Mutton Sutra ... a right brained defense of a much maligned meat

Mutton memories

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.

And the Oscar goes to ...

What are my favourite mutton dishes in Mumbai? Kosha mangsho. The signature dish of parties at our place. And Hangla's mutton roll.
As the poet said, "you can take the Bengali out of Bengal, but you can't take the motton (sic) out of the Bengali".

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


Bong Mom said…
This post like Ruth Reichl's article on Steak(in her book Garlic & Sappires). I can never ever go to one of those mutton shops and buy mutton. I am a hypocrite. I can cook and eat as long as I do not know what is going on there
SarahKate said…
"Mutton is more of a man thing"... that made me laugh! Mutton is pretty popular in Ireland as well. It's full of flavour. This was a great post!
uma said…
next time am in Mumbai I know where to buy Mutton..
..I always prefer eating mutton compared to other meats coz of its flavor and taste ..thou its red meat but when it comes to indian dishes I think there is clear distinction between mutton and rest of the meats..
Sharmila said…
Kalyan ... am still thinking of an appropriate word to thank you for this post. :-) I do not know how to buy mutton .. so have been deprived of actually making it by myself and enjoying ( i don't count the dishes I have at relatives places). Front shoulder? That's all I have to say? Sounds simple. :-)
Seriously ... such enlightening posts are life savers. Ranna toh shobai kore. :-)
Shaswati said…
Kalyan, somehow I can't agree on the Modern Mutton Shop. In fact ever since I have come to Mumbai am still in search for a good mutton shop. Compared to Delhi general quality of mutton is quite sad, they do not know how to clean it properly (chhnaat safai), don't understand äadhi chot for the bones, just cuts the pieces - not heeding to the subleties required for cutting different portions - grrr... Yesterday evening I had a major argument. I can promise you the taste of every mutton preparation changes with all these... :)
Kirti said…
Illuminating blog. The thing about Khasi (i.e castrated goats) is that they don't have the strong smell.

The Nalli Nihari at Noor Mohammadi is a cardiologist's nightmare - red meat floating on ghee.

Chicken has a few advantages over mutton. There are a much wider range of dishes, takes less time to cook and has wider acceptability.

But then Kosha Murgi seems to be a poor substitute of the real thing. I loved the tender Kosha Mangsho at your place. I unabashedly chewed the bones, sucked the marrow while others squirmed uncomfortably. Man! That was delicious!
Gia Fernandes said…
You're not being "politically incorrect" when you say mutton is more of a man's thing. You're just being incorrect, my friend!

And why are comments so important to you? Sometimes, there's nothing to say even though you've enjoyed reading the post. I'm sure even you don't comment on every post you read.

I think you're one of the most popular bloggers around, just look at the number of followers you have. These are just a fraction of people who actually read you.

Most people just use google reader these days, so you wouldn't even know how many people eagerly wait for your posts.

Blog only because you enjoy it, which I know you do :-)
prachi said…
Hi Kalyan,
I've been a very selfish reader till now...savouring every postof yours without giving due credit to the master chef...Must say mouth watering post....
Unknown said…
Couple of points:

'Red meat' being bad for you is based primarily on research in the West with their grain fed cows and sheep - there is now a school of thought that Indian 'red meat' is not as harmful because of the fact that we eat goat meat - the flesh has a better muscle/fat ratio and the goats are grass-fed rather than grain fed.

I agree with Shaswati - as a probasi Delhi Bong now settled in Khar - I think that the way mutton is cut in N.India is far far better than the way its done here - - it doesn't taste remotely as good and the taste DOES depend on the cut.

Modern Mutton is OK,apparently there is also a meat shop on 16th Road opposite Gujarat Society which is as good.
Cheers and keep on writing,I really enjoy reading about your food experiences.

Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Bong Mom: I guess buying live chicken at Bansdroni Market, Calcutta, prepared me for everything barring the first half of Saving Private Ryan

@Sarah Kate: thanks for dropping by. I was referring to the fact that women are slightly more squeamish about health than us Inglourious Basterds :)

Shaswati, Suman: I'll answer the Delhi thing at one go. I have often gone on record saying that the quality of meat at Delhi is far superior to that at Mumbai. You guys have added meat to my argument...pun intended (groan)

Uma: let us know what you will make too :)

Interesting to know about mutton in Ireland. I have heard folks in the US and my friends in KL complain about the lack of mutton at their bases

Harman I completely agree with you. The stellar Bengali dish Kosha Mangsho when made with chicken becomes like Don with SRK

Sharmila...behind every succesful meat buyer is a women. Kainaz is the one who told me about front shoulder thing

Suman I've seen the Santa Cruz place too. Never been there though. Interesting thesis on red meat's health benefits. I've been less succesful so far on my attempts to find out good stuff about pork

Kirti: the kosha mangsho at my place is impatiently waiting for its favourite patron.

The point on chicken is interesting. I too can think of more things to do with chicken than mutton in my repertoire

C: The one big joy of blogging for me are the conversations and comments. Otherwise it is often like shouting onto a blank wall.

I am not much of a numbers man. In absolute terms hits would never match the hits of commercial sites or circulation numbers of print. That's when stickiness matters. In my world.

Thanks about the followers part though I know that there is at least one who is on the list and rarely reads now. Didn't mean you ;)

Of course wouldn't want to hold a gun against people to comment

Prachi..thanks. Master Chef? Definitely not. None of what I make is the real classical stuff :)
k said…
I read this and head for my sookha roti and dal for dinner.
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