[A]: Most Indian meat dishes we prepare have cumin, coriander and garam masala powder in them. Also adding these three spices with turmeric and red chilli powder gives very similar colour to the final product. As a result so many meat dishes taste and look very similar.
But this needn’t be the case with Indian food. There are some regions in India where the food has evolved to cater to finer dining tastes. The experimentation with spices in the kitchens of Nawabs in Lucknow is legendary. There are many unique flavours, both fragrant and luxurious, that have evolved from the kitchens in Lucknow. Perhaps less well known are those which have evolved in the high class kitchens of Rajasthan. The Rajputs were well known for their hunting skills and most of their meat dishes are rustic and very earthy – as you would expect with game meat. I love cooking junglee maas (jungle meat) and laal maas (red meat) – for their boldness with colour and sparing use of spices. The recipes for these are for another day. But here is a much more refined dish that is definitely from a superior kitchen than the hunter’s wood fired hot pot in the forest.
Safed Maas literally means white meat in North Indian languages and is a preparation to disguise the gory details of the hunt. This is in sharp contrast to other more popular dishes, like laal maas, which are fiery red in colour to celebrate the kill. Safed Maas is a off white coloured dish with the slight colour coming from the cinnamon in the spice mix.
Since vegetables are in short supply in such a dry place like Rajasthan, most dishes that have originated in Rajasthan have very few or absolutely no vegetables in them. It is an unadulterated celebration of the flavour of the meat and hence a good piece of meat is essential for the success of Rajasthani cooking. Traditionally Safed Maas is prepared with goat meat, but I have used a piece of boneless shoulder of Welsh lamb. Armed with the success of this recipe, I think I will try it on some game meat next :-).
There are two spice mixes that you need to prepare for Safed Maas. The dry spice mix is very fragrant and is easy to blend together in a spice grinder. However, the wet paste, which provides the body of the sauce, is harder to prepare. I have a powerful wet spice mixer imported from India that does it better than the food processors available here. But better still would be to do it the way it is done at home in India with a cylindrical rolling stone over a roughly chiselled flat stone surface (shil-nora in Bengali). The same consistency is hard to achieve with a mortar and pestle. The white poppy seeds (posto in Bengali) are quite stubborn and it is quite important that all the poppy seeds are crushed into a fine paste to give the curry sauce the smooth finish that we desire.
Also I have used ghee in my cooking to give the dish a rich flavour. A healthier version can easily be prepared by replacing ghee with vegetable oil.
For the dry spice mix:
2 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp green cardamom pods, seeds only
1 black cardamom pod, seeds only
1 tsp cloves
4 cm piece of cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp mace (or nutmeg if you don’t have mace)
For the wet spice paste:
3 tbsp white poppy seeds
25 white peppercorns, whole
100 gm raw cashew nuts
1 tbsp boiling water
For the marinade:
20 gm ginger, finely grated
25 gm garlic (roughly 5 cloves), finely crushed
100 gm thick Greek-style yoghurt (or hung curd)
For the meat:
1 kg boneless shoulder (or leg) of lamb, cut into fairly chunky cubes
2 Indian bay leaves
2 whole Kashmiri red chillies
1 onion, sliced
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
50 ml double cream
150 gm ghee
Place a thick bottomed skillet on medium heat and toss in the ingredients for the dry spice mix except the fennel seeds. As the spices warm up, they will start to release fragrance. As soon as this happens, switch off the heat and allow the skillet to cool down to nearly room temperature. Transfer the warmed spices along with the fennel seeds into a dry spice grinder and grind the mixture to a very fine dust.
Marinate the meat chunks with the freshly grated ginger, crushed garlic, yoghurt and the dry spice mix. Leave it aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. This will help in naturally softening the meat and also infuse the spice flavours in the meat.
While the meat is getting ready for cooking, prepare the wet paste. Once you have attained a smooth paste, set it aside.
Once the marination is complete, heat the ghee in a sturdy bottomed pan on medium-low. Add the whole chillies and bay leaves to the melted ghee and stir gently for a minute. Add the sliced onions and cook gently for 10 minutes on low heat. The onions should release all the water content and take a very light brown colour when done.
Empty the marinated meat onto the cooking pan and add sufficient water to just cover the meat. Raise the heat, till the water starts to boil. Now, bring down the heat to medium-low and let the contents of the pan simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour so that the meat is tender and almost cooked.
Before the meat is completely cooked, add the wet paste, salt and ground cardamom. Let the meat cook through completely for another 10-15 minutes. At this stage the meat sauce should have thickened and should stick evenly to the meat.
As with any meat, it is wise to let the cooked meat rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. It can also be set aside to serve later.
Before serving, warm the prepared dish slightly and add the double cream. This dish is best served slightly warmer than room temperature and not piping hot. Plain basmati rice, pilau rice, naan breads or chapatis are all good accompaniments to this dish.