Julie sahni’s gosht kari (meat curry) + an Indian summer

March 2nd, 2010

Perfect curry by lkwm on dRc

We all have markers in the timelines of our lives. Events, moments, aromas, tastes, that etch their way into our memories, sometimes without our fully knowing why, shaping us and creating personal reference points for judging life, people, and the future. And we come of age, ideally coming softly, over a period of years filled with nurturing love and encouragement, where a modicum of innocence is allowed to remain and the ideals of youth are elevated and not blighted. Yet sometimes, our eyes are opened quite suddenly, and we are forever changed from that moment forward. I was 18 in the summer of 1997 when I went to India for the first time, and as it happened, it became clear it was to be this latter sort of a coming of age.

Playing with children in India by lkwm on dRc

I left for India two days before my high school graduation ceremony, forgoing walking with the four honor cords I had vainly and diligently pursued and attained, to live for two months within a small South India village named Tuniki Bollaram as part of a cultural exchange. While I had spent the previous summer in Bolivia, and the prior holiday season in Mexico on similar trips, I was not prepared for India.

Patting meat dry by lkwm on dRcOnion cut by lkwm on dRcBrowning meatll by lkwm on dRcFrying onions ll by lkwm on dRc

A culture of epic history and complexity, colors vivid flashing, noises Loud, tantric rhythmic music, crowds, yes crowds and ShOuTing, and beeeeping, HONKing, bike bells, rickshaws and mopeds, cows and elephants in the streets, watch out for the cobras!, florescent green rice paddies, Lushness, barrenness, all of life in one place, a people of unparalleled generosity and warmth, and the food…oh yes, the FOOD! Tandori, Biryani, Vindaloo, Korma, Masalas, Curries, curries, so many beautiful curries! Yes, it was a summer of love found, love lost, and seeds of love sewn.

Jayashri and me by lkwm on dRc

That summer while I was 7300 miles away struggling to make sense of an incredible people and culture that challenged my most fundamental worldviews, at home I learned my parents had said their final goodbyes to one another, my brother was in crisis, and my dog had died. Dogs shouldn’t die.

I was depressed, and found myself depending on gigantic green Shaklee vitamins (worked quite well, actually) to get me through each day without bursting into tears at every alone moment. And to add insult to injury, I didn’t even like Indian food in the beginning. The spices were so new to me and the smells and flavors – especially cardamom (ironically), I just couldn’t embrace it. Then I met Jayashri.

Potatoes quartered by lkwm on dRcGarlic and ginger in mini chopper by lkwm on dRcAdding spices by lkwm on dRcBeginning simmer with tomatoes and water by lkwm on dRc

Jaya, as she referred to herself, was the village schoolteacher. She and her husband commuted an hour each way every weekday from their home in Hyderabad to teach the young village children of Tuniki Bollaram. She was so very kind, always holding my hand as we spoke, and I felt her a kindred spirit, as Montgomery’s Anne would have put it. We talked about our cultural differences, arranged marriages, dowries, Hinduism, the caste system, many commonalities, and eventually food.

Preparing meal in India by lkwm on dRcPrayers by lkwm on dRcIn an Indian kitchen by lkwm on dRcBlooming spices by lkwm on dRc

One day Jaya invited a few of us to come to her home in the city where she prepared for us an expansive Indian spread of dishes. It is difficult for me to describe this experience as I have mentioned that I had not yet found my love for Indian cuisine. But it was this day, with Jaya’s homemade Indian food set before me, that planted the seed and let me know that I could and eventually would come to love this food in a near passionate manner.

Each dish was unique and aromatic, nestled in a perfect silky orange, red, or cream sauce with layers upon layers of spices and slow, delicately simmered meats and vegetables. The food was beautiful on the palette and to behold. Art really. I knew I was tasting Indian cooking in its purest state and I knew it was divine, yet the coming of age was just beginning, and my appreciation was not full. Yet the seed was planted, only to grow exponentially over time. And Jaya, dear Jaya was my friend that summer, opening and drying my eyes in so many ways she never knew…

Bundled up by lkwm on dRcItems for sale by lkwm on dRcEasy carrying by lkwm on dRcGirl with flower dress by lkwm on dRc

Only Julie Sahni and such an authentic recipe as this could inspire me to go into my cold basement on this sunny day in Virginia and dig through long abandoned boxes to drum up these photos from that summer of 1997. I ordered Sahni’s cookbook as a Christmas present for myself this past year and I now understand the esteem given Sahni.

