March 2nd, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.