In English English mutton is sheep meat (i.e. grown up lamb). In Indian English, however, mutton is goat (ideally kid). How this linguistic divergence came to be, I have no idea, but I am going to speculate that it may have something to do with the kitchens and tables of benighted English colonial types in India during the Raj. If you can either confirm or deny with confidence, please write in below. Anyway, mutton is one of the staple meats of India, though not eaten quite as widely as chicken, which is cheaper (if you’re interested in how meat eating in India is distributed by region and type, see here). And across the country there are many iconic preparations of it—and not just in biryani form (mutton is the meat par excellence for biryani, though you wouldn’t know this from Indian restaurants abroad).
The recipe I have today, however, is not particularly fancy: it is for an iteration of the simple yet delicious mutton curry made in many households in Bengal: mangshor jhol (or meat in thin gravy). As with the alur dom/dum alu recipe I posted a while ago, this recipe is from an aunt who is one of the best cooks in the extended family. There are very few ingredients, it is simple to make, and it can be enjoyed with rice or chapatis/parathas (or even luuchis if, unlike me, you’re able to make them well).
The trick, of course, is to get good goat meat in the US. This was all but impossible when I first got here in the early 1990s. But thanks to the increased diffusion of goat eating immigrants/peoples all over the US (Hispanics, West Indians, Africans, Arabs, South Asians) it is now not hard at all if you put in a bit of effort. In the Twin Cities the best place to buy it is probably Holy Land up on Central Ave.. The problem there, and in the couple of South Asian groceries that also carry it., as across the US, for the Indian cook, is that no one knows how to cut
the meat the way Indians like it. Whether you buy a leg fresh or frozen, if you ask them to cut it up they will pass it through a band saw leaving you with pieces that fall apart when they’re cooked (because the saw has gone haphazardly through the muscle), that have random splinters of bone in them, and, worst of all, with shanks (or marrow bones, as we call them) that have been split or otherwise destroyed. While this can theoretically lead to domestic bliss—in our house we have pitched battles over the marrow bones, with grudges held for a long time—in practice it leads to sadness.
Best to do what I do: buy a whole leg, give them very precise directions on where to make the cuts through the bone and do the rest of the work at home with a cleaver and knife. Or if you don’t want to mess with all this and don’t mind spending more, you could just make this with a mix of lamb stew meat and shanks (not that the meats are identical, oh no).
(The pictures below are for a batch I made with a whole leg but I’m going to give you the recipe for a more normal amount.)
- Mutton/goat: 2 lbs (hind leg), cut up and washed thoroughly.
- Whole garam masala: 1 inch piece cinnamon/cassia bark, 3-4 green cardamom pods, 2 cassia leaves/tej patta, 3 cloves.
- Red onion: 3/4 cup, chopped.
- Ginger: 1 tspn crushed or made into a paste.
- Hot red chilli powder: 1 tspn.
- Turmeric powder: 1/2 tspn.
- Tomato: 1 cup, chopped.
- Potatoes: 2-3 medium, halved.
- Water: 2-3 cups.
- Salt to taste.
- Cilantro for garnish.
- Heat the oil and add the whole spices.
- Once they’re fragrant add the chopped onion and saute over medium-high heat till beginning to brown around the edges.
- Add the ginger and saute for another minute.
- Add the chilli powder and turmeric and saute for another 30 seconds or so.
- Add the meat and salt and saute till the meat gives up its water and oil begins to separate.
- Add the tomatoes and cook down till oil begins to separate again.
- Add the potatoes and the water and bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook till the meat is tender. Add more water as necessary as you go—the gravy at the end should be thin and easily pourable.
- (If, like me, you’re using a stone-age pressure cooker, let it whistle once and then reduce the heat to medium such that it only whistles another 3-4 times in 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the pressure cooker from the burner and let the pressure subside on its own.)
- Garnish with a table spoon or two of chopped cilantro and serve.
- You could fry the potatoes separately first for a minute or so before adding them. Especially when using a pressure cooker this can keep them from falling apart. I use large, waxy potatoes and generally don’t have a problem even when I don’t fry them (which I usually don’t).
- You could add some carrot as well along with the potatoes.
- You can use less tomato if you like but don’t use more.
- You can adjust the heat up or down, but this is really not meant to be a very hot dish.
- The potatoes add some body to the gravy but for some Bengalis (like my father) the cooked potatoes (“mangshor alu”) are the best part of the dish.
- The other benefit to pressure cooking, other than speed, is that the bones/joints become soft enough to chew. Even if you don’t want to be quite that carnivorous please don’t fail to suck out the marrow from the shanks. This is a particularly prized item and in Bengal you can actually get small, narrow spoons made for the express purpose of retrieving marrow from long, narrow shank bones.