The first time I prepared this dish a few weeks ago (and again since), I felt a pride and excitement over its perfection unparalleled with any other dish I have prepared in my kitchen to date (I do not say this lightly). It is as good, I believe better, than any curry at all the delectable Indian restaurants I’ve visited domestically and abroad.

For me, gosht kari is the quintessential Indian dish and it translates beautifully in any culture and kitchen. Lamb or beef is seared and onions are fried to a rich brown hue, fresh garlic and ginger are added, turmeric and fragrant spices are bloomed, ripe tomatoes are simmered down next to quartered potatoes, and it is all finished with an infusion of fresh cilantro. Sahni is a master.

Adding seared meat into spices by lkwm on dRc

Julie Sahni’s Gosht Kari (Classic meat curry)
barely adapted from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

8 tablespoons light vegetable oil
3 pounds lean boneless beef, preferably beef round, or lean boneless lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
3-4 meaty beef bones (if using beef) or lamb bones (if using lamb) (optional)
4 cups finely chopped onions
4 cups boiling water
4 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
3/4 teaspoon red pepper, or to taste
2 cups finely chopped or pureed fresh ripe tomatoes, or 1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped or pureed (if you use salted canned tomatoes, reduce overall salt and add final salt slowly to taste)
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
4 medium-sized potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and quartered
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil over high heat in a large heavy bottomed pan. Pat the meat pieces dry of all juices on the surface using paper towels. It is important not to crowd the meat in the pan and if using the full recipe, you will need to brown the meat in at least two batches or two pans. Drying and not overcrowding will ensure that the meat will sear properly by preventing cooling of the pan from overcrowding and steaming the meat from excess moisture. When the oil is very hot and shimmering, add the meat pieces (and bones, if using), and brown them, but do not cook through. As each batch is browned, transfer it with a slotted spoon to a bowl.

Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil to the pan , along with the onions. Reduce heat to medium-high, and fry the onions until they turn dark brown (about 20 minutes, and yes, it does take this long and it is worth it!), stirring constantly (I gave them a stir about once a minute till the last few minutes when I stirred constantly) so that they do not burn.

Add garlic and ginger, and fry for an additional minute. Add cumin, coriander, turmeric, and red pepper, and continue frying until the spices become fragrant (10-15 seconds). Return the browned meat (and bones) to the pan, along with the tomatoes, salt, and four cups of boiling water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, covered for 1 1/2 hours. Add potatoes, and continue simmering, covered, until the potatoes are tender and the meat is cooked through (about 30 minutes). Turn off heat, and let the meat rest for at least 1/2 hour, preferable 2 hours. When ready to serve, remove bones and discard, check for salt, and simmer again until heated through. Fold in the chopped coriander leaves (cilantro). Serve with basmati rice, plain yogurt and your favorite Indian bread and side dishes.

Sahni’s notes: Sahni mentions a couple of important keys to this classic dish. First, the quality of the tomatoes is very important and she mentions fresh beefsteak tomatoes that are on the verge of overripe as being ideal. However, I used organic canned and thought it was great. Another important aspect of preparation is the frying of the onions. Twenty minutes seems like a long time to stir fry onions, but you want them to turn a deep brown and become the flavor base and thickener for the entire sauce – this frying process is critical and you should not cut back on oil.

My notes: I followed this recipe closely, however, I have a few notes that may be helpful: I used regular vegetable oil; beef round cut into about 1 1/2 inch cubes; no beef bones (in one batch I subbed some mild all natural beef broth to try to make up for the lack of bones for part of the required boiling water, but not the second time and there was no immediate noticeable difference); I would recommend starting with two teaspoons of salt and then adding the last teaspoon slowly to taste after the potatoes have cooked (potatoes love to “de-salt” a dish) – especially if you are using canned tomatoes that are already salted, I used about three red potatoes to meet the 1lb. quota; for tomatoes I pureed Muir Glenn organic canned diced tomatoes; 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper will create a nice medium to medium hot heat that I find just right, but if you get less excited about spiciness, start with less and add more later if desired; Sahni says you can sub dried cilantro for fresh, but I wouldn’t. To me, dried cilantro has very little resemblance to fresh and the fresh adds so much brightness to this dish; finally, the length of cooking time is important for tenderness of the meat and depth of flavor of the dish, though I did not wait more than 30 minutes after the potatoes were done to eat and it was great. I hope you enjoy this spectacular dish! Sahni is a master.

