Laal Maas from Jodhpur: simmered and authentic
One of my ultimate gastronomic goals was to cook ‘Laal Maas’ in its authentic Rajasthani style, using the right ingredients and the right process. As soon as I landed in Jodhpur, I started looking for a person or leader who could help me achieve this goal. After a few days of exploring the old city of Jodhpur, the Fort, the stepwells and the narrow lanes that house many traditional Havelis, I was introduced to Mr. Nikhil Mathur, who runs the Pushp Guest House, located in the shadow of the mighty fort of Mehrangarh. Mr. Mathur is a former chef and has worked with Taj Hotels, and now runs a welcoming guesthouse with rooftop cafe, where he prepares delicious Rajasthani cuisine for hotel guests. By special request, he agreed to cook ‘Laal Maas’ with us on his terrace. Walking up the terrace, we found it ready with a charcoal ‘Sigri’, on which we were going to cook this legendary Rajasthani meat dish. He had placed top quality Jodhpur mutton, some spices, ghee, mustard oil, onions, ginger garlic paste, yogurt and red paste on the table.
There are a few hefty dollops of ghee in the handi, and its ritualistic infusion of aromatics like bay leaf, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, black cardamom and cumin, beckon. Once enough flavors are imparted to the ghee, the aroma leaves its sweet undertones, and at that point the thinly sliced onions go into the now sizzling handi, and we stir it lightly. While in many Indian curries the onions are cooked until brown, in ‘Laal Maas’ the onions are sautéed just enough to leave them translucent and with just enough caramelization to balance the resulting curry.
Mr. Mathur added the pieces of mutton in the handi while reminding us not to put everything in at once, which would drop the temperature of the handi enormously, and therefore, paying attention to this principle of temperature management , we placed the first batch in the handi and saw it being engulfed by the onions in his warm embrace. Gradually we added the remaining mutton to the handi and stirred it. Soon the color of the pieces of mutton changed, and they began to cook slowly. Later, we added the ginger-garlic paste, and continued cooking; cooking over low heat gave us plenty of time to enjoy a cup of tea and chat with Mr. Mathur about the grandeur of Mehrangarh Fort, whose larger-than-life presence in front of us felt just like the kind of dining experience we were having. It was a memorable experience to cook ‘Laal Maas’ against such a majestic backdrop, and as Nikhil Ji jokingly commented, “The Fort is huge, and it takes many hours to fully explore; similarly, cooking ‘Laal Maas’ is a process that requires immense patience and detail, and the best results are achieved by slow cooking over low heat”. It was an apt analogy.
Sigri was supplied with charcoal, and we began our preparation for the next phase of cooking ‘Laal Maas’; we added the ‘Mathania’ chilli paste to the mutton. The glistening red paste slowly mixed with the meat, and soon the whole handi had acquired a crimson hue, and the slowly cooked capsaicin imparted its distinct aroma. Yogurt is another key ingredient in ‘Laal Maas’, as it gives the dish the required richness and acidity and helps tenderize the meat for a well-balanced flavor. Chef Nikhil applied a clever cooking trick by mixing a few spoonfuls of mustard oil in yoghurt, with red chilli powder, coriander powder, a pinch of turmeric, a few spoonfuls of “kasoori methi” (leaves dried fenugreek) and salt, and lightly whipped to make a spicy yoghurt paste, and pour it over the mutton in the handi. We saw the color and texture of ‘Laal Maas’ magically change. At this point, the flavor riots had begun.
The crimson evening sky perfectly matched the color of ‘Laal Maas’. Half an hour later we added sliced onions to the meat and watched it gain color, acidity and texture as the tomatoes slowly softened in the curry. We added water to the thickened sauce until it reached the right consistency and optimum flavor.
After an hour of slow cooking, the dish was ready. Before devouring the handi, we learned the cuisine of the day. It was an auspicious day. Thus, the ceremonial meat offering to the ‘Kul-Devi’ (ancestral tutelary deity) was only the last obligatory step before digging into the Laal Maas. We too prayed to the almighty for his blessings and took our first bite.
It was perfect! A dream that becomes reality. I had little doubt that after the slow cooking process, the right ingredients and the style of cooking, ‘Laal Maas’ would achieve terrific flavor. However, the taste of this ‘Laal Maas’ exceeded my expectations. The meat was falling off the bone as I seared it with soft and hot ‘Tawa Rotis’, dipped it in the spicy ‘Laal Maas’ sauce and placed it on my palate. Wow!! The flavors were irresistible; without blinking but frequently wiping the sweat from our brows (it was indeed spicy), we finished a large bowl of ‘Laal Maas’ with half a dozen rotis each. Nothing else was needed. This time it was ‘Laal Maas’, and the place was Jodhpur. The journey through India is full of such experiences and amazingly spectacular dishes. With the fantastic depth of our cuisines and traditional cooking methods, traveling across India and exploring its regional cuisines is an exciting and rewarding endeavour. Cooking the legendary ‘Laal Maas’ with a view of the Mehrangarh Fort will definitely remain one of the highlights of my trip through India.
Sidharth Bhan Gupta is a hotel/restaurant consultant who travels across India to explore regional cuisines.