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Raan: Indian equivalent of Brit roast lamb

The raan is not a mere roast leg of mutton. Nothing in classic Indian cuisine is ever simple and this spectacular, complicated restaurant dish proves that. Not only is it vast and impressive but should be soft and melting too. Vir Sanghvi writes.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2011 16:34 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The

raan

is one of those spectacular restaurant dishes that always create a stir when served at the table. Usually described as a whole roast leg of mutton, it should be vast and impressive; lots of red meat with a texture that is soft and melting. The way the

raan

is often described, you would think that it is the Indian equivalent of British roast lamb – the same dish but with Indian spices.



And indeed, when restaurants abroad serve the

raan

, this is how they describe it. And even on Indian menus, it is often called a leg of lamb even though this is usually a bare-faced lie. In reality, a classic raan is never made with lamb. Most traditional Indian recipes call for goat – which is the point of the dish.



A goat has four legs. The front two – often called the

dast

– represent the choicest part of the animal. Most Indian goat recipes use the front part of the animal. The meat at the back, including the two hind legs, is regarded as inferior. The point of the

raan

is that it comes from the hind legs. Because this meat is tough and difficult to cook, it is usually minced and used for

keema

.



Raan

The trick with the raan is to take the toughest meat in the goat and to make it so tender and succulent that you should – in the words of that famous cook, Digvijaya Singh, the late maharaja of Sailana – be able to eat it with a spoon. I’ve been looking at raan recipes and though I have found versions from Avadh, from Hyderabad (in Pratibha Karan’s definitive cookbook) and from Kashmir, the consensus is that the raan is a rustic dish that does not come from any of these regions. It has nomadic origins and probably eveloped in campfires and military kitchens in Central Asia as a food for warriors and tribesmen.



Manjit Gill, ITC’s corporate chef, thinks that the first raans were not made with the domesticated goats of today but with mountain goats and sheep. The challenge for a modern chef is to take the tough meat and make it palatable while still maintaining the simple appearance of the dish. Though restaurants act as though they simply stick the leg into the tandoor, the reality is far more complicated. Take the hind leg of a goat, shove it in an oven, and you will end up with a dish that nobody can eat.



Marut Sikka, the restaurateur who runs Kainoosh in Delhi, says that the problem with many restaurant raans is that chefs go berserk with the papaya and other tenderisers which interferes with the taste of the dish. Actually, only slow cooking gives you the right tenderness. In Pratibha Karan’s recipe, the meat is fried in masala for a few minutes but is then covered with water and then cooked for ages (‘until the meat is tender’).



As Marut says, the English roast is a precision controlled dish with a fixed cooking time in the oven at a certain temperature. An Indian raan – at least, one made with goat – cannot be made that way and there is nothing precise about our cooking techniques.Of all Indian hospitality companies, it is ITC that has probably done the most research into creating the perfect raan. Even today, most ITC hotels serve two different raans, one at Bukhara (or Peshawari) and the other at Dum Pukht. Of the two, the Bukhara raan conforms to the traditional recipe while the Dum Pukht version is a reinvention.



I asked my old pal Gautam Anand who has spent his life with ITC chefs what the secret of the perfect

raan

is. Gautam believes that the raan has its origins in frontier cuisine. His Hindu Punjabi grandmother wrote out a recipe for her kitchen in Peshawar in 1932 and it does not conform to most modern styles. His grandmother’s secret was to take half a seer of mutton and then cook it in half a seer of chaach or buttermilk. It was the slow cooking in chaach that broke down the tough membranes and softened the meat.




Gautam thinks that the modern raan is a combination of home style Peshawari cooking and the influence of the British Raj. His view is that the raan became popular not in the era of the nawabs but during the empire when Brits longed for a meaty, not particularly spicy, dish. Why else, he asks, would so many modern recipes use malt vinegar, hardly an integral part of Indian cooking but a staple of the Raj kitchen?



The most famous raan in India and the one most copied by other restaurants is the Bukhara version. ITC is notoriously secretive about its recipes but all of us know enough chefs who have worked in their kitchens to get an idea of the basic methods. The Bukhara raan uses one mutton leg (with bone) weighing about 1.2 kg of meat.



The crucial part of the recipe consists of trimming the white membranes around the leg which make the meat tough. Then, the raan is marinated for a couple of hours with lots of malt vinegar, salt, red chilli, ginger, garlic. Whereas papaya would pulverise the meat, the malt vinegar tenderises it and contributes to the flavour. Then, the raan is seared for a few minutes, braised in a little water, put in a convection oven for an hour and 20 minutes, and then basted with ghee and finished in the tandoor for 20 minutes. It is a long and complicated process.



Restaurants like to give the impression that they begin cooking the dish when you order it. Actually, nearly everything is done before service begins. Only the finishing in the tandoor is done a la minute or once your order is in. Even the Dum Pukht raan is enormously complicated. ITC’s problem was: if you already serve a world-famous raan, then how can you compete with your own specialty? Though this is not the company’s own view, I suspect that Imtiaz Qureshi, the chef who originally created the Dum Pukht version, decided to go more Western with his recipe.



The Dum Pukht raan – and again, I’m going by hearsay because the official recipe is secret – is made with half a kilo of baby leg, off the bone. The chef sautés pickled onions, garlic, mint etc in a pan and then stuffs all this into a raan. It is tied with a thread and marinated for two hours with salt, ginger, garlic etc and – of course – malt vinegar to break down the fibres.This is followed by a second marination in hung curd, red chilli, brown onion, star anise, other spices and pastes and lots of rum. After two marinations, the raan is braised on hot charcoal till it is al dente and then finished off in the tandoor.



The original Imtiaz recipe called for the dish to be served under a pastry sheet as a sort of Goat Wellington. This pseudo Western presentation was a little poncy and has now been dispensed with.Because the raan is so spectacular a dish, modern Indian chefs have experimented with variations. This year, at Davos, Manjit Gill wowed them with a gin-marinated raan with juniper berries.



Marut Sikka uses the techniques of modern Western cooking to tenderise his raan. He first brines the leg (puts it in a salt water solution) for eight to ten hours. Then he cooks the raan sous-vide (vacuum packed in a water bath) for three to four hours at a consistent temperature of 60 degree C.



Other chefs – and especially those who cook at Indian restaurants abroad – use lamb rather than goat. This is easier to pull off because lamb is softer and fattier. The dish that results is not a traditional goat raan but many foreigners far prefer lamb to goat anyway. The best lamb raan I’ve had is Manish Mehrotra’s version at Delhi’s Indian Accent. Manish uses New Zealand lamb braised for two-and-a-half hours and finished with a few minutes in the tandoor. One of Manish’s chelas cooked a great version of this raan for me at Saket’s Punjab Grill. It’s not traditional but it’s good.



When you see the effort that goes into the cooking of a raan, you realise how complicated fine Indian cooking can be. When the raan arrives on the table at Bukhara, it is just a leg of mutton with a great texture and a fabulous taste. You may be forgiven for thinking – as so many of us do – that it’s just a simple roast leg of lamb.



But nothing in classic Indian cuisine is ever easy. The genius of our chefs lies in their ability to spend hours in the kitchen executing a series of long and complicated maneuvers to produce dishes that seem straightforward and tasty. It’s easy to show off about being complicated. It’s far more difficult to make the complex seem so simple.


From HT Brunch, July 17

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