticing aroma of the Railway Mutton Curry, which had to be finished in the pantry car because of the use of coconut milk, was the single most scent that announced the arrival of food to the various compartments. 

The difference between both the recipes is of course the use of coconut milk; it has a thicker salan and is much milder to taste. It has this balance of sweet-sour and tangy flavours that come from the style of bhunooing the masala, especially the onions and ginger-garlic paste.   

Dish of The Month: RAILWAY MUTTON CURRY By Jiggs Kalra

About Jiggs Kalra: Culinary Czar Jiggs Kalra needs no introduction. A food writer turned author turned curator, he is a living encyclopedia of Indian Culinary legacy. One of the few people to make Indian food popular, the Railway Mutton Curry is one of his favourite, and the one given is the traditional Anglo Indian recipe with the changes that were made there on. 

Says the food historian, "After the mangsho jhol was renamed Railway Mutton Curry, work began to standardize the recipe so it could fit various accompaniments and yet the flavours appealed to everyone. One of the discoveries that the railway cooks – who were usually out of jobs khansams- realized that one could not pour the coconut milk and reduce the fieriness of the dish instantly, it had to be done gradually ensuring the milk doesn’t curdle in heat. The other  change was the introduction of fragrance, so spices like cumin was roasted. This intensified the flavour and the aroma."

These, adds Kalra, "are still the two tricks except the brass pots on which the meat cooked slowly for hours that made Railway Mutton Curry such a wide palate addiction."

Recipe and Photography Courtesy: Made In Punjab, Massive Restaurants.