Monday, December 26, 2005

Mutton Curry for From My Rasoi - Winter

A couple of things instigated me into cooking our family staple for Christmas, mutton curry.

One, I was listening to the radio and one of my favourite shows, The Don & Drew Show, was on. And of course they played Uncle Mutton. This is a hilariously silly song with a strangely hypnotic ability to make you think it is a fabulous song. Such that you will find yourself muttering the words "Uncle Mutton" incessantly, to the worried glances of polyster-clad aunties in the train.

Two, I was trying to participate in Weekend Herb Blogging started by Kalyn over at Kalyn's Kitchen. It would be my first time ever and I knew that the mutton curry would have enough herbs and spices to give me fodder for my inaugural food blogging post.

Three, I decided to go for a two for one and also participate in From My Rasoi, hosted by Hooked on Heat. Although I am not Indian, with only the smidgeon of Indian blood in my confused lineage, curry was a staple of my diet growing up and mutton curry became one of our signature dishes at the restaurant.

Photo by Larry Cooper at coka/Gallery%203.htm

One of my first tasks in the kitchen was the pounding of chilli using the pestle and mortar. As the youngest, this unenviable job was foisted on me daily. I learnt early on that rubbing your eyes when pounding chilli will bring you to tears. Literally.

I graduated to pounding rempah and it was a hard job indeed. The amount of rempah I had to pound daily was the same as my body weight. I think I grew tremendous little mounds of arm muscles. Unfortunately, it was only on one arm.

My grandmother was a firm believer that you never start your kitchen training too young. So there I was, this 5-year-old kid, pounding away on rempah and learning the rudiments of how to make curry. It was tough and my tasks grew as I grew older but I must admit that I learnt the best rempah making skills during my serf days. Back then, I did not realise how important my task actually was. But as I grew up, I realised that I was responsible for the foundation of all our food. The rempah is the base of all our curries.

Essentially rempah is a paste of onions, garlic, chillies, lemon grass etc that is the base for most Peranakan dishes. For different dishes, there are different ingredients and the texture can vary also. You had to pound this just right for each. It cannot be too mushy or you will get baby's food for curry. Yet it could not be too coarse. And all the ingredients had to be combined evenly and in balanced quantities to get the right combination of flavours. Since we never measured anything, I had to pound the rempah based on my own judgement, adding ingredients as I pounded till the colour, smell, texture and feel of the rempah was just right. If it was wrong, I would get a slap on my hands and would have to go back to the pestle and mortar to pound a new batch that would meet her standards. It took me a couple of years before I could pound rempah to meet my grandmother's standards without any re-dos.

My mother was the one who "invented" the mutton curry dish. Although it is mostly Indian, the addition of lemongrass was an indication of our mixed heritage. I remember the day she invented this. In our highly competitive family, it was a practice to "unveil" a new or refined recipe during Christmas. We had Christmas cake competition. We had pineapple tarts competitions. We had apple pie competitions. We had achar competitions. And of course we had curry competitions. All these in just one Christmas! The competition was fierce and recipes were jealously guarded.

I was about 8 years old when my mother decided that she would break away from the pack. She knew most of them would enter with a chicken curry so she decided to submit a lamb curry in the style of a rogan ghosh. However, that day, for some reason, the butcher had run out of lamb. Instead, he had mutton. Under duress, my mother bought the mutton and dragged me home to plonk me in front of the ubiquituous pestle and mortar.

As I began pounding the rempah, I watched my mother "measure" the ingredients in our usual way. A handful of this. A pinch of that. A couple of shakes of the other. We never used measuring spoons or cups. Everything was guesstimation. Which is why it was so difficult for us to impart recipes to others. The way we were taught and how we taught was by demonstration.

"Want to learn? OK. Shut up and watch."

Er ... OK ...

I think I was the first to actually pen down some of our recipes. And only because I had to teach my youngest aunt (long story) how to cook. She had the unenviable and unfathomable position as the (only) kitchen illiterate person in the family with the dubious distinction of cooking the only bounceable omelette on earth. I had to write incredibly detailed and comprehensive instructions for her. Even down to how to peel an onion. Needless to say, I never taught her how to cook curry. It was just be too cruel.

I was the only one who ever watched my mother cook her mutton curry. She was so jealous of her recipe that she would even send me out of the kitchen after I had pounded the rempeh, peeled and chopped the potatoes, onions, tomatoes and ladies fingers. I never saw what she put in her mutton curry till I was 12. Then she imparted the recipe to me only because she needed my help to cook the mutton curry.

