The mixer-grinder may have made cooking easy but flavours that one got from grinding spices on the stone sil batta are incomparable.
I know that everyone's mother was the best cook in the world, that food isn't what it used to be, that flavours were much better in the good old days; in a nutshell, food doesn't taste as good as it did back then. Apart from the possibility of jaded palates, there might be some truth in it. The other day I made a mutton curry the way my mother used to, grinding all the spices on a stone sil batta, and sure enough, it tasted much better than our usual. I remember arguing with my mother, trying to convince her to take the shortcut of a blender to make a purée of the wet ingredients and the small jar of the mixer-grinder to powder the dry ones, and she, usually so modern in her approach, wouldn't budge. She couldn't — or wouldn't — articulate why, but just said it was better. Now I agree.
Even my all-consuming but discerning son looked wondering and remarked more than once that it should be made again. I don't know what it is — possibly grinding on a stone is cooler because we keep sprinkling water while grinding, so the spices don't burn and volatile fragrant oils aren't lost. Whereas an electrical grinder just keeps getting hot, hotter and hottest. Possibly the slowness of the process allows spices to be broken open to release their aroma gradually and for flavours to mingle? Or maybe minuscule fragments of wet stone get absorbed into the masala and add their own bit?
That black spice?
Whatever the accurate, scientific explanation may be, the curry we made was what is known here as Rahul Josh. Our chauvinistic — about his cuisine — Kashmiri friend Rahul came over one evening some years ago and said he would cook Rogan Josh, in the authentic Kashmiri style. He asked our cook to soak a few whole, dried red chillies and grind them with some garlic and ginger, then asked me whether I had “that black spice”. I suggested cloves and he said yes, so a few were added to the stone. Then he said “I mean that other black spice”, so I ventured “peppercorns?” Yes to that as well, so about a spoonful were added. Then: “No, that other dark spice” and so on until considerable quantities of cumin seeds, cinnamon and mustard seeds were added. Now and then Rahul would sprinkle a few drops of water on to the stone. At some point I asked whether his recipe didn't call for hing, asafoetida, and he said casually “yes, why not”, so that too. And then he started the slow process of cooking, midway adding a small amount of very finely chopped onion and some beaten yoghurt. I'm not aware of any other Kashmiri Pandit mutton recipe that includes onion, garlic and ginger and ground mustard seeds, but one lives and learns. Hence the name; it's not Rogan Josh, it's Rahul Josh. There's no gravy, just oily masala which is so rich and intensely spiced that, eaten with boiled rice, a little in each mouthful goes a long way.
Despite the big-time hassle of the sil batta programme, I miss it. And where have all the itinerant hammer-and-chisel repairers of sil-battas gone? Does machine blended green chutney compare with the fresh fragrance of a coarsely stone-ground one?
A bunch of mint leaves, an onion, a couple of green chillies, a raw mango, a pinch of sugar and salt, roughly, approximately pounded and served fresh shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as the smooth, homogenous green pastes that your made-in-Ambala mixer-grinder churns out so efficiently. And that is the bane of most restaurant and modern home gravies – because that smooth pasty consistency does the taste no favours.
I am truly beholden to the inventor of the electric mixer-grinder who has freed us from the shackles of the daily grind — imagine grinding coconut chutney or dosa batter by hand, and imagine also in how many ways and to what intensity the old way can be unhygienic. Which always reminds me of my friend Anita's story. She and her mother were invited out. Lunch was served and they were almost through it when the hostess asked whether anyone wanted chutney. Assuming it would take half a minute to get it from the fridge, they said yes. Minutes passed and then they heard the sound of stone grinding upon stone and the smell of fresh pudina reached the table. Then the cook came out, fists clenched, and walked around the dining table, pausing behind each guest to ask whether they wanted any, “ Aap ko chahiye?” Anita says she said yes, so the cook stopped, leaned over her shoulder and unclenched a fist over her plate to leak out a dollop of chutney. So fresh, it was positively insulting.
Rahul's Rogan Josh
To be stone-ground
20 cloves garlic
2-inch piece fresh ginger
6-10 red chillies, seeded and soaked
8 green cardamoms, outer skin
1/2 nutmeg, grated
1 blade of mace
2-inch stick cinnamon
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
Pea-sized lump of asafoetida
1/2 cup mustard oil
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 kg mutton, including meat from
foreleg and chops
1 small onion, chopped fine
2 tbsp yoghurt, beaten smooth
Method: Grind spices together on a stone sil batta, sprinkling water occasionally, until a smooth paste is made. Scrape off the sil and keep aside. Wash the sil with a little water and reserve the water. Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan and and saut the ground spices for a couple of minutes. Add turmeric and the mutton pieces; cook over medium heat until brown. Take care to keep scraping bottom and sides of pan and sprinkle a little of the reserved water now and then to prevent sticking and burning. When meat is medium brown, add salt and onion and continue the cookingscraping process. Add yoghurt and cook till absorbed and lightly browned. The whole process should take almost an hour. Check whether meat is tender. If not, add a little water, cover pan and simmer till done. The final dish should not be watery, so add water as needed, a little at a time.
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