I'm getting increasingly hooked on to Twitter as a means of crowd-sourcing preferences for this column. A while ago, a host of Tweeters provided valuable inputs for a piece on Indian dishes that combine dal and meat. And this week's column was kicked off by a Twitter discussion on the great curries of India.
It started this way. I tweeted asking for nominations for the greatest Indian mutton curry. And I was staggered by the number of people who responded. They ranged from chefs like Ashfer Biju, Sujoy Gupta and Gaggan Anand, to editors like Sandeep Bamzai to TV people like Mini Mathur and Sunetra Choudhury to legal luminaries like Justice Piyush Mathur to journos like Suman Layak and Nistula Hebbar to movie stars like Shabana Azmi (who chose "UP's Aloo Gosht", in case you were wondering) to bankers like Udayan Bose. Along with the celebrity selections were contributions from less famous food lovers which were, in many ways, even more valuable.
But as the discussion went on, two things became obvious. The first was that the largest number of respondents were Bengalis. (Why is this? Does Twitter have a Bong bias? Or is it just that Bongs take their food more seriously than other communities? No idea.) The second was that they generally picked the same dish: Kosha Mangsho.
I love Kosha Mangsho. I will take it over many of the more celebrated dishes of Bengali cuisine any day. But I had a problem with the selection. Is Kosha Mangsho a curry? Or is it a semi-dry dish with a thick gravy? My view is that it isn't really a curry, at all. And this led to yet another debate on Twitter with - I think - the majority agreeing with my views. But because Bongs can take these things to heart, I decided to phone an independent evaluator. Anjan Chatterjee is one of India's most successful restaurateurs and his Oh! Calcutta chain has managed to do the impossible: getting Bongs to pay good money for food that they could just as easily make at home.
Anjan agreed with me. Kosha Mangsho was not a curry, he said. It was a great dish. But it belonged in a different category. With Anjan on my side, I came to a decision: I would drop Kosha Mangsho from this contest. But given that so many people had also expressed a preference for Kolhapur's Mutton Sukke, which is also not a curry, I would plan another piece on great semi-dry meat dishes for another week.
So that left three contenders in the race for India's greatest curry. I was amazed by the support for the Rajasthani Lal Maas, a dish I grew up on but not one that I regarded as being popular all over India. The second major contender, a late entrant to the competition, was Nalli Nihari. As chef Ashfer Biju tweeted (all the way from New York's Pierre where he now works), "Nalli Nihari could be a winner here; though my heart (drool) goes out to Lal Maas, Rogan Josh and Hyderabad's Dum Ki Nalli".
It broke my heart but I eliminated Lal Maas because I thought it was a little too one-dimensional to be India's greatest curry. (Okay Rajputs: you can shoot me now!) I toyed with Nihari because I thought the great dishes of North Indian Muslim cuisine needed to be represented. But finally, I rejected it because I thought that it had too individualistic a taste and was not a dish that could appeal to anyone who was not a hardcore carnivore.
That left me with just one curry: Rogan Josh. There were many reasons why I chose it. The most important was taste: it is my favourite Indian mutton curry. If I had to pick one meat dish for my last meal on earth, this is the one I'd pick, not Lal Maas or Nihari.
But there were other reasons too. Rogan Josh is probably the world's most famous Indian curry. It has been colonised by Punjabis and a dubious variation has long been a staple of the Kwality-Volga kind of restaurant. It has travelled abroad to England where hundreds of inept Bangladeshi chefs have destroyed its good name by serving a curry-house version that tastes nothing like the real thing.
Rogan Josh is one of those dishes that seems to capture the essence of what it is to be Indian. It came to India with the Mughals (we think) perhaps from Persia or some other part of the Middle East where the cuisine is really a rough first draft for what would become Indian food. (They don't understand spices in the Middle East like we do in India and their flavour range is limited.) Presumably, it was cooked at Mughal courts everywhere, but the dish really found favour only in Kashmir, where Mughal nobles went for the summer. It is the Kashmiris who created the version we know today.
But the communal balance in Kashmir in that era was harmonious. Hindus learnt from Muslims and vice-versa in a phenomenon that came to be known as Kashmiryat. Dipak Haksar of ITC Hotels, whose family is from Kashmir, recalls that because his ancestors worked in royal courts, the Haksars picked up many of the manners and traditions that we now associate only with Islamic culture. So the Pandits probably took the original Rogan Josh from the Mughals and adapted the dish to make it their own.
But there are two Rogan Joshs in Kashmir. There is also a Muslim version, made in the Valley, which as another Kashmiri, Sandeep Bamzai, tweeted to me is "completely different, not at all alike." Well, I'm no Kashmiri but I have to say that I agree and disagree with Sandeep. Yes, the two versions are different. But they are still recognisably the same dish.
I called another Kashmiri, Virender Razdan, general manager of Bangalore's ITC Windsor (and an Oberoi and Hyatt veteran) who actually grew up in Srinagar, to ask him what the variations were.
Virender said that there were some obvious differences. Traditional Pandits don't eat much onion and garlic, so their version uses saunth, aniseed, hing and dry spices. (Deepak added that sometimes garam masala goes in at the end). Muslim cooks will use onion and garlic without any hesitation.
Another major difference, according to Virender, is the famous Rogan Josh colour. Muslims will use the cockscomb (mawal) flower and extract the colour from it. Hindus will depend on Kashmiri red chillies and the browning of the yoghurt (there is no yoghurt in the Muslim version) to give the curry its colour and sheen.
So what version are we, in the rest of India, used to? Well, it rather depends. The Rogan Josh which is the centrepiece of a wazwan is always the Muslim version. The Punjabi restaurant variation is based on the Hindu recipe. But as I scoured the net for recipes, I came to the conclusion that, outside of Kashmir, the two versions have merged. The clear distinctions that separated the Hindu Rogan Josh from the Muslim curry have blurred. Most recipes take a bit of this and a bit of that.
Which, I guess, is fair enough. At fancy Indian restaurants, the Rogan Josh is often made with lamb shank (Kareli Rogan Josh). Virender says that he never had this version while growing up in the valley. Deepak says that more prosperous families used better cuts of meat (the whole machhli, the most tender part of the shoulder). An integral part of the process was going to the butcher and getting him to give you the right cuts. So perhaps the cut you use is only a function of what you can afford. It is the spicing (and therefore, the curry) that is special.
Many of the people who tweeted to me about Rogan Josh recommended the Broadway Hotel's version. I asked Manish Mehrotra, chef at Indian Accent, which has the same owner as Broadway (Rohit Khattar), if he could devise a recipe for an authentic Rogan Josh that could be cooked at home. Manish sent me his recipe for the Hindu Rogan Josh pointing out that Hindu chefs used tempered mustard oil (the Muslim version has ghee or animal fat), a little bit of yoghurt and no cockscomb or onion or garlic. The recipe seems easy enough. Be sure to serve it with rice because, as Deepak Haksar says, an authentic Rogan Josh is one that you enjoy with rice, not with a roti or a naan.