If you have ever been to a posh Indian restaurant and settled down to a fully loaded meal of roast lamb, koftas, butter chicken and dal makhani you’d know just how beautifully rich and savoury this type of cooking is. Dishes are brought out one by one in impressive silver pots and woven baskets, it’s almost theatrical. But why all the drama for food many take for granted as late night post-binge-drinking takeaway? That’s because this “takeaway” has its origins in the royal kitchens of Mughal kings, and that means back in the day this style of food was indeed a very big deal.
Who were the Mughals and what is so special about their food?
The first of the Mughal emperors came across Central Asia to conquer new lands on the Indian subcontinent in the early 1500’s, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and all the way south towards present day Madras. His name was Babur and he was a Muslim ruler of Turkish-Mongolian ancestry. He was a great politician and an even greater warrior, fighting many wars to help establish his fledgling empire. By the time his great-grandson Jahangir took the throne the Mughal empire had entered into what is referred to as its golden age … there was relative peace, socio-economic stability and they were rich beyond their wildest.
While the Mughlai emperors showed great respect and tolerance toward the local culture, their food was heavily influenced by their Persian background. Food served at the royal court would consist of a variety of meat dishes cooked in aromatic spices, often over a long period of time. Mughlai cuisine also incorporates dried fruit, nuts and rich creamy gravies. This is like the fine haute-cuisine of its day. Rather than eat hunks of meat off a joint, the Mughals preferred to have smaller pieces of meat cooked in stews, or finely minced; everything was delicate and beautifully presented.
Unlike southern Indian cuisine, which is oftentimes much more spicy, northern Indian food is milder and richer. Southern Indian curries are also on the more acidic side with many dishes containing vinegar or tamarind, but food in the north tend to have a deeper savoury flavour profile. Cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron, mace, cloves, cashew nuts, sultanas and yoghurt are all commonly used in Mughlai cooking, producing some of the most aromatic dishes I know. Even their desserts are of superior quality and perfumed to the high heavens with the help of rosewater, screwpine and orange blossom extract. Some of their sweet treats are even covered in a decadent layer of silver leaf. When it comes to feeding royalty money is no object, I suppose.
I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to eat some pretty darn good north Indian food in my lifetime, the very best one being in a tiny old shop tucked away in an alleyway amidst a claustrophobic collection of vendors and merchants of Old Delhi. BEST FOOD EVERRRRR!!! I ate so much on that day that I could barely walk after. I can picture the moment in my mind like it was yesterday. Sighhhh.
Anyway, today I decided to put my cooking skills to the test and attempt one of the simpler dishes ~ Kheema Mater ~ which is basically minced mutton and peas. I enjoy this dish a lot and when I get the chance to order this at a restaurant, I do. This dish resembles a Bolognese sauce (hehe…) and is best eaten with flat breads to soak up all that luscious gravy. I got this recipe off Youtube from a celebrated Indian chef and I hope my efforts do this dish justice.
Kheema Mater (minced mutton and peas in rich gravy)
350 g minced lamb or mutton
200 mls water
1½ large brown onions, chopped
2 green chillies
6 – 8 cloves garlic
2 inch stem ginger
2 large tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
1½ tbsp ground chilli powder (mixed with water to form a paste)
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
1 cup frozen peas
bunch of fresh mint leaves
1 – 2 tsp salt
To begin, chop up the onions and green chillies, and mince the garlic and ginger. Set them aside.
Then prep the mince by pouring the water over it and mashing everything together. Sound odd? Yes, I thought so myself but hey. I am just following what the chef said. If you have ever made Coney Dog meat sauce I believe you will find the technique rather similar. Don’t believe me? Ask chef John of Foodwishes.com or watch his video on coney dogs. It’s TRUE! Prepping the meat in this manner ensures the meat breaks up evenly and you get no lumps in the gravy. It should also be noted that the mince I am using came slightly marinated with paprika and coriander. I wouldn’t normally use this but mince lamb is hard to come by in this country and so I take what I can get.
Now in a skillet or a heavy pot heat about 3 tbsps of oil and sprinkle in the cumin seeds (don’t BURN them!!) until they release some of that wonderful aroma.
Wait a couple minutes then add the onions and a pinch of salt. Sautee until the onions are translucent and taking on a bit of colour. Then add the ginger and garlic. Sautee until fragrant and the onions are an even deeper brown, taking care not to allow anything to catch on the bottom of the pan. Chillies go in next.
Once everything is nice and sauteed off, add the dry seasonings and keep things moving in the pan. Sauteeing dry ground up spices like this releases all the flavours and aromas.
Add the chopped up tomatoes … you can use fresh or tinned tomatoes … followed by the chilli paste. To get chilli paste simply mix dry ground up chillies with some water.
Now dump in the mince and stir everything around. The mixture will look kinda gross at this stage but bare with me, okay. It will resemble a kinda mashed meat soup for the time being but if you leave it to simmer for a while all that excess water will get boiled off and leave you with a thick meat sauce. Simmer for about 20 – 30 mins and then add the lovely peas. You can use fresh or frozen, whichever is more convenient. I used frozen ones simply because they look greener in photos. I did have a jar of peas but then I changed my mind and made R. get me a new box of frozen peas instead. Jarred peas sometimes do not look their best.
Lastly, just before turning off the fire chuck in a generous handful of mint leaves. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly. The meat sauce will look a bit loose and soupy still at this stage but if you allow it to cool slightly it will thicken up on its own as the oils bind everything together.
By this time my entire house smelt amazing and while I waited for the meat sauce to cool I busied myself making the flat breads that will accompany this dish. I generally get the dough going before I start prepping the meat dish. This allows time for the dough to rest and rise while I cook the main course. Now that the meat sauce is cooling I can go back to the bread dough and simply roll them out and cook them in a dry pan. The recipe for my flat breads are available on my post The Accidental Roti.
I also made a minted yoghurt dip to go with this dish to cut the richness of the meat and to provide an element of freshness to the meal. Put everything onto a large platter or serving board and tuck in with your fingers … in my opinion is the best way to enjoy a meal such as this. Trust me, it is finger lickin’ goooood.
So I am counting this one as a success and I must say I am very happy with the results. There is still a lot more mince in the pot but it will keep for a good few days, and remember kheema is just as good on rice too. I hope you will give this recipe a try and discover the joys of northern Indian cuisine at home.
~ Enjoy! ~