The year she invented the mutton curry was also the first year she won the curry competition. My aunts all had their theories and conjectures. But no one knew what exactly was in her curry. It was dense, rich, spicy and pungent but somehow incredibly addictive. And the longer you cooked it, the better it tasted. At the last stage of it's "life cycle", when everything was an indistinguishable mush, it was converted into a curry noodle dish that was out of this world.

My mother won all the curry competitions from then on with this dish. No other curry dish entered ever dethroned her mutton curry. Even after she was gone, and I entered the mutton curry, it was still her mutton curry ... never mine. And I would not have it any other way.

So, to me Christmas became synonymous with mutton curry in a way. With every spicy morsel that pass my lips I remember sitting on the kitchen floor pounding away while my mother stood near me muttering to herself and throwing in spices like one of MacBeth's crones. Winters were never cold as long as I had mutton curry. For besides warming my chilled body, it also filled my homesick and lonely heart with the warmth of my mother's kitchen and the memory of her work roughened hands as they held mine as she guided me on the best way to pound rempah.

No matter how lonely and homesick I was, when I had mutton curry, I would feel closer to home. They say home is where the heart is ... mine is in my mother's rasoi.

My Mum's Mutton Curry

1-1.5kg mutton, chopped into large chunks - try to get some on the bone
2 tbsp oil
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 stalks lemon grass or serai, chopped
- 1 knob galangal or lengkuas, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
4 potatoes, chopped
Ladies fingers or okra - cut into half or thirds if they are long
Curry paste or powder - I get mine freshly ground at the Indian spice market and they add enough chilli to keep me happy
Chicken stock
Garam marsala:
- 4 tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 tbsp cumin powder
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp cardammon
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg powder
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves

1. Use your mortar & pestle and pound the rempah. Trust me, it tastes better. If you have to use a food processor, blend the rempah with a little oil. Process 2/3 of the rempah till it is a fine paste. You know it is right when the onions have emitted enough juice to make it a fine, smooth paste. Process the rest but keep it a little coarser. Mix the two lots together well and keep aside.
2. Combine your garam marsala spices but keep about 1 tsp aside while grinding the rest. You want the complexity of texture and taste here.
3. Fry the rempah in about 2 tbsp of oil till fragrant

4. Add the garam marsala and curry powder and continue frying briskly till it is smoking! OK, till it smells so heavenly that your neighbour shows up at your gate to ask "What you cooking?"
5. Add the mutton and fry till the meat is browned
6. Add 1/2 the tomatoes, mustard seeds, curry leaves and some chicken stock to almost cover the meat and cook on low for about 30 minutes
7. Add salt and about 1/2 to 1 tsp of sugar to taste
8. Add the potatoes and ladies fingers and cook till tender, probably about 30-45 minutes
9. Serve hot with rice

* Get mutton on the bone as the bone keeps the meat succulent despite the long cooking process. I actually like having a bit more fat on the mutton too as the fat melts into the curry and becomes these silky morsels that melt in your mouth.
** Try to chop all your vegetables into large chunks otherwise they will melt into mush

*** You can cook this on the crockpot as well

The curry will taste better the next day. And the next. And the next. By the time the meat and vegetables have turned to mush, add some noodles to it and you have a fantastic curry noodle dish. My grandmother used to make these for supper and I would go always go for seconds.

OK, healthwise this dish is a dud. It is not a healthy dish and it's only saving grace is that unlike Malay curries, it does not have coconut milk. I give it a 7/10 for health because all the spices are actually really good for you. Tastewise, I guess I am biased as I am tasting it with all the love for my mother in each bite. So I give it a 9/10 with a little tear on the side.

I will write a bit more about each of the spices in the Weekend Herb Blogging post as there are so many spices to slobber over.

And now onwards to a multiple posts day.

Categories - Meat Me For Dinner


Blogger lucette said...

This is a great story! I'm going to try the curry, too--although I'm not sure where to get mutton (which I associate with English children's books).

8:10 am  
Blogger MM said...

Thanks so much. You can use lamb. Actually that was what my mother was trying for when she first invented this recipe but the butcher did not have any that day so she got mutton instead.

I know ... mutton dressed up as lamb .. so me sometimes!

1:22 pm  
Blogger rokh said...

mmm...yum yum! will try it out

3:53 pm  
Blogger MM said...

You so tham jiak, just like me! LOL. Loved your Kheema dish too. Mebbe we can do a synchronised recipe testing. I'll cook your Kheema and you can cook the mutton curry!

9:24 pm  
Blogger sailu said...

That made an interesting read,MM.First time commenting here.
Wishing you a wonderful NEW YEAR!

11:27 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Hi Sailu! Thanks so much for visiting. It is an honour as I really like your blog - I've always been interested in ayurvedic cooking and practices.

Oh, and I love A R Rahman too.

And Happy New Year to you too!

1:56 am  

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