Talk about Indian cuisine and any conversation seems incomplete without the mention of Rajasthan. The kind of culinary wonders – not to mention, culinary complexity – that this water strapped state has given the Indian culinary map remains unmatched. Imagine Bina Pani Ki Roti. Made with dough of boora (akin to castor sugar), milk, ghee, flour, it was one of the inventions that had turned the local staple of North India in its head while creating a similar version. Since it couldn’t be rolled into a roti, it had to be flattened into roundels and cooked on a mithi ka tawa called khejdi. A trick that inspired the stuffed parathas of the North and of course the baida paratha too! This version survived for a good 45 days stored anyhow! Or say the Hare Mirch Ka Potha where the roots of the chillies were wrapped in a cloth to keep it minty green while the chillies deep fried. Easy storage and long shelf life was the basis of every dish. And chefs then were more evolved to do so effortlessly. Like the Ker Sangri. Ker, which is a commonly-grown berry in the desert, and sangria, a bean from the state tree, Khejri, form an integral part of the Rajasthani culinary graph. Of course the list of such innovation is huge – Khus Khus ki roti, the popular daal-baati-choorma and gatte ki sabzi, or the local staple kheechada, a gruel of crushed millet, served with brown sugar and ghee.
But that is not the only thing that Rajasthan culinary giants are credited for, they were also specialists of Game cuisine. Even before the Mughals stepped in and created kebabs, Rajputs had an array of fantastic tasting dishes in place. And the hero of it was the popular Laal Maas.
In fact, it is one of the star dishes of the Game Cuisine to have come out of the male kitchens of Mewar, whose genesis was in the grounds of a hunting expedition instead of the royal kitchen. The story begins in the turn of the 10th century AD.
Rajasthan by then was already a ‘thali’ comprising of small and big kingdoms, replete with the usual royal fanfare and segregated by the allowance of mewa (dry fruits), (unlike the gun salutes that determined the rank of a royal during the British rule, mewa allowance was what showed how mighty the king was). Each king had a minimum of 10 khansamas whose ‘sole role’ was to create new dishes for the king using his allowance of dry fruits. It was customary to have minimum 10 dishes for breakfast, with at least five new dishes. This was the mardana kitchen of the royal family, which was also into alcohol making with buttermilk as the base.
However, the rule changed when the kings went hunting. Of the 10 khansamas, only a handful – usually the finest – accompanied the hunting party to cook for them, and with bare minimum ingredients, which was chillies, garlic and yogurt. Water was rationed, and was rarely enough for the Khansamas to make anything substantial, so many worked around the two best ingredients available to them, namely yogurt and garlic with chillies to spice it up.
A usual hunting party would begin with an early day walk into the wildlife, where with much fanfare the kill would happen – usually a pig, boar, rabbit or a bird. This would be then sent to the hunting kitchen on horsebacks to be cleaned, marinated and readied for the evening dinner, while the hunting party made its way back on elephants picking smaller games like a quail.
It is said that it was a standing instruction at most hunting camps that when the royal party arrived from the hunt, there should be no smell of the hunt. Blood, feathers and the smell of raw meat was a sin. The Rajasthani Suda was a result of such an order, where the back leg of a raan was put on open charcoal to cook after being rubbed with spices with occasional basting of the ghee. In fact, it is the ghee tadka that gave it the name ‘suda’. Another innovation was the Kaleji Ka Raita, a subtle yet fragrant yogurt preparation with liver in it. This incidentally were few dishes that became a lunch staple before the elaborate evening meal spread. These became proof that the Khansamas knew their meat – which formed 90% of the Rajput meals — well.
But few reached the glory of Laal Maas. Said to be the Mewari Gharana specialty – one which Maharaja Sriji Of Mewar is considered the descendant of – the dish came about as an innovation on the boring roasts. Though today every gharana has one Laal Maas recipe, some made with Musard Oil as well to give that pungency. The khansamas were ordered to make something that is hot yet with a sweet after taste and is succulent enough to suit the palate of a warrior. In short, it had to be a hero’s dish. Legend has it that the first iteration was a rustic dish that had taken flavours from nothing else but garlic and yougurt. Though an interesting curry, it was rejected as the subtle curry failed to mask the gamy odour of the deer – the original choice of Laal Maas before hunting was banned and deer was substituted with lamb.
It was pretty much a trial and error method that eventually the dish used three different styles of cooking and a lot of fire-inducing tonk/maithina chillies. The chefs soon realised how the fieriness of chillies not only added colour to the dish but also hid the gamy odour. So a new technique was introduced. First the pieces were rubbed with spices and a bit of chilli. Then these were cooked with ghee to attain a chewy yet sweet flavour. And finally doused in a paste of chillies, ghee garlic, spices and yogurt and slow cooked for about another 40 minutes to an hour depending upon which gravy consistency was desired. A good Laal Maas took anywhere from 3 to 6 hours. It is believed that there was a competition that led to the final Laal Maas, which was won by the House Of Mewar. Since then it’s a dish that has remained with the menfolk of Mewar and is privy to their kitchen. Perhaps that was the reason that women folk were not allowed to cook/serve the Laal Maas. For them, the Safed Maas (made of cashew and yogurt) and Mohan Maas (mutton made with milk) was introduced later for feasting. Incidentally even today, some of the best Laal Maas makers are men, and that includes Sriji of Mewar, who is among the last few to have mastered the traditional style of cooking the dish.
Of course there is another house which made a similar iteration but with a different colour and taste called the Junglee Maas from the House of Samode, who preferred a more subtle shade to the firey red, which is the signature of Laal Maas. Yet, there are a few things that are common between the both – like all ingredients that are used for the dish are fresh. Meat is never pre-cooked/boiled but slow cooked in ghee. Spices are still grounded after soaking in water or Katta chaas. And both are served in copper vessels that are known to retain the flavour.
The turn of century has had its effect on the real Laal Maas recipe as well. With the palates growing more intolerant to rustic spices, the hunter’s favourite dish has undergone subtle changes but not compromising the taste. This recipe comes from Mot Singh, one of the last few khansamas from the Maharaja Gaj Singh family in Jodhpur. This is what you are likely to have when you are in Umaid Palace, or in Novotel Mumbai.
Mutton (cut in 1”pieces) – 500gms
Ghee (cow); 100 gms
‘Cloves – 5 nos
Green cardamom crushed – 1no
Black Cardamom crushed: 1 no
Dalchini- 1 small stick
Onion sliced – 1.75 cup
Garlic paste – 3 tbsp
Mathania Chilly Paste – 5 tbsp
Salt – to taste
Turn on the fire heat the ghee and add the cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and once it crackles add the sliced onion. Once it’s light brown, add the mutton and saute for 5 mins. Now add the garlic paste and roast for another 5 mins. Add the salt and mathania chilly paste. Cook uncovered for another 3 minutes. Now simmer and cook till mutton is done. Add little water or stock if required at any stage. Serve hot with Bajre ki Roti or Khus Khus ke Parathe.