My labmate was very shocked when he heard on the news channel that a truck full of onions was looted in India recently (in fact there was a full-blown national onion crisis). I don’t blame him….in a country like America where abundance is the norm, looting an onion truck sounds absurd. I was surprised when my husband said that during Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, people regularly looted ice trucks. So, people can get shocked or surprised with things they are not used to otherwise.
In India, especially in Bengal, meat is cooked mostly with onion and garlic. Naturally I was surprised when I heard about the vegetarian meat curry for the first time. I’m not talking about plant protein-based meat substitutes which are commonly used in America. This is real meat, so to call this dish “vegetarian meat curry” is an absolute oxymoron. But, Bengali food and the rites and rituals of Bengali domestic life are full of such oxymorons. We consider onions and garlic as non-vegetarian but meat prepared in a certain way vegetarian.
There is a background to almost every ritual. Likewise there is a background to the “vegetarian meat curry” name as well. In the Hindu religion, animal sacrifice was very common in the past. Although it is much less widely practiced now, it still exists in some parts of India. During Kaali puja (worshipping goddess Kaali), animal sacrifice was most common. The sacrificial meat (mostly goat) was then cooked and eaten as prasad (offering). While the meat was offered to the deity during the puja, it somehow lost its animal (and hence impure) origins and became “vegetarian meat”. Such is the power of true faith, I guess. But poor onions and garlic were considered beyond such magical purification and hence the vegetarian meat had to be cooked without these vegetables to retain its vegetarian quality (obviously there was a lack of rationalists in India around the time such rules were created). The meat was cooked and eaten on the ninth day of Durga puja (nabami). If I was there to write the rules, I would have offered onions and garlics as offering too to make it blessed. But unfortunately it was not written by me L but I’m not very upset as it still tastes delicious. I was a little anxious making it the vegetarian way for the first time but from now onwards, this will be the more common way of cooking mutton in our household. It is very easy to make which is a bonus. As onion and garlic are not used, it’s very flavorful but not overpoweringly rich. Durga puja is at our door step and the meat will be eaten with steaming hot plain rice to celebrate Devi Durga’s visit to her paternal house. Even my atheist husband becomes a shameless hypocrite around this time of the year and hovers around the kitchen when I cook this dish.
There are many variations of this recipe. This is my version and I have adapted it from different recipes. I am not claiming it to be authentic and I do not think that there is any one authentic recipe as such.
Goat meat/lamb: 5 lbs
Yogurt: 3 tbsp.
Ginger paste (preferably freshly made): 3-4 tbsp.
Cumin seeds whole: 2 tbsp.
Coriander seeds whole: 2 tbsp.
Whole green cardamom: 3 nos.
Cinnamon stick: 2 nos. (each around 11/2 inches long)
Cloves: 4-5 nos.
Turmeric powder: 1 tsp.
Whole dried red chili: 8-10 nos.
Asafetida/hing: ½ tsp.
Bay leaves: 2-3 nos.
Garam masala (Bengali style): 2 tsp.
Green chilies: 3-4 nos.
Sugar: 1 tsp.
Oil (preferably mustard, any other oil will work too): 3 tbsp.
Salt to taste
- Soak the whole cumin-coriander and dry red chilies in water for 30 minutes or so and then grind them together to a paste. If you do not have a wet grinder, dissolve the powdered spices in a little bit of water and let them soak for several minutes. To get the best flavor, you must grind them fresh.
- Grind the ginger to a fine paste as well. Try to use freshly ground paste here as well.
- Wash the meat well and then drain the water as much as possible. If time permits, pat them with a paper towel to absorb the excess moisture.
- Take out the yogurt and let it sit at room temp.
- Heat up the oil in a deep bottom wok/kadai and then add the sugar. Let the sugar caramelize. Do not stir.
- Add the whole cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves. Sauté them well until they leave a nice aroma.
- Add the hing and let it sizzle for a minute.
- Add the meat and lightly fry them in the seasoned oil for 5-10 minutes.
- Add the ground spices and the ginger paste along with the turmeric.
- Mix everything well and cook on medium high heat for 15-20 minutes. You will see the meat releasing a lot of water. Keep on cooking the meat until the water almost dries out. Make sure you don’t burn the spices.
- Take the container out of the heat. Beat the yogurt well and add it to the meat. Mix well. Put the container back to the heat. Cook for another 5 minutes and then add around 2 cups of water.
- Add salt, mix it well and then cover the pot.
- Let it cook on very low flame for another half an hour or until the meat is completely cooked. Stir in between (every 10 minutes).
- Uncover and check for salt. Add the Bengali garam masala (equal quantity of green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves) and few green chilies slit lengthwise.
- Cover the pot for few minutes and then serve hot with steaming hot rice.