It seems trite to say that ‘we are well’ on a day when there are many in Mumbai who aren’t but I do appreciate the concern and sentiment behind your anxious queries.
Yes, we are well.
I left Mumbai today when it was all innocent and washed in rain.
I reached Jaipur at Rajasthan. Dry, the temperature apparently more than my waist size and age. I took in the marvels of the new airport and the huge New Delhi like roads as one approached the city.
And then the news that followed of the attacks on Mumbai. The bomb blasts. And suddenly it didn’t matter where you were as all eyes were on Mumbai and the ghastly news that unfolded.
Eventually I got out of the hotel room to take in the city and to get away from the pain and angst that had unfolded back home.
I stepped out in search of the legendary dish of Rajasthan, Laal Maas, literally ‘red meat’. Red not referring to the mutton here but that of the fierce red chillies that it was made in.
I headed to a restaurant called Handi at MI Road. Recommended by Gaurav or the very helpful @Pathfyynder on twitter, from Jaipur. Vetted by the gracious food writer Marryam Reshii, @Reshii on twitter.
I went in an auto rickshaw, wok tossed thanks to the bumps on the road. The auto driver in a hurry to pocket that fare of hundred rupees (2.5 USD) the moment he reached MI Road without bothering to take me to the restaurant. I walked a bit and was soon guided to Handi by the doorman with a huge mooch outside the vegetarian restaurant Dasaprakash. “Handi, straight up, Non veg”, he said.
All doormen at Jaipur have huge mooches and big smiles it seems.
I walked into the cavernous restaurant, Handi. A thirty year old restaurant named after a cooking vessel. It was non air conditioned but had a charm of itself. Marryam told me that Handi was where Rajasthani men came to satiate their meat cravings after they had downed a few drinks. Though honestly the place seemed anything but grunge. The diners a mix of local families and a few foreigners.
It took me a bit of time to convince the maitre d, Sher Singh, to get me a laal maas. He was worried that it would be too spicy for me. In fact, when the order came, my waiter, Vijay Singh, got a few pieces of gur or jaggery with it. I asked if i should dunk it in the curry. Vijay said that the pieces of jaggery were meant for me to chew on later if the dish was too hot and spicy for my. Obviously I did not evoke much confidence.
I took a couple of bites with the whole wheat bajra roti and the curry.
“Not spicy” was my verdict with a smile.
And then I used every tissue on the table to wipe the buckets of sweat streaming down my face. the curry was deceptively volcanic. The heat was was not searing but latent and hit you when you least expected it to. The initial taste experience was wooden, nothing spectacular, and then as you swallowed you realised that you were on fire. Though i must say that I have eaten spicier food. Laal maas, I was told, could be made even spicier at your home but the one at Handi did challenge you. I took dainty nibbles and survived.
I guess you need to have one of those big mooches to be man enough to finish the whole bowl of curry. But truth be said that the lal maas was quite tame in comparison to the 'medium spicy' Korean fare that I had eaten at Melbourne.
There were two pieces of mutton. Extremely soft and submissive, demure to the point of being apologetic for the fiery bed of curry it was served in. This was meat which had been tended well and made you feel like eating more.
The rotis doused in ghee but had the slight bitter wholesomeness of the coarse bajra (millets?) that it was made with.
Later on Sher Singh and Vijay Singh told me that Laal Maas, a speciality of the desert town of Jaisalmer, is slow cooked in a curry of crushed dry red chillies, onion paste and cinnamon. A mix which is made in the kitchens of Handi and is a speciality here.
Two pieces of meat teased but didn’t satisfy me. I knew I was not up to more of the tequila like curry. So I called for another Rajasthan speciality, ‘Jangli Maas’ or wild meat. Recommended to me through K by legendary adman, known to be a proud son of Rajasthan, Piyush Pandey. He had told her that she would forget all other meat the day she tried Jangli Maas.
As Vijay and Sher Singh explained, the mutton was partially cooked and set aside. When a guest ordered for it, then it was tossed in ghee on a flat girdle and then topped with dry red chillies fried separately in ghee. The latter so that the chillies don't get burnt as the meat takes more time to cook.
The result was incredibly tender near silk like meat decked in the warm flavours and aromas of ghee (clarified butter) and red chillies. Proof that meat cooked without spices could be flavourful. Something which our ancestors in the caves knew but we forgot.
This was a killer dish. I thought I would have a piece or two and then left behind a plate littered in carcasses. You just could not say no to such culinary wizardry.
I stepped out and walked a bit down MI Road, the home of traditional restaurants which shared space with KFC and Yo China and the like. Taking in the silence, walking off the meal, when a man from a dhabba across the road called out to me. It was a vegetarian place, a ‘pavitra (pure, holy) bhojanalaya (restaurant)’. I saw that it sold lassis too. Something @moonsez on twitter had just recommended to me.
A cop, yes with a big mooch, was at the shop, had just finished his lassi and urged me to try one. And you can’t say no to a cop. A smiling one.
So I went in and slurped on a nice cool lassi, sweet but not overwhelming. Adorned with malai or milk fat on top. Just what I needed to douse the remaining embers of lal maas.
I chatted with a group of young men from the town of Jodhpur who were visiting. They graciously offered me their ghee doused rotis and cheese and butter covered malai koftas. I was stuffed to my nose but accepted their offer and had a bite of pure richness. They said all the running around kept them thin. Good for them.
Another auto, a smoother drive back to the hotel. A friendly auto guy who stopped so that I could take pictures of the beautiful palace Hawa Mahal. His name is Dinesh who came here 14 years back from the tiger sanctuary lands of Ranthambore. He was a jewellery craftsmen by day, his work exported to Europe, by night he drove the auto that he bought two years back.
I got back to the hotel basking in the glow of the warm welcome I got from strangers in a city which was not my own. The human touch which I so needed amidst the sense of despair that shrouded many in my own city.
And now to tomorrow and work and daal baati chruma.