Indian culinary artists have discovered/created many “peculiar” and many “beautiful” dishes. But perhaps the most peculiar and the most beautiful dish they have discovered is Rogan Josh, an aromatic lamb dish of Persian origin, which is one of the signatures of Kashmiri cuisine. It is part of a multi-course celebration called Wazwan meal, the pride of Kashmiri culture.
The name of the recipe derives from the Persian word for fat or clarified butter ‘Rogan’ while ‘Josh’ literally means to heat. In some parlance, Rogan also stands for passion and Josh stands for stewing giving rise to the cliché to stew in passion. In effect, Rogan Josh is a dish braised in clarified butter or ghee. It consists of braised lamb chunks cooked in gravy made from browned onions or shallots, yoghurt, garlic, ginger and aromatic spices such as cloves, bay leaves, cardamom and cinnamon.
In her famous cookbook Great Curries of India, Camellia Panjabi points out that traditionally, fatty meat on the bone was used for making Rogan Josh. The meat was slow-cooked in its own fat, extra ghee or passion was added for an intense flavour. However, the preparation took a right turn in the cholesterol-conscious era. People avoided animal fat and used a minimum amount of oil.
The hallmark of the dish as cooked in Kashmir is the liberal use of the authentic Kashmiri red chilli, which has a mild flavour and gives a bright red colour. There is also an interesting variation in terms of religious lineaments. The Muslims there use praan, a Kashmiri shallot that has a garlicky flavour, and maval, the petals of the cockscomb flower. The latter gives the curry an even brighter red colour and is supposed to have cooling properties.
The Hindus of Kashmir, on the other hand, avoid praan or any onion or garlic but give body and flavour to the curry by the addition of yoghurt. The spice distinguishing Kashmiri Rogan Josh from those made in other parts of India is fennel powder. But when it comes to preparation of the dish these parallel tracks converge.
Generally, the lamb meat is marinated in a mixture of garlic, ginger, black pepper and yoghurt overnight, and along with the marinade it is added to the spice mix in oil and cooked over mild heat until it is browned. Then it is stirred while scraping the bottom of the cooking vessel to develop the characteristic flavour.
Although the dish is from Jammu & Kashmir, it is also a staple in British curry houses and is part of a league of dishes from India that got “co-opted” with the Britishers. It goes without saying. Who wouldn’t want to co-opt the most peculiar and most beautiful dish India could offer?