From being the pièce de resistance on the trade route to becoming the mainstay of a Sunday lunch, few can match the palate fiesta and charm of a good Mutton Curry.
By Madhulia Dash
Through history, if there is a dish that rivalled the popularity of dal, and even upstaged this Maurya king's favourite for a good part of our medieval history and years that followed, it is the mutton curry.
By “mutton curry”, we don't mean the plethora of versions that were created by cooks that used vegetables to flavour the curry or the meat odes by Khansamas that today are the best window into the palate and culinary evolution of our time, but the meat-hero, made on the highway version.
But what gave the mutton and mutton curry such indisputable supremacy? After all, India since the early civilisation were famous meat eaters. Not just our culinary ledgers but the trade routes too were overflowing with dishes that had meat, a variety of them ranging from rats to wild board, deer to elephants and quail to wildfowl.
So integral was meat eating in our culture that it formed part of our rituals, and was often offered as an offering to the almighty. Cooks through eras were adept at cooking meat in a variety of ways: grilled, charred, steamed, baked, turned into a stew, and even paired with rice to create a rich, luscious one pot meal that is popularly believed to have led to the creation of pulao and biryani.
So how did we go from wild meat to mutton and then to such defining mutton curry?
The journey, says Sindh cuisine expert Chef Pradeep Tejwani, “began when we as a civilization shifted from being pastoral and foraging nomads to pastoral and an agrarian community. This shift led to the beginning of not only small settlements called gaon but also a change in food habits. Instead of hunting and foraging for food, we began producing most of our requirements thus lessening our dependency on jungles like before.
Hunting then was done mostly for additional food when required or as a hobby of the warrior segment of the community. In addition to this started a system of eating as per our occupation, which made meat an integral part of our food habit but not essential.”
Becoming self-sufficient as a community (and then as a kingdom), adds Culinary Director Chef Vikas Seth of Zest, “changed the way we ate on a day-to-day basis. Instead of having hunted meat as part of our daily menu, fruits, produce, grains, pulses, and legumes became a mainstay as they could be grown aplenty and stored. Meat, that was both bred and hunted, was still reserved for special occasions unless it was recommended for a segment given their occupation.”
EATING FOR YOUR WORK
This, continues Chef Seth, “perhaps explains while meat was part of everyone’s diet, for warriors and soldiers it was the staple to be had while at peace or during a march where animals were hunted and cooked to feed the large army. The reason for this was that meat remained not just a satiating meal but one that had enough nourishment to aid the strenuous life soldiers and warriors lived.
The only exception to the rule where meat remained an integral part of the meal was in the mountain regions, desserts and on trade routes (read: Silk Route) where it was widely acceptable.”
History offers few insights into when the shift from wild meat to mutton happened, but elaborates Chef Tejwani, “chances are that mutton became a part of our meal around the same time that crops were incorporated in our food habits, albeit with one consistency. Meat, even when goats were domesticated and pigs reared, wasn’t an everyday meal for most people. Each animal sacrificed – and this at a time included horse and elephants too, and of course the pig which settlers took a liking to as an alternative to the widely loved wild boar, was made to last. Meat was first cured and stored and then the rest was had as part of an interesting one pot dish that also had vegetables.”
MEAT TO MUTTON
It wasn’t till India was divided into smaller kingdoms and around the rise of Delhi Sultanate that mutton took precedence over other meats. Sangam literature is still replete with references where venison, wild boar and quail have been given precedence over mutton, which was goat meat – and traditional practice barred the killing of animals if they are the female species or provide food like milk.
It is during the rise and fall of the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughals that mutton rose to prominence. Call it a religious reason for the taste of free-range goat meat, mutton not only became a staple of royal tables – especially in the royal court – but also one of the finest offerings in the diplomatic table.
Did it displace our fondness for other meats? Not really.
