My first memory of mutton or goat meat is roughly from the time when I was eight years old. My dad would fry my some mutton and call it ‘Turkish Delight’. I was a fussy eater even then and my parents had to resort to all sort of stuff – ‘Spanish omelets’, ‘Tiger’s milk’ et al – to make me eat.
It was years before I found out about Baklava and what Turkish Delight actually meant. By then it was too late to take up the issue with him.
I remember the queues outside mutton shops on Sunday in Calcutta from a time soon after that. Meat or ‘mangsho‘ was a Sunday afternoon affair in Bengali houses. ‘Mangsho‘ had to be mutton. Hence the queues as neighbourhood uncles would line up outside the local butcher.
The mutton resistance
Then came the mid eighties and mutton and red meat began to get the bad press associated with them now. My mom gave mutton the bird and Sunday lunch became chicken day. Chicken it was till I came to Mumbai when I began to push the boundaries of food as I left the shackles of home behind. But the fact is that there are very few who dare to extol the virtues of mutton over chicken today. Exceptions being my scrawny Bohri Gastroenterologist who once lamented about the quality of mutton today over that of the past. The other is Freddy Mama. The lone born again vegetarian (!) Parsi who strongly espouses the virtues of mutton over chicken. And my gang of Kosha Mangsho loving Bong friends…Rahul, Soumik, Kirti, Bipradeep, Arindam. Our wives do too but at the risk of being politically incorrect I must say that mutton is more of a man thing.
The Muslim Legacy… mutton and communal integration
We used to first buy mutton in Mumbai from an aged, scrawny Muslim muttonwallah with a long white beard. This Methuselah-like figure used to sit at Bandra’s Pali Market. I later used to go the mutton section in Khar market. Again manned by Muslims. This wouldn’t always be convenient and I would occasionally order mutton from the Christian cold storages at Bandra’s Pali Market and the one run by an enterprising Punjabi gentleman there.
The mutton wasn’t the same. It lacked the tenderness, body and juice of those from the Muslim shops. A gentleman who had loved mutton over many years once told me that the best place to buy mutton is from a Muslim seller. This family elder would go out of the way from Alipore to Kidderpore in Calcutta for mutton when he would come to visit my uncle in law, his son years back.
I appreciated these words of wisdom over the years. I don’t think anyone understands and does justice to mutton as a meat as those from the Muslim community do. It runs in their blood. Just as Goan Christians are the custodians of pork as a meat. And Bengalis are of fresh water fish. Though there are many from Orissa who would contest the last part.
Be it mutton biriyani, kebabs like Kakori or Gulawti from Lucknow, preparations such as Rezala and Chaap of Calcutta or the nalli nihari, bheja fry, liver masala and kheema pao of Mumbai… no one cooks mutton like the Muslims do. And not surprisingly mutton sold in their shops are incomparable too.
Possibly the best mutton I have had were the ones distributed by some of our Muslim neighbours at our earlier house at Pali Naka. These were fresh from the goats that they had sacrificed (Kurbaani) during Bakhri (goat) Eid. A warm fat filled tender recipe for communal integration.
Deconstructing mutton … what and where to buy
Within mutton the trick is not to buy boneless cuts. As many a venerable Muslim mutton seller told me, mutton tastes much better when on the bone. Within mutton the front shoulder is supposed to be the prime cut. You should avoid the ribs which sly butchers try to pass on to new buyers. The meat is chewy and stringy.
Shubhankar, a great cook, told me that one should try to buy mutton from goats which are ‘Khaashi‘ (Bengali) or ‘Khassi‘ as they say in Hindi. This apparently tastes the best. I tried some recently and we did see the difference. I looked up Chitrita Banerjee’s ‘Bengali Cooking: seasons and festivals’. She describes the popularity of Khaashi mutton in Bangladesh and defines it as meat from ‘castrated goats’.
Of course there is more to mutton than just its meat. There is a lot which can be done with its organs such as the brain (bheja of the iconic Mumbai Bheja Fry), the liver or the kidneys. Parsis and Muslims have evolved the cooking of these organs to a fine art. Then there is minced mutton or kheema…the base of kheema fry, sheekh kebab and kheema masala. Paya (trotter) masala is another local favourite. Again iconic Mumbai Muslim and Parsi dishes. There are few pleasures as primordial as sucking out the marrow from marrow bones. Many Bengali family feuds are known to have started over who would get the marrow bones in joint families.
I recently discovered a shop called Modern Mutton Shop in the KFC and Croma lane at Bandra. It is a Muslim owned shop. The mutton here is very good. The shop is quite a big operation. You enter and go to the end of the shop where there are two gentleman sitting with an array of cut and skinned goats. You place your order in terms of quantity and cut. Front shoulder of Khassi remember? They cut out the specified portion and pass it down to the battery of mutton cutters sitting in the side who cut it according to your requirements. They also have a hand operated grinder to make mince at one corner. Organs are on offer too. The shop is fairly clean. The mutton is royal. Strongly recommended.
This shop is shut in the afternoon.
PS This post is dedicated to all the wonderful folks who write in with comments. Guys, you are the reason why I am able to write this while ignoring my traffic induced back ache.
PPS Click on some of the embedded links for my takes on some mutton and organ recipes