It's all about keema

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 24, 2014 16:23 IST

It is a funny sort of childhood memory. In the early Seventies, when I came back to Bombay from boarding school, one of my favourite takeout meals was packed keema-mutter from the Kwality’s on Kemps Corner (now defunct, I suspect).

The gravy was oily and I doubt if the dish would win any culinary competitions. But at that time, I loved it. I ate it with slices of white Britannia bread (which I don’t eat any longer) and chunks of the vinegared onion that restaurants like Kwality’s specialised in. If I wanted it spicier, then the Gujarati in me came to the fore, and I ate it with homemade mango pickle.

Would I still like the dish? The gastronomically sound answer is no, of course not. But, to be entirely honest, my guess is that I would. I still find all kinds of keema curries irresistible. I like them when they are greasy, dhaba-style versions. I like the more refined Punjabi home-style curries with aloo.

I love the Bombay roadside keema pav and the ghotala (the same basic keema with egg added). Hell, I’m even a fan of foreign keema dishes. I like chili con carne (about the only Tex-Mex dish I can actually cook) and I’m happy to eat Cottage Pie (beef keema) or its cousin Shepherd’s Pie (lamb keema).

But here’s my problem: keema is the one dish you rarely see on restaurant menus. And when you do find it, you can be disappointed. A month ago I had a truly disgusting keema at a hotel in Chandigarh, believing mistakenly that I couldn’t possibly go wrong ordering such a basic dish in Punjab. (My fault. Chandigarh has none of the culinary sophistication of Amritsar.)

Why don’t more chefs put keema on the menu? I asked Manisha Bhasin who, as executive chef of Delhi’s Maurya, oversees two top Indian restaurants (Bukhara and Dum Pukht).

Manisha said that she thought it was because keema had acquired the reputation of a poor man’s meal. So when people went out to eat, they looked for a nice cut of lamb that they could sink their teeth into.

Himanshu Taneja, the executive chef at Bombay’s JW Marriott, agreed. He said that guests often suspected that keema came from the trimmings and not the good part of the cut.

In other words, whenever butchers had bits of meat left over that nobody wanted to eat, they minced it up and sold it as keema.

Manisha and Himanshu are both right, of course.

All over the world, keema is used to get rid of the parts of the animal nobody would otherwise eat. For instance, many people (including me) will think twice about eating industrial processed meats (sausages, pie, etc.) in the West because the law allows manufacturers to use anus meat (sorry if that sounds disgusting) in meat and beef products and beaks in chicken products.

Over the last couple of years, when it has been revealed that so-called lamb or beef mince (in packaged lasagne or bolognaise pasta) contains horse meat, this reluctance has increased.

At the hotel level, as Manisha and Himanshu both pointed out, these fears are groundless because any good chef will buy a whole cut of prime meat and will than have it ground to his or her specifications.

But there’s one other factor. Because the fat in keema is on the outside (i.e. not inside the chunks of meat), it tends to render (melt) in the cooking process. This makes many keema dishes seem oily. In actual fact, they are no oilier than dishes made with pieces of meat – it is just that here the fat has melted – but because people can see the fat, they think of keema dishes as unhealthy. (In fact, if you drain away some of the oil from the finished dish, it is actually less fatty than a meat curry.)

This is where we come across the great paradox of Indian dining.

Even people who will never order keema at a restaurant will happily eat a seekh kebab, a shami kebab or a kakori kebab. It will not occur to them that these kebabs are made from exactly the same keema that they refuse to order as an individual dish from the menu.

And the fat, which they object to when it forms part of the gravy, now suddenly becomes sought after.

When you eat a minced meat kebab on the road (say at Bombay’s Bade Miyan) and rave about how it has a melt-in-the-mouth quality, what you are actually appreciating is the melting fat which makes the kebab more tender and coats your mouth with flavour.

Some kebabs – the kakori, for instance – rely on vast quantities of fat from different parts of the animal.

Oddly enough, the people who regard keema as being of dubious origin or too fatty are often the same people who love keema naans, mutton samosas, all kinds of kebabs and even hamburgers, which are made entirely from low quality keema at most places!

One advantage of this global snobbery about keema (yes, it is global – even in America, they say "why eat hamburger when you can get steak?") is that there are some wonderful simple dishes made with keema in every city of the world.

You can get brilliant minced pork with basil (pad krapow) all over Thailand; great chili in Texas and, in the streets of Bombay, wonderful tawa-fried keema which you eat with bread (keema-pav).

If you like a little variety, they will make ghotala by adding egg to the pan and if you are strong-hearted, then they will offer all kinds of offal: kaleji, bheja, etc.

Haute cuisine is less keen on keema but there are exceptions. Himanshu told me that he’s put an Avadhi keema dish on the menu of his Indian restaurant at the Juhu JW Marriott.

His chefs cook it in the Lucknawi style so that the taste of the meat actually comes through. In the rest of India, we tend to lean on the Punjabi style of cooking keema where we rely on tomatoes, ghee and other flavours to modify the meaty taste.

Manjit Gill, my guru when it comes to the history of Indian food, says that his family often cooks keema at home, in the simple Punjabi way, with potatoes (peas are a favourite in the winter).

And Manisha says that the Maurya often puts Punjabi-style keema dishes on the buffet and the coffee shop menu offers an authentic taste of Bombay-style keema-pav.

As my research progressed, I wondered whether other people loved keema as much as I did and took to Twitter to ask. I was deluged with responses.

As is now customary on Twitter, some of the most interesting responses came from Bengalis. Abantika Ghosh recommended eggs in keema curry ("styled after Bengal egg curry with the boiled egg slightly fried").

Sunetra Choudhury suggested keema ghoogni, adding that "keema’s use in ghoogni really lifts the humble channa masala or chole. V Bong, too." (As if she had to tell us!)

Soham Samadder selected parwal stuffed with keema (‘potoler dolma’) and Pallavi Ghosh came up with "keema mughlai paratha (Bengali specialty)"

Arindam Sikdar said that "keema when cooked with rice makes an amazing biryani". Udayan Bose got a whole side conversation going, by recalling the keema with bheja which was "to die for" at Calcutta’s Amber. All of us who remembered Amber in the old days joined in: Vivek Sengupta, myself and Ashok Malik who liked the Amber keema naan.

As the discussion expanded, Dishoom restaurant in London (or whoever runs their Twitter handle) joined in, generously recommending Radio restaurant near Crawford Market in Bombay ("the best keema…. exactly right") before eventually tweeting "you should try our keema too – I think it’s not too shoddy either."

Some people asked questions. Peas or no peas? Goat vs beef? (All, I think.) Naren Ramachandran asked, "How much fat is added to the meat?" (According to Manisha, it should never exceed 20 per cent). "Keema at Irani cafés versus keema at Muslim joints?" (Muslim joints, I think).

And then colleagues, past, present and future joined the Twitter discussion. Colleen Braganza tweeted "the best keema is a combination of beef and pork in equal measure."

Shammy Baweja said, "Please advise all Punjabis not to make keema in a cooker." Harneet Singh sang the praises of keema pav.

Samar Halarnkar said that the best beef keema samosas were at Albert Bakery in Bangalore. ("No silly potato samosas," he added).

By the time the discussion was through, I’d come to two conclusions. One: I’m not the only one who loves keema. And two: Twitter can’t be Twitter without Bongs.

"You need to be more generous to Bengalis to appreciate our cuisine," Pallavi Ghosh tweeted.

Shivnath Thukral was more welcoming, "You have to visit a Bengali home immediately."

Absolutely. I’ll go anywhere for keema!

From HT Brunch, October 26
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