The Legacy Series: The Savji Mutton

Culinary researcher and seasoned Chef Prasad Metrani (Executive Chef, Fairmont Jaipur) on what made this fiery mutton dishes of the Halba Koshtis the insignia of the Savji cooking.

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy Chef Prasad Metrani

“Few food cultures in India have manage to wed taste and sweat-inducing spiciness as that of Halba Koshtis. Or as they are more famously called the Savji (also referred as Saoji) community”, says Chef Prasad Metrani as he continues to work on the ‘black masala’ – a signature spice mix used to create one of his favourite Savji dishes, the Savji Mutton. And by spiciness, he continues, “I don’t just mean that blazing hotness that most chillies are known for, but this warm, sweet fast moving towards fiery ecstasy kind of heat. The best part, the cooks who designed this very peculiar way of creating the masala didn’t do so using just a melange of chillies, as is the case with other spicy curries, but a clever blend of warm spices that are treated differently liking boiling – and not roasting alone – and then added in different stages to create that layer-on-layer indulgence.”

Fascinatingly, slow bubbling of spices is one of the core pillars of the Savji cuisine, which was built not only on the tribe’s love for meat but also on the little influences this land-owning weaver community gathered through its years of existence where they went from simple weavers to Chalukya King’s favourite tradesman – the women of Halba Koshtis tribe were the Prada of the time – warriors, rebels and then migrants who eventually made Vidharbha (especially Nagpur) their home. And eventually became restauranteurs. Many believe, says Chef Metrani, “that travelling to Nagpur, which had a colder climate compared to Dantewada, where they original belonged to, made the tribe rethink their masala, which was tweaked to appeal to the palate of these spice and meat loving community.”

But just the need of spice to keep themselves warm during winters and cool in summers wasn’t how the Savji culinary school evolved. It was also the need to create a food culture that would appeal to their home. Thus, was born what we today call the Saoji cuisine, one of the few community culinary cultures that invested time in creating artisanal spice mixes like the black masala that gave their mutton curry that unique character and fragrance. Little did the masterchefs then knew that in a few years, their cuisine would not only take its place of pride in the Indian culinary map with Savji Mutton as the poster boy but would become the source of sustenance for the tribe. The year was 1970s. Industrialisation came as a blow to the artisanal world of weavers. Out of job and unable to compete with commercial production the Halba Koshtis turned into the other business they could think of – restaurants. And it all started with two things in the menu – Savji Mutton and rice.

The unique taste and spiciness catapulted the mutton curry to one of the iconic eats of Nagpur. The beauty of this dish, says Chef Metrani, “which in true tribal style uses all parts of sheep meat except for the intestines, which is used for yet another popular treat called Sundari, is that it can be pared down as per the weather and region. The Sholapur version is a testimony of the Koshtis’ acumen in spices. Milder than its Nagpur cousin, this meat dish is perhaps a spoon-by-spoon crash course for anyone looking at understanding the making of an outstanding, slow-cooked mutton curry – it’s sweet, fragrant, spices with that hint of warmth in the back of the tongue that we define as ‘delicious’.”

Little wonder that the recipe is a fiercely guarded secret known to families only, even as the mutton curry has given way to more varieties made with chicken, seafood and lately even potatoes.