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Posted in Indian | 32 Comments »

32 Responses to “Julie sahni’s gosht kari (meat curry) + an Indian summer”

  1. grace says:

    what a powerful experience to have, and so early on in life! i’m 26 and i still haven’t witnessed anything as eye-opening or fascinating as your indian summer. the appreciation you found for their cuisine is obvious–thanks for sharing this authentic recipe!

  2. I am awe struck. Not very many young ladies at your age could spend a summer in India. I do not know many at my age that could do it! What a great experience you must have had! Thanks so much for sharing the story and the recipe.

    • laura says:

      The Teacher Cooks – I have always loved to travel – beforehand it simply seemed like a great adventure… so much unexpected and so much learned.

  3. Mom says:

    La, it touches me to think that something so beautiful (in you) has come out of such a painful time for us all. We will be trying this recipe very soon! You learned from me; now, I’m learning from you. Love always, Mom

  4. Liz says:

    Beautiful. Curries are wonderful (do I dislike anything?) and the memory makes it even more special.

    • laura says:

      Liz – thank you. I have so many curries yet to replicate – at least now I have Sahni to lean on!

  5. Sommer says:

    Laura, my mom told me you had posted about India and it made her cry! I have to say the memories and pictures bring a tear to my eye as well. I can’t wait to try this curry. I play around with Indian flavors often and am always looking for that sensory link back! Don’t be surprised when I blog about India…


    • laura says:

      Sommer – Hi best team leader ever! It was an amazing summer, wasn’t it? Sahni is so good – I think you will be pleased with this recipe.

  6. Rena says:

    Hey beautiful! This definitely brought back a flood of sweet memories from 2000… Thanks for posting! I will be trying this recipe soon, and I’ll let you know how it turns out! :)

    • laura says:

      Rena – hello! I do want your feedback – who else could be a better authority for testing an Indian recipe?! Thanks for visiting the blog and saying hello – 2000 was also an amazing Indian summer. (:

  7. GodShot says:

    Laura, this is such a beautifully written story of your time in India. Food is ubiquitous and so we come to associate it with the pivotal moments in our lives, and with your post on Brussels Sprouts and even more so with this one, you seem to be establishing an intriguing theme that links the experience of dining with the larger experience of being human. Keep up the good work–I will be very interested to see what you have to say next.

    • laura says:

      GodShot – Thank you. Eating and being human do go hand in hand. Just about every taste that is close to my heart is surrounded by memories of a first experience, where I was, who I was with, what was going on in my life… Preparing and sharing food forces people to work together, spend time with one another, and experience pleasure together. Nice to see you again here on dRc. (:

  8. Amy says:

    Laura, it makes me happy inside to see these pictures of you in India. I’m reading “Eat, Pray, Love” and just finished the section where she spends four months in India, so I’ve already got India on my mind. There is a little Indian store near where I live called “India Sweets and Spices” that makes me feel like I’ve stepped through a portal to the other side of the world when I walk through the doors. My favorite part of the store is the “Sweets” part – they have these sweet orange balls with cardamom flavoring that are so good! Thank you for digging through your basement for the photos – they are beautiful, and for sharing your experiences. This is my favorite post yet of yours!

    • laura says:

      Amy – I would love to visit such a store with you! – the orange cardamom balls sound lovely. And thank you for such flattery – you are such an amazing artist… I cannot stand in the shadows of your photography, but I appreciate the compliments, regardless!

  9. Joy says:

    Beautifully written post Laura and with breathtaking pictures to match — I think it is when we are completely placed out of our element that we feel ourselves truly grow. It is amazing that you spent a great amount of time in India right out of high school — That is honestly one of my biggest wishes, is to see more parts of the world. India is definitely on my list, so thank you for sharing your experience with me — as I was reading I almost felt I could hear the sounds and smell the aromas of the spices, very nice indeed :)

    • laura says:

      Thanks Joy – As you said, it is the ironic reality that we often grow, change, and “become” the most through our deepest uncomfortable and unfamiliar experiences. I will always love traveling in foreign cultures for this reason.

