Notes from my long love affair with Raan: Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar
I eat dinner at Cyrus Broacha’s house at least three times a week, and in 25 years there hasn’t been a day when the food has not been remarkable. Between their cook Pravin, who’s been with them for over a quarter of a century, and Rosy (from near Goa) and Nirmala (from Orissa), who bring their homegrown talents to the table every now and then, every dinner is a feast of Goan, Parsi and old fashioned Anglo-Indian food.
Thankfully, in all these years the menu has been steadfast and hasn’t really budged, but it does occasionally expand and evolve, as Cyrus’s wife Ayesha tries to liberate the carte du jour from ritual to indulge and gratify the kids, Maya and Mikhaail. So you might suddenly get a Chilli Con Carne with Rajma and Kheema, or Batter-Fried Chow Choo Chicken with an abundance of green chillies, or old-fashioned homemade hot-dogs and burgers.
But last night what appeared on the dining table zestfully surprised us all. It was a golden brown leg of lamb. A Raan made by Ayesha from a recipe borrowed from her mother, Iqbal. A Raan as we all know is a leg of mutton, and it was just perfect. It was simple, smoky and sumptuous. The meat, which just fell off the bone, had been marinated in yogurt and flavoured delicately with aromatic garam masala, and then cooked to integrity.
Since most of us don’t have tandoors (clay ovens) at home, she had cooked the whole leg in the pressure cooker and then dried it out. To add the smokiness, she had made a birasta, and sprinkled the whole Raan with the crisp, browned fried onions. Four people demolished the leg of mutton like it was about to run away.
The truth is I could run miles to find a good Raan. I often find myself at Kebabs & Kurries at The ITC Grand Central in Mumbai, not only ordering a Raan but also demolishing it all by myself. But it was Bukhara at the ITC Maurya in Delhi that first introduced us to the Raan Sikandari in 1978. It was a hardy and masculine yet gentle and delicate piece of meat, cooked the way it would have been on the road to Afghanistan.
Lovingly caressed with vinegar, flavoured with cinnamon, black cumin and red chilli paste, cream and nuts, then fired in a tandoor, this was a feast consumed by kings, presidents, prime ministers and… yours truly. And while the spices, the method and recipe are paramount, it is the cut of meat that makes all the difference.
Traditionally, the raan or hind leg is the toughest cut of goat. The challenge is to take this muscular part of worked-out sinew and cook it so tender that the meat just melts in your mouth. But you don’t have to hang tough with that kind of challenge when you’re cooking at home. You can start off by choosing goat kid meat, which cooks more easily. The best cuts are always from the front legs, shoulder and back. The best way to make sure the meat is fresh is to check the colour. It should be light pink and the bone joint shiny, a very pale blue or purple. Ask for the shoulder, which will cook quicker and will be less tough than the hind leg.
I’d always wondered why I found the Raan Masala at Shalimar Restaurant on Mohammad Ali Road slightly tough. A few years ago, if you even considered a Raan, it had to be from Shalimar. Shalimar was the mecca of Raan. It’s a fairly large leg, about 14 to 16 inches long, roasted with a tandoori marinade in a clay oven and served with the most incredible red ‘masala’ — a sweet and spicy, smoky gravy enriched with cashews, butter and cream and garnished with coriander leaves.
For sheer taste and richness, no gravy comes even close to Shalimar’s, but I always found the meat too stringy and slightly chewy. Most importantly, the Raan itself didn’t seem like it had taken in and absorbed the tandoori masala marinade and flavours of the gravy.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I visited their kitchen, that I realised that since it would take hours to cook a big hind leg on a tandoor, they pre-boiled the whole Raan in water with spices, and when it was fully cooked, marinated it in tandoori masala and set it aside. When an order was placed all they had to do was torch the marinated leg in the tandoor for a few minutes and serve it with the gravy. It’s practical, effective, and the method still works quite well for them, but it’s not the way I’d have done it.
Instead, I prefer the Raan at Persian Darbar, Byculla. I’ve never been into their kitchen, but I know that what comes out is quite a feast. Their Raan Masala is a smaller and more tender piece of meat. The leg is beautifully marinated and roasted in a tandoor and then served with a brown and yellow, mildly sweet but spicy gravy, with lots of coriander (somewhat like the gravy of a Murg Mussalaam, if you know what I mean).
That is the Classic Raan Masala. Persian Darbar offers you 11 varieties of Raan. There’s a Mutton Raan Reshmi Masala (a milder version), a Mutton Raan Tandoori Chilly and a Mutton Raan Schezwan (with the inevitable Indo-Chinese influence), Mutton Raan Biryani (which is quite amazing) and a Mutton Raan Tiranga, which I haven’t dared to order.
If you prefer not to have gravy, and favour just a roasted leg of mutton, (probably the way it would have been served all along the North West Frontier in days gone by), Copper Chimney serves their Raan straight out of the tandoor. Their Mutton Raan is like a big fat kabab on the bone. No fuss and no sauce. It’s a small shoulder, charred to perfection, served with wedges of lemon, cold freshly sliced onions and green chutney.
Of course the king of Raan is Delhi Zaika. DZ has outlets at Grant Road, Mazagaon, Jogeshwari etc, but the Raan is available online and like Persian Darbar, you can choose from a variety of Raans, including the Arab-style Kepsa.
Many years ago, when Delhi Zaika was just a small roadside barbecue at the end of the notorious Pakmodia Street, I met the owner, Aamir Zulfikar Siddiqui. Aamir an exuberant and rhapsodic young man had heartily enunciated his idea of bringing the taste of Jama Masjid’s street food from Delhi to Mumbai. He had started as a street stall, grilling Raans for customers during Bakri Id.
Devout Muslims who had sacrificed goats on that day would bring their marinated mutton legs to his pit to cook. This stall is now many restaurants and the Raan remains his best-selling item.
The Brits have their roast lamb, the Aussies their lamb barbecue and the Middle East a lamb shawarma, but our Raan is the best of what fire could do to meat. Now I’ve surprised myself. Having spent a lifetime pulling them, who would have thought I could column a whole page talking about ‘legs’?