We’ve all heard the term “armchair travel” to refer to reading books that take place in far-flung locales. Back in my 20s I did much more actual traveling- all over Europe and in Japan- but now, saddled with a mortgage and a 9-to-5, most of my travel is of the virtual variety. Some of that takes place between the covers of a book, but when I can, I try to take it a step further by “stovetop traveling”; cooking things with new and exotic flavors that make me feel a little less wistful about not getting to go places firsthand.
Clockwise from top left: dal, aloo gosht, cucumber raita, mango pickle, naan, tahiri, saag
A couple of books I’ve read recently have made me want to delve deeper into the flavors of India- first there was Modern Spice by Monica Bhide, and more recently, Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey. After finishing Jaffrey’s book, I could practically taste and smell the pungent spices of her homeland, and I immediately began plotting an Indian feast.
The dish Jaffrey describes as conjuring the most homey memories for her is Aloo Gosht (literally “Potatoes and Meat”), a popular dish in Northern India & Pakistan. This dish is not for the faint of palate- it’s a rich, savory riot of warm flavors- but the meat and potatoes place it firmly in the realm of “comfort food”. The meat in question when prepared in the U.S. is typically lamb; however, Jaffrey says that in India/Pakistan it would almost always be prepared with goat. In the spirit of authenticity, I tracked down some goat in a trip to Eastern Market. If you’ve never had goat meat before, I urge you to try it, especially if you like lamb. It’s less gamy, leaner, and a lot less expensive (try finding boneless lamb shoulder for $2.99 a pound!).
There are many recipes out there for Aloo Gosht, but most of them that I found seemed “dumbed down” compared to Jaffrey’s. Unlike some recipes (whose authors might be under the assumption that many ingredients are unavailable here?), she doesn’t skimp on the aromatics and spices. One thing I used in this recipe that was new to me was black cardamom. It is very different from green cardamom, the spice used in baking. It comes in a large black pod and has a smoky, earthy aroma. It wasn’t at all difficult to find; I picked it up at Penzey’s. Although I couldn’t distinctly pick it out in the finished curry, its flavor was definitely noticeable in the rice I made (a dish called Tahiri, an aromatic rice with peas- if you’d like to try it, Jaffrey’s recipe is reprinted word for word from her book here).
I followed the recipe to the letter as far as ingredients and quantities, but then parted ways with Jaffrey’s cooking method, which I didn’t really understand. She called for aggressively cooking the meat, whereas I opted for a longer, slower braise- I wanted the goat to be very tender, and I was afraid that cooking it over high heat would toughen the meat. She also would have had me add an additional three cups water towards the end, which made no sense to me at all since the consistency of the sauce seemed just right. Not to question the great Madhur Jaffrey, but who knows, different heat, cooking vessels, and a number of other variables can produce a different result- sometimes it’s best to just trust your instincts on these things because I don’t think my Aloo Gosht could have turned out more perfectly. I can see why this is a favorite over there; it’s definitely a dish that will reappear on my dinner table.
Aloo Gosht (Potato & Meat Curry) adapted from the book From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail by Madhur Jaffrey
2 lbs lamb or goat meat in 1 1/2-in. cubes, with or without bones
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 to 3 fresh hot green chilies, roughly chopped
3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled & roughly chopped
1 1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp cayenne pepper (use more or less to taste)
2 medium tomatoes (about 10 oz), chopped (if tomato quality is less than stellar, add a tsp or so of tomato paste)
1 3/4 tsp salt
2 whole black cardamom pods
1 medium cinnamon stick
1 lb small red waxy potatoes, peeled & cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (leave whole if small)
1/2 tsp garam masala
4 Tbs chopped cilantro
This is really a pretty straightforward and easy recipe, don’t be intimidated by the ingredients list. Most items should be readily available; if you can’t find black cardamom just leave it out. In her cookbook Jaffrey suggests asking an Indian grocer for “meat for curry” and you’ll get a mixture of boneless and bone-in already-cubed pieces. The butcher I went to only had boneless ready, but obliged me by taking a goat that was hanging up and cutting up some bone-in leg pieces for me.
Place the ginger, garlic and green chilies in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, stopping before you reach a paste. Put the coriander seeds in a clean coffee or spice grinder and grind to a coarse powder.
Pour the oil into a large heavy lidded pot such as a Dutch oven and set over medium high heat. When hot, add the shallots and fry for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Stir in the ginger mixture and fry another 2 minutes. Add the meat and stir for a minute or so. Add the coriander, turmeric and cayenne. Add 1 cup water and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste (if using), salt, and another 2 cups water. Stir and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon, black cardamom and potatoes. Replace the cover and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until the meat is very tender and the potatoes are cooked through.
Taste the sauce and correct for salt or spiciness if needed. If the sauce seems at all thin, you can cook uncovered for an additional 10 minutes or so to reduce it (I didn’t need to). It should be neither thick nor watery. Sprinkle with the garam masala and cilantro before serving. This curry is best served with rice and something cooling on the side such as cucumber raita (shredded cucumbers mixed with yogurt and a little salt) to balance the warm and savory flavors. Serves 6-8 as part of an Indian meal.