“Mrs Joshi”, the tall Sikh colleague of my father said to my mother, “In order for me to make you a beautiful goat dish I want you to go to the markets and buy me this list of ingredients”. Mr Karir (or Uncle as we called him) was the most organised cook I’d ever seen. In his neat script he’d written a list of what he wanted my mum to buy so that he could make our family a goat rogan josh which was a specialty from his region of India, Kashmir.
The spice used in this dish was garam masala. What was this exotic-sounding spice? Was it one spice or made up of many? As a young boy in 1971 this spice wasn’t in our household. We ate a mostly vegetarian diet, sometimes supplemented with chicken, but our mouths watered at the sound of Uncle’s goat rogan josh and we awaited eagerly for mum to return with all his items, and this unknown spice. She wasn’t to return until she’d bought them all, no more and no less.
Without knowing it at that time, the presence of this tall man in our household was to have a profound effect on me. When mum returned later that morning, Uncle laid out all the spices and my sister and I eyed one another and watched him as we realised that garam masala wasn’t one spice but seemed to be a mixture of many spices we already knew.
My sister ran outside to play with friends but I stayed watching, fascinated by his orderliness and the neat pile of spices he’d arranged in preparation to be ground. Today I use an electric spice grinder, not as romantic, but far better and quicker, particularly in a restaurant, but I still carry with me Uncle’s orderliness in laying out the ingredients beforehand. He then covered the ground spices, “So they don’t oxidise and lose flavour.”
This was the beginning of my understanding of exactly what different spices were and how we use them.
“Three Cs”, Uncle continued as he started peeling and slicing the onions mum had bought, ”A basic garam masala should have the three Cs: cardamom, cassia [the bark of a bay tree] and cloves [or cinnamon if you can’t get cassia]….and because it’s red meat, nutmeg is essential.” My mum had returned with six nutmegs wrapped in newspaper, as was common at that time. In India we don’t list the exact quantities, we just cook. Uncle hadn’t told my mum that one nutmeg would be more than enough for this dish and that six would last us a good while.
The goat, which was neither too young nor too old, needed to be tenderised and Uncle literally massaged his hand-ground spices mixed with yoghurt into the goat thoroughly.
He sliced and salted the onions so that when put on the flame they wouldn’t burn.
More items on my mum’s shopping list were black cardamoms, cinnamon and Indian bay-leaf known in Urdu as Tez pat, essential for his region’s rogan josh.
Uncle cooked the onions till they were caramelised, he then removed them from the heat and added his ground ginger and garlic. He also used something called Kashmiri chilli, known more for its colour than its pungency which is why it’s used, the hallmark of a real Kashmiri rogan josh.
“Ajoy”, Uncle looked at me as I watched the sauce bubbling slowly, “a real rogan josh has red oil floating on top.” Rogan is Urdu for ‘red oil’ and josh means ‘heat’. He used sesame oil (gingelly). Today many of us don’t understand the importance of oil and think it’ll be greasy or fattening but for Uncle that oil would preserve the dish like a pickle and he said that the oil must float on top.
As we all sat round the table, Uncle served his meal. He plunged mum’s battered ladle into the bottom of the pot to get the meat beneath the oil. The sauce wasn’t thick, but thin as is typical in the Kashmiri region where they are predominantly rice eaters.
Savouring that particular rogan josh way back in the Seventies, I didn’t know it then but Uncle was to have a profound impact on me as a cook. As I created my own garam masala using nine spices, I can still picture Uncle’s handwriting on that flimsy piece of paper he handed to my mum. It was from this piece of paper, from watching his ordered preparation of ingredients, his passion, knowledge and respect for food that has influenced me to this day.
I don’t know what happened to Uncle, I know that one day I’d like to take one of my jars to him and let him smell it, taste it and see how it can be married with red meat, white or fish….
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