The chilli is one of the key distinguishing ingredients that make ‘Laal Maas’ stand out for its hotness and defining red colour, which the dish is named after
One of my ultimate gastronomic goals was to cook ‘Laal Maas’ in its authentic style in Rajasthan, using the right ingredients and process. As soon as I landed in Jodhpur, I started looking for a person or a chef who could help me attain this goal. After a few days of exploring the old city of Jodhpur, the Fort, the step-wells, and the narrow lanes which house many traditional Havelis, I was introduced to Mr Nikhil Mathur, who runs Pushp Guest House, located under the shadows of the mighty Mehrangarh Fort. Mr Mathur is an ex-chef and has worked with Taj Hotels, and now runs a homely guest house with a rooftop café, where he cooks the delicious cuisine of Rajasthan for the hotel guests. On special request, he agreed to cook ‘Laal Maas’ with us on his terrace. As we walked up the terrace, we found him ready with a Charcoal ‘Sigri’, on which we were going to cook this legendary meat dish of Rajasthan. He had arranged superior quality mutton of Jodhpur, some spices, ghee, mustard oil, onions, ginger garlic paste, yoghurt, and a red paste on the table.
Regarding the red paste, Mr Mathur explained, “This is made out of ‘Mathania’ chillies, the famous chillies from the village Mathania”. This chilli is one of the key distinguishing ingredients that make ‘Laal Maas’ stand out for its hotness and defining red colour, which the dish is named after.
Today, ‘Laal Maas’ is made with mutton. The royals used to prepare the maas after their hunting expeditions, where the meat usually was deer or wild boar. Thus, they used a generous amount of ‘Mathania’ chilli, to counter the gamey smell; however, as hunting was illegalized, mutton-based ‘Laal Maas became prevalent, and a household favourite. “This spicy and falvourful Laal Maas is also the favourite of our Family”, said Mr Mathur as he began cooking this epic dish.
There goes a few big dollops of ghee in the handi, and its ritualistic infusion of aromatics like bay leaf, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, black cardamom, and cumin, beckons. Once enough flavours are imparted into the ghee, the aroma leaves its sweet afternotes, and at that time, the thinly sliced onions go into the now sizzling handi, and we stir it lightly. While in many Indian curries, onions are cooked until brown, in ‘Laal Maas’, the onions are sautéed just enough to leave them translucent and with just enough caramelisation to lend balance to the resultant curry.
Mr Mathur added the mutton pieces into the handi while reminding us not to put all of it in one go, which would drop the temperature of the handi immensely, and thus, being careful of this tenet of temperature management, we placed the first lot into the handi and saw it being engulfed by the onions in its warm embrace. Little by little, we added the remaining mutton into the handi and stirred it. Soon colour of the mutton pieces changed and they started cooking slowly. Later, we added the ginger-garlic paste, and continued the cooking; the low heat cooking provided us enough time to enjoy a cup of tea, and discuss with Mr. Mathur the grandeur of Mehrangarh Fort, whose larger-than-life presence in front of us was in perfect resemblance to the kind of cooking experience we were having. It was a memorable experience of cooking ‘Laal Maas’ with such a majestic backdrop, and as Nikhil Ji jokingly commented, “The Fort is huge, and it takes many hours to explore it fully; similarly, cooking ’Laal Maas’ is a process that requires immense patience and detailing, and the best results are gained through slow and low heat cooking”. It was an appropriate analogy.
Sigri was refuelled with coal, and we started our preparation for the next phase of cooking ’Laal Maas’; we added the ‘Mathania’ chilli paste to the mutton. Glistening red paste slowly mixed up with meat, and soon the whole handi had acquired a crimson hue, and the slow-cooked capsaicin was giving its distinct aroma. Yoghurt is another essential ingredient for ‘Laal Maas’, as it provides the dish with the required richness, sourness and helps tenderise the meat to get a well-balanced flavour. Chef Nikhil applied a smart cooking trick as he mixed a few spoons of mustard oil to the yoghurt, along with red chilli powder, coriander powder, a pinch of turmeric, a few spoons of ‘kasoori methi’ (dried fenugreek leaves) and salt, and lightly whisked to make a spicy yoghurt paste, and poured it over the mutton in the handi. We saw the colour and texture of ‘Laal Maas’ change magically. At this stage, the flavour riots had begun.
The crimson evening sky perfectly accompanied the colour of ‘Laal Maas’. Half an hour later, we added sliced onions to the meat and saw it gaining colour, sourness, and texture as the tomatoes slowly softened into the curry. We added water to the thickened gravy until it attained the right consistency and optimum flavour.
After an hour of slow cooking, the dish was ready. Before devouring the handi, we learned about the day’s cooking. It was an auspicious day. Thus, the ceremonial offering of meat to the ‘Kul-Devi’ (Ancestral tutelary deity) was just the last mandatory step before digging into the Laal Maas. We too prayed to the almighty for her blessings and took our first bite.
It was perfect! A dream comes true. I had little doubt that after the slow cooking process, the right ingredients, and cooking style, ‘Laal Maas’ would attain a terrific flavour. However, the taste of this ‘Laal Maas’ exceeded my expectations. The meat was falling off the bone as I gripped it with soft and hot ‘Tawa Rotis’, dipped it in the spicy ‘Laal Maas’ gravy, and placed it on my palate. Woah!! The flavours were irresistible; without blinking an eyelid but frequently wiping the sweat off our foreheads (it was indeed spicy), we finished a big bowl of ‘Laal Maas’ with half a dozen rotis each. Nothing else was needed. This time it was ‘Laal Maas’, and the place was Jodhpur. Journey across India is full of such experiences and incredibly spectacular dishes. With the fantastic depth of our cuisines and the traditional cooking methods, travelling across India and exploring its regional cuisines is an exciting and fulfilling endeavour. To cook the legendary ’Laal Maas’ overlooking the Mehrangarh Fort will certainly remain one of the highlights of my journey across India.
Sidharth Bhan Gupta is a Hospitality/F&B Consultant travelling across India exploring regional cuisines.