There is something exciting about the good old Chha Gosht that makes it such a gustatory delight; and the perfect showcase of the Pahadi zest for life.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Oberoi Wildflower Shimla
If there is one thing that tells history encased in its layers of delicious notes, its food: the one thing that perhaps has traversed more boundaries than the Arab traders. How else does one account for the number of similar sounding, tasting and in some cases inspired dishes across the length and breadth of India. Mountain food being no exception. One dish that tells this story in more nuanced way than the others is the Himachali Chha Gosht. Though rarely heard these days until you ask for it, this Middle Ages delicacy was once a quintessential winter feast found across every home “especially on important celebrations where Chha Gosht is served as a star dish of the evening,” says Chef Mohan Gyani, whose stint at the Oberoi Wildflower Hall, Shimla not only introduced him to the nuances of Himachali cuisine but also to the dish which, says Chef Gyani, is an ode to the tradition of chaas (buttermilk) and the ultimate Pahari dish that showcases the Himachali palate and their penchant of slightly ‘khatta’ khana.”
Interestingly for a dish that has often regaled by writers and foodies alike as the slow food wonder”, Chha Gosht, a shepherd’s food, is a rare find today. Unless one is specifically looking for that dish or is treated to one by one of the sheep raring communities of this region, there is a good chance that one would not know about it at all. This even though Chha Gosht unlike its other meat variants has a humble beginning and is most likely created by the shepherds who had to spend the winters on the snow-capped mountains with nothing more than stowed away meat and buttermilk available for sustenance. So how really did the dish originated? According to old references, Chha Gosht debuted around the same period as the Channa Madra, which was designed on the direction of the then king of Himachal Pradesh who took a liking to a similar dish made with Kashmiri Rajma. The first iteration of the dish like many other was possibly a one pot meal made by the Gaddi tribe of Dhauladhar for the herders, who worked through the day and wanted something hearty to suit their raging appetite. The way it was made back then when the tastemakers available was the wild ferns was throwing in the toughened meat in a pot full of fresh buttermilk and left to slow cook for hours. This form of cooking not only added that distinct tanginess to the dish, but also tenderized the meat so it could be gnawed off the bone.
What separated this Gosht from its other brethren Chamba Gosht that gets its name from the Chamba hills and used curd instead of buttermilk, is the magical spice trio of bay leaf, coriander and hing. With trade routes opening and the change of power, Chha Gosht evolved as it started getting influenced both from the Mughal and Dogri style of cooking and adding flavour layers. Result, Chha Gosht which was earlier a meat dish with a nice tarty, aromatic gravy to be had with rice or wiped clean with sidku now was peppered with spices like the cardamom, pepper, and the Mughal court essential, the garlic and onion paste. The outcome was that Chha Gosht, which earlier was yakhni style in proximity, transformed into this curdled gravy with bright yellow couture - a benchmark of the meat well cooked. As a matter of fact, it the little bubble pockets (signs of a curdled curd) is what today separates a good Chha Gosht from the one that has been inspired.
The beauty of Chha Gosht, says Gyani, who still follows the century old recipe of making it, “is that it takes its characteristics from every single ingredient that is used to make the dish – the snow dew moistened wood, the narrow neck cookware, the spice (which is often slightly roasted and thrown into the marination) and even the piece used. And this is a reason why it is still a sought after dish, though only a few can make it because of the time and precise technique involved in making it.” An authentic Chha Gosht is made from the chest and leg portion of a lamb – which are the toughest meat on the goat and needs deep tenderising – and can be a little leathery for first timers, even when cooked as directed. But if you stake preference is medium rare with a good old rum to go with it, then Chha Gosht in all its rustic charm makes for the perfect meal – with of course a serve or two of sidku!