Instead thanks to the long-standing pastoralism, the rise of mutton was also a secondary character in our culinary matinee. A few goats would be taken along in hunting trips for the table should there be a bad day. A practice that continued till royalty still had their privy purse. The rise of mutton (and mutton curries) happened over the years with many factors contributing to it: first the rise of diplomatic tables where alliance was built on marriages or friendships; then came in the long rule of one dynasty that united a larger part of India and hence could influence the change of food habits and third was the religion and new culinary influences.
Take the case of Mughal kitchen for instance. While there were venison and quail prepared on a regular basis, the emperors looked for something familiar to curate their favourites from Samarkhand, where lamb and mutton were popular meat. And hence, goat meat was chosen to create quite a few dishes including the Kebabs.
The other influence was from the traders who brought in newer influences from the portal stations where lamb and mutton was the only meat available. And the third factor, says Chef Seth, “was the taste. Unlike wild boar which is a tough meat and takes a while to cook or venison that is gamey, our goat mutton was much tender, well marbled and free ranged. Fed on soft grass, the meat tasted good and could take on a lot of different flavourings – from the subtle to the more robust and vibrant.”
THE RISE OF MUTTON CURRY
Result, khansamas across different kingdoms were commissioned to create a new culinary genre dedicated to mutton both for the diplomatic table and the Dastarkhwan. And they did. By the mid 18th century, while other meats were pushed to the privy of hunting, mutton had gained a renewed status of being a beloved meat that kickstarted a new format of not only breeding the best of goat species (thus elevating the castrated goat to the top) but also of butchery, where different cuts were used for different dishes, except one: Mutton Curry that could take on any cut and turn it into the finest gourmet treat. The famous Railway Mutton Curry was an ode to this unique characteristic of the curry that could floor an Englishman.
THE SINDHI SEYAL GOSHT TO GOSHT CURRY
The other incident is of course the Sindhi Seyal Gosht. A specialty of the Shikarpuri Sindhis, this mutton curry dates to the time when Sindh was the hub of most trading and a cauldron to all culinary influence. The curry, which is traditionally made from the rack and raan of the goat, is said to have been the reason behind the other popular Patiala special called Beliram Mutton.
Story has it that the then Patiala king Ranjit Singh, a skilled marksman and foodie, was so fond of mutton dishes that he would often order a new one to be created regularly. It was one such request that his Lahore-based cook complied to and curated what is one of the finest meat curries of erstwhile Punjab. But more than that it laid the foundation to how mutton curries were made and the marination process.
It is believed, says Chef Seth, “that it was Beliram Mutton that became a high point of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s culinary escapes that eventually led to the birth of what we identify today as the Amritsari Mutton Curry.”
FROM HOMES TO DHABAS
Like the Beliram’s version, the Amritsari Mutton Curry, which is said to have originated at homes and then flourished in the Dhabas, a Lahore concept that came to Amritsar soon after the partition, too uses yogurt to tenderise the meat, which is then slow cooked in an onion, garlic, ginger paste flavoured with whole spices. But the similarity ends here, as unlike Beliram Mutton Curry, the Amritsar special can be made with all forms of cuts and gets its taste from the masala and of meat.
Hence, says Chef Seth, whose version uses rose petals in its masala, “a lot of attention is paid to the cooking of the wet base masala and the garam masala, which can go from the basic three – badi elaichi, clove and cinnamon – to using a variety of other fragrant warm spices that cranks up the taste of the mutton and that of the mutton and masala together.”
But what really gives Amritsari Mutton Curry that edge, continues the culinary experts, “is that it was the first mutton dish that was created by homemakers, inside the home-kitchen, using ingredients local to the city and turned to their personal taste.”
This explains why the mutton curry like most traditional meat curries has a thin curry and derives most of its flavour from the clever use of spices and tastemaking ingredients like tomatoes. Even though the popularity of Amritsar Mutton Curry may have been as this thin tasteful curry that came with succulent pieces of meat, says Chef Seth, “one would find many versions of this Sunday special, each with its secret ingredient that can go from the use of anardana to dried methi leaves and even tomatoes.”
And yet, it is the palate-fest taste at the end that has made this labour-intensive dish such an iconic favourite.