It’s time we talked Kashmiri food. Kashmiri cuisine derives its unique flavouring from regular Indian spices used somewhat differently. Fennel and ginger powder are used in most of the preparations. The colouring is important to the presentation; turmeric for yellow curries, and red chillies for the red ones, and there are the white curries that derive their colour from the use of milk and yoghurt. The word ‘curry’, incidentally, is not a part of our vocabulary.
An interesting feature of Kashmiri Hindus is the complete lack of caste hierarchy. That’s correct – we are all Brahmins. Garlic and onions may have been taboo, but please give us our daily serving of meat.
Just like the Bengali Brahmins we salivate over our fish and goat-meat, cook everything in the wonderfully fragrant mustard oil, favour rice, and worship mother Goddesses with fervour. And like them, we also have the loochi, maida pooris fried in mustard oil. Oooh, they taste super with Kahva, and are intertwined with my memories of visits to the Kheer Bhavani shrine, many kilometers outside of Srinagar city. A tiny temple inside a water tank (a natural spring), it sits in a large paved area shaded by giant Chinar trees (Oriental Plane trees). A typical visit to the temple would involve an early morning rise, a head-bath (this is Indianese for washing hair as part of the bathing process; most of us women keep long hair, or used to, and daily shampooing is neither practical nor necessary), trekking to the bus-adda to take the bus into the countryside. The mothers, grandmothers and aunts would have gotten up even earlier to prepare a packed lunch of rajma, dum aloo, and such delicacies, to be had later under those magnificent Chinars in true picnic fashion.
The bus would wind through the most beautiful (the word – beautiful – being very inadequate here) landscape of paddy fields and rustling (Lombardy) Poplars. There is hardly a stretch on that picturesque narrow road where you are too far from a brook or a stream to not hear its gurgle. The droopy willows by the brooks add to the idyllic picture.
It is a longish walk from the roadside bus stop to the temple area. A little stream flows by the entry to the temple area. The men head to the ghat by the stream for a dip into the icy cold waters. The women enter an enclosed part of the ghat on the other side to do the same. Not being too sold on public nudity, even in women-only situations, I and my younger sister have passed on this ‘cleansing’ ever since we could say an emphatic NO. Did I mention that the water is ice-cold? We were happy to wet our feet and splash our faces.
Then a walk to those little shops on the periphery of the compound to deposit the footwear and collect the puja samagri from the guy who would later also provide the loochi and kahva. The puja involved the pujari reciting prayers and mantras in his inimitable Kashmiri rhythm and us dumping the offerings into the tank in a certain order at the ‘swaha’ cue. We would then hurry back, the early morning breakfast long digested, for the mouth watering oil soaked loochies to be washed down with the best kahva.
If some of you are still with me, as I took this longwinded and unplanned trip to the Kheer Bhavani shrine (the loochi is so strongly tied to the shrine in my memory that I cannot say the word loochi and not think Kheer Bhavani), let me tell you this post was going to be about mutsch, the Kashmiri meat balls (if there ever was a misnomer). I probably shouldn’t be discussing the two together, since the Goddess is vegetarian.
But let us get back to a promise I made while enumerating the Five Things to Eat Before You Die. It has taken this long because I was perfecting the recipe. As you probably know by now, my mother tends to keep a few ingredients or steps to herself. And I couldn’t have posted a recipe I knew would not produce the results I promised. So she let out one thing, then another, then I tested in my kitchen, and then tested it one more time to be doubly sure.
A few of the ingredients keep it from being traditionally authentic Pandit. But I am not going to mess with that – not after hearing it again and again, “It’s not quite like Naani’s…” So the dhaniya powder stays; as does the single clove of garlic. That’s how Anu’s Naani, my mother, makes it. And these are the best ever; even better than the waza’s.
Mutsch, is made with minced meat of goat (mutton). I have tried it with beef in the US. Not good. I am not sure if even lamb is very suitable. The key difference in our meat is that it is very lean. Even after the long simmer and refrigeration, I find no solidified fat on my mutsch. My mother has used ground turkey with exceptional results. At the butcher’s, don’t settle for the ready mince. For best results have him prepare and de-bone a cut of raan (thigh) or shoulder for the keema (mince).
