Delectable dream: Rogan josh in Kashmiri stylepunjab Updated: Nov 12, 2017 23:53 IST
The first time I heard of rogan josh (a non-vegetarian delicacy from Kashmir) was in 2009. I had just shifted from Shillong to a heritage educational campus in Nainital. Our English language textbook had a chapter, ‘The Ghat of the Only World’, by Amitav Ghosh.
It was a memoir on American-Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. The turn of events, as Ghosh describes, was such that months before his death due to cancer, Shahid asked Ghosh to write something about him when he was dead.
Hearing this request over the phone from a friend, who was aware of his approaching end, wasn’t easy. “I could think of nothing to say. What are the words in which one promises a friend that one will write about him after his death?”, writes Ghosh. But, he did agree to the assignment.
Besides a common interest in Roshanara Begum, Kishore Kumar and a “mutual indifference” to cricket, the author-poet duo was fond of rogan josh.
Painting Shahid’s persona in the memoir, Ghosh says he “had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical”. Shahid’s gregariousness was boundless. He liked food and not a single evening went by without a party in his living room.
Ghosh writes: “No matter how many people there were, Shahid was never distracted and never lost track of the progress of the evening’s meal. From time-to-time he would interrupt himself to shout directions to whoever was in the kitchen, “Yes, now, add the dahi (curd), now!”
“Even when his eyesight was failing, he could tell, from the aroma alone, exactly which stage the rogan josh had reached. And when things went exactly as they should, he would sniff the air and cry out loud: ‘Ah! Khana ka kya mehek hai!’ (Oh, the fragrance!)”
The poet was particular about how his meals were cooked. Authenticity and exactitude were cardinal; deviation from traditional methods, impermissible. “For those taking shortcuts, he only had pity,” writes Ghosh.
Shahid’s interest in rogan josh, added with Ghosh’s description of it, has had a lasting impact on me.
With Shahid emphasising the authenticity and exactitude of the traditional recipe so passionately, I wanted my first rogan josh to be prepared the same way. Since reading about it eight years ago, I have always wanted to feel the aroma as the meal is slowly prepared, see how the spices are added, and in what proportion.
During my five-year stay in New Delhi, I would often frequent the eateries around Jama Masjid. These offer the best non-vegetarian dishes. From Mughlai to Afghan and Persian…the range is tempting. Many of them serve rogan josh. Having tasted other items, I always felt their version of the fare would be good, if not great.
Yet, I was in no mood to risk spoiling my first experience of rogan josh. How could I feel the aroma at a restaurant in a crowded marketplace?
Last week, I was at the Chandigarh National Crafts Mela. Among the food stalls from different states, there was one also from Kashmir. A middle-aged man greeted me as I read the modest menu. Few biryanis, some varieties of chicken and mutton, and the saffron kahwa were on the list. I ordered a chicken biryani.
While it was being prepared, I casually asked him about rogan josh. “Hai na hamare paas. Aap try kijiye…accha lagega,” he said temptingly.
I did not know how to respond. Should I order it? But, this wasn’t how I wanted my first rogan josh experience to be like. I had waited for eight years! Couldn’t I wait more? I struggled for an answer.
Finally, I asked the gentleman to replace the biryani with …rogan josh. At least, a Kashmiri prepared it!
It looked great. The taste wasn’t disappointing either.
But the image of the rogan josh in my mind’s eye is far richer.
Someday, in the vales of Kashmir, sitting alongside a fireplace with a gentle Himalayan breeze whooshing around, I will have the rogan josh of my dreams.
The Kashmiri style, as Shahid liked!
(The author is an HT staffer based in Mohali)