  10. Bonnie Deahl says:

    Laura, I found this page off of Tastespotting and really identified with your story and trip to India. I will try the recipe sometime..and love Julie Sahni’s book too. I have a desire to visit India one day to explore further what I only tasted on layovers (from Pan Am) many years ago. Thank you so much for sharing with us here. I like your blog also and look forward to reading more. Thanks. Bonnie

    • laura says:

      Bonnie – So glad you found dRc…of all my travels throughout Europe, South America and Asia, it is India that I went back to for a second visit (except Italy because, well, I could live in Italy and be quite content), and it is India that profoundly changed me – experiences for which I am continually thankful. I do hope you make it one day longer than your layover provided, and was glad to hear of another person who has found Sahni’s recipes as authentic and approachable as I am finding them.

  11. Sara Creekmore says:

    I missed you so much when high school ended and you were wisked away by the wings of your heart to India and elsewhere! Now as our lives continue to unfold apart, my heart feels warmed seeing your pictures and hearing your story.

    Something about our hearts is essential and timeless and you are capturing some of that special ingredient in your blog. Like Indian spices, your blog is really blossoming. Keep going!
    <3 Sara

    • laura says:

      Sara – thank you. So much has happened, sometimes I have wondered if traces still remain of the girl you once knew…thank you for the encouragement.

  12. Shashidhar says:

    Hey Laura…It is very good to see your experience in a village called Tuniki Bollaram.
    I belongs to Tuniki Bollaram village.
    I remember your vacation trip to my village though I was small kid at that time.
    How you all people are doing. Thank you all, and special thanks to you for remembering and placed some pictures and cultural info. of my village.

    • laura says:

      Shashidhar – Wow – I am excited and amazed you found my blog. My time in Tuniki Bollaram was one I will never forget and will always carry with me. Thank you for writing and sharing – all my best wishes.

      • Shashidhar says:

        hey Laura..Thanks for replying me. How are you doing ?. Where do u live in USA ?. Any plans to visit India villages..?. I shown your blog to my family members and to the villagers. They were more excited than me. Any ways once again than you for replying me.. May god bless you.
        Take care…

        • laura says:

          Shashidhar – I live in Virginia in the the USA. I would love to come back to India, but it will likely be a few years. I am so happy to hear you shared the blog post with the village! All my best wishes to you all. ~laura

          • Shashi says:

            Hey Laura..do you have any pictures of Tuniki Bollaram other than the pics posted in this blog. Even I am also planning for my Masters in USA. If you have any pics of TB please send those to my mail. Mail ID is: sveeranna@gmail.com

  13. Shashidhar says:

    Hey hi…Laura..how you doing?
    I am from the village(Tuniki Bollaram)where you spent your summer vacation in 1997.

  14. daya says:

    hi laura how are you? and shashi told me about this blog and when will you come again ?
    where are the other people who have come with you. i was just a kid when you visited india .
    Jayasri and madhavi teachers were my school teachers and where is the miss(she is fat) i played with her during that time ,
    i lived in a small room in my village ..now what are you doing ?

    • laura says:

      daya – How nice for you to leave a note. I am living with my husband and son in the US in Virginia and I own a natural food business. I do not know when I will be back to India, but it is one of my goals to visit again. I do not stay in touch with Missy – so sorry. I hope you are well – all my best wishes! ~ laura

  15. SpiceLife says:

    Laura, thanks for the wonderful story and utterly fantastic photos. I’ve made this recipe scores of times but recently started cooking after a hiatus of some seven years and needed a guide. I found it here, and what a delight it is.

    I ground the cumin and coriander fresh and cooked down the onions like a meditation. Those last few minutes are magical, and then the ginger/garlic and spices. My apartment smells fantastic.

    About ready to toss in the taters so off to the corner deli for some fresh coriander. Thanks so much.

    • laura says:

      SpiceLife – I hope it turned out great – I’ve found Sahni’s direction to be incredibly authentic and reliable.


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