Decoding the mysteries of Mughlai food, with Kunal Vijayakar
Why are some gravies thick and creamy, others thin and swimming in red oil? I decided to investigate, and found that there are actually clear answers.Updated: Jan 17, 2020 21:02 IST
I’ve been yearning for a proper Mughlai meal. It’s been a while since I walked into, say, Shalimar on Muhammad Ali Road, or Sher-e-Punjab at Fort, or even Persian Darbar at Byculla, and ordered the kind of chicken and mutton that comes in a thick gravy, to be wiped up with a soft butter naan.
Dishes like the chicken Afghani, slow-cooked in yogurt with mild spices in a rich, creamy base of cashews and onion paste. Or the classic murg musallam that Persian Darbar conjures up so marvellously — a whole chicken marinated and cooked with spices, stuffed with boiled eggs and mutton mince, and finished in a thick, yellow gravy embellished with fried almonds, raisins and silver varq.
But the most iconic thick gravy dishes, invariably floating in oil, are found in the gullies of Old Delhi. Karim’s at Jama Masjid makes a badshahi badaam pasanda that’s indulgence at a kingly level — tender pieces of mutton, slow-cooked in a paste of almond and curd, spiced with whole garam masala.
Right next door is Al Jawahar, renowned for its mutton korma and mutton stew, both unlike any stew or korma you’ve had before. Mutton in a brown onion paste cooked with spices, served hot, with oil floating on top. And deep in the bowels of Palika Bazar, Connaught Place, are Al-Zaika and Peshawari; both serve the most unbelievable korma and meat masala. Again, a smoky flavour and thick gravy floating in oil.
This set me thinking. Why are some gravies thick and some thin? Why is nihari a thin gravy? Why does rogan josh always have a layer of oil on top? What is the difference between a salan, tari, curry and korma. With no answers forthcoming, I decided to consult one of India’s most astute and learned chefs, Manjit Gill. And this is what I found out.
The word korma is used quite loosely nowadays, but it comes to us from the Turkish ‘kuvarma’, which is a simple cooking method designed to preserve meat for longer. The meat is cut into small pieces, then bhuna-ed in a lot of fat, with onions and salt, until soft, browned and ready to be stored in jars to use when needed.
We still use some of that protocol, but an expert korma maker will not make more than 1.5 to 2 kg of meat at a time, carefully ensuring that the mutton is cooked entirely in fat, without any water, continuously stirring so the masala doesn’t stick to the base of the pot.
Correct bhunao-ing is at the heart of an authentic korma. To make the korma more commercially sustainable, and richer, cooks nowadays thicken the gravy with cashew paste and curd. But even today, tradition holds so firm that you will never find tomato, or indeed turmeric, in a korma.
Another word we use is salan, Hindi for a dish freshly prepared with spices. You can make a salan out of almost anything, vegetable or animal, but a salan must be consumed immediately and should ideally not be stored.
The word curry has many fathers. Allegedly the origin is ‘cury’, the old English word for cooking; alternatively, ‘curry’ is said to have roots in Latin words like ‘cuquus’ and ‘cocus’, both meaning ‘to cook’; or in the Tamil ‘kaṟi’ meaning a sauce or relish for rice. Today we call all gravies curry, especially if they are Indian. For me a curry must contain coconut, but that’s a controversial theory.
Tari is the oil that floats on top of a good rogan josh or misal pav. Literally, it means moist. To experience the full potency of a tari, you must try the tari poha in Nagpur — poha doused in a thin, spicy rassa with oily tari on top.
So when should a gravy be thick and when must it be thin? If one was to delve into old Indian literature, including the Ramayana and Manusmriti, food is considered a source of strength and a gift of God; every community has a clear and separate food belief system; and all cooking guidelines change according to geography and climate.
For example, in the spring, summer and monsoon months, a thin tari or rassa (oily gravy) is preferred as the body’s digestive powers are diminished by having to constantly keep the heat and humidity at bay; while in winter months, a thick gravy is cooked in fat, to feed the body extra fuel as it struggles to keep warm.
This is why most of the meat dishes cooked with animal fat originate in areas with cold autumns and winters, like Jammu & Kashmir. The classical example being rogan josh — rogan means aromatic cooked fat; josh indicates flavours and spices.
Having gained all this information, wouldn’t you want to learn where I went and indulged my cravings for a Mughlai meal of thick gravy with hot butter naan? I finally ended up at Bagdadi in Colaba. There I had a simple chicken masala fry, a huge leg piece with the thickest and oiliest gravy you can find. I always need to add salt to this dish, but once that was done, with a squeeze of lime and expensive raw onion, along with Bagdadi’s famous khaboosh (khameeri) roti, (served so fresh that they emerge one at a time), I looked up to the skies and said, thank you, God.