Even though I am calling them meatballs – these are never shaped into balls. Not for mutsch. Goshtaba is a true meat ball, as is rishta. Shapes define a dish very strongly. Vegetables are cut in different shapes for different preparations, and these cannot be changed. It would just seem wrong if you put cylindrical cuts of nadru in fish, or bias cuts into yakhni . Stick with the instructions, if you want your Mutsch to be ‘just like Naani’s!’
The dish belies the simplicity of the preparation. It totally rests on the spices – no onions or tomatoes, ever, in traditional Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. And I love it for that – so quick. No onion-garlic-paste or fine-chop-anything, and no-bhunno-till-oil-separates whatsoever. A Punjabi friend, married to a Kashmiri, once remarked that Kashmiris just quarter any vegetable and it’s done! That’s not true: sometimes we also leave them whole! We have our reasons.
Kashmiri Meatballs in a Spicy Gravy
For the mutschgand (meatballs)
500gms minced mutton (or ground turkey)
1 heaped T Kashmiri chilli powder
1 ½ heaped T saunf (fennel) powder
1 t sonth (dry ginger powder)
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 black cardamoms
1 t Kashmiri garam masala (you may substitute home made Punjabi kind; see note below)
3-5 T mustard oil (don’t believe my mother when she says she makes it in just 3 T of oil!)
For the gravy
2 black cardamoms
1 bayleaf (Indian ones are 3-4” long)
1 T mustard oil
1 T Kashmiri chilli powder
1 heaped T dhaniya(coriander) powder (optional)
1 heaped t sonth
2 heaped T saunf
To make mutschgand:
Place the ground mutton in a bowl. Powder the cloves and the black cardamom (keep the outer husk aside) and add to the mince.
And the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Pinch off small portions, and shape into sausages using a gentle squeeze and toss movement of your working hand. The mutschgand should be about 2 ½- 3″ long and a half inch or so thick. Do not roll between the palms of your hands. Place the prepared mutschgand on a plate or thali. Let rest for 20-30 min.
Do not reduce the oil to less than 3 T (unless using fatty meat). Been there. Since the meat is lean, it needs the oil to keep the meat balls soft and succulent. Remember, we are not frying these. And do not add any egg-shegg either. Stick with the recipe.
Meanwhile prepare the gravy:
In a heavy flat bottomed pan heat some oil (1-2 T). When it gets to smoking add the cloves and the bayleaf, dhaniya, saunf, and sonth powders, in that order. Keep a cup of water handy as you add the red chilli powder. Stir quickly to roast/fry the spices and then add water. Red chillies can burn quickly in hot oil, so take care to prevent this. Add another cup or cup and a half of water. Bring to a boil.
Grind the black cardamoms and add to the pan with the husk from the two used for the mutschgand. Turn the heat to medium and gently lower the mutschgand into the pan, shaking the pan with your other hand to nudge them around and ensure they are immersed. Do not use any implement; just a gentle shake of the pan will help them roll about. Add additional salt if you think necessary. Cover and let simmer for 30-40 minutes. The gravy will have reduced by a third and the meat will be done. The mutschgand tend to shrink in length and thicken in the middle as they cook. Sprinkle a half teaspoon of Kashmiri garam masala and mix.
Serve with warm steamed rice or paranthas. This is really good the next day. For a special mealtime, cook at least 12 hours ahead.
If you don’t have Kashmiri garam masala: pound together one black cardamom, half inch piece of cinnamon, and 3 cloves, and use.
Try to procure your spice powders from the spicewala. If you must make it at home, grind each spice to a fine powder. The spices thicken the gravy, and unless they are powdered fine, the gravy may have a gritty texture.
Kashmiri chilli powder is mild but imparts a very bright colour. If you want a milder version, reduce chilli as desired. Add powdered maval (cock’scomb) flowers so that the colour of the dish is not compromised. Wazas (professional Kashmiri cooks) often do this.
This dish does not use any turmeric. Red chillies and turmeric are rarely used together in Kashmiri cooking.
1. Beware that some selfishness in the family may surface when you get to the last two pieces. That is how it must be. Read about it here.
2. If you ever serve it to guests, they may offer to delay their return trip. I served it to visiting friends on their last day with us (the famous VOF trip). Prasad was willing to change his travel plans if I promised to cook mutsch again the next day! Yes, I had served mutsch prepared by my mom.