"Whenever I think of the autumn festival of Durga," writes Chitrita Banerji in her book, Feeding the gods : memories of food and culture in Bengal, "and of the subsequent ones honouring the goddesses Lakshmi and Kali, | am overcome by the aroma of hot, puffy luchis (deep-fried puffed bread), of alur dam (slow-cooked spicy potatoes) nestling in a glistening, dark, tamarind sauce, of golden chholar daal (yellow split peas) spiced with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom, its thick texture flecked with tiny coconut chips fried in ghee (clarified butter). The richness of meat cooked in a fragrant, spicy sauce extends pleasure to the edge of sin." Unlike most parts of India, Bengal revels in the month of Ashwin, where preparations for Durga Pujo happens with a steady precision, people buy new clothes and shoes for themselves and their family, and pandals start forming, competing with one another. Creativity hits a huge mark with themes and there's a tussle between choosing the traditional or favouring the modern idols of the goddess.
Soon after Durga Pujo, Laxmi Pujo comes along, and during the period where a huge part of India celebrates Diwali by invoking the Goddess Laxmi, in Bengal, it is all about Kali, the goddess who emerges from the dark and is named thus. In Bengal, food forms a huge part of the cultural milieu, where fish and meat are both seen as essentials to be served to the Goddess, a part of the ritual that enforces her rites as a 'sawdhoba' or married woman, who is able to eat meat and fish with gusto. The goddess Durga is seen as someone who arrives from her husband's home in Kailasha for a few days, and as a woman who has just returned to her parents' home, her children in tow, she is treated with the best one has to offer.
Niramish Versus Amish (Non-Veg Versus Veg):
Rather than terms like vegetarian/non-vegetarian, in Bengali the terms "amish" and "niramish" are used to indicate food which is "meaty" and nir-amish, that is, "non-meaty". "Niramish" indicates not only towards animal meat but also to things that are heat-inducing, that is, tamasic in nature, like onion, garlic, masoor dal, and eggs. This segregation is important, since many times meat is considered to be "bhog", offered to the Gods after sacrificing them, and therefore, not considered to be "amish".
Though the practice of sacrificing animals in the altar of gods is mostly done away with, and most people do not use meat like that, to cook "niramish" mangsho, the meat has to be obtained from a space that is not halal. This means, the meat should ideally come from a Bengal goat, uncastrated, raised primarily on grass, and not very old, preferably under about 15 kilos, by weight (which is also considered to be too old for many, but it works in my household). Apart from this, the recipe uses no onion or garlic to maintain its "niramish" nature.
Making The Spice Blends
In my household, the shil nora, or the grinding stone, is essential to making most recipes offered to the gods. We rarely use a blender. The shil nora needs a little bit of work and practice, but it is one of the best ways to make a paste, since you can control how coarse or fine you want to keep your paste, and be as exact as possible. In this case, the paste is made of two different things - a coriander-cumin-chilli-pepper-turmeric paste, and one of ginger and green chillies. The other thing that really works very well here is some fresh garam masala powder, grinding only three ingredients - cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. You may also marinate with a bit of raw papaya to tenderize the meat, but that is optional.
How To Make Niramish Mangsho (Or Bhog-er Mangsho):
- 1 kilo mutton, washed and excess water removed
- 1 tablespoon raw papaya paste (optional)
- 3 tablespoon thick plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin
- 1 teaspoon whole peppercorn
- 10 dried red chillies
- 4-5 whole cardamom (green)
- 1 large stick cinnamon
- 9-10 cloves
- 1 inch knob of fresh turmeric OR 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 2-inch knob of fresh ginger, skinned
- 6-8 green chillies
- 4 medium potatoes, skinned and halved
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground garam masala
- 100 ml ghee (Good quality)
- Salt to taste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
1. Soak the red chillies in hot water for 1 hour. Dry roast the coriander, cumin, peppercorn together. Grind together with a little bit of water with the fresh turmeric and red chillies. Grind together the ginger and 3-4 green chillies (as per your heat tolerance). Keep the rest intact.
2. Apply the papaya paste and lemon juice on meat and reserve for 30 minutes. Then, add the ground ginger and green chilli paste, salt, yogurt and half of the pasted coriander cumin. Marinate for at least 2 hours, but no more than 4.
3. In a pan, heat ghee and immediately add the whole cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. When they start sizzling, add the sugar and red chillies, followed by the rest of the ground paste. Cook for 3-4 minutes, or until the paste starts to brown. Then, add the meat. Sear and stir fry over high heat for at least 5-6 minutes, or until the meat is seared on all sides. Then, continue stirring over medium flame for another 3-4 minutes. At this point, add a cup of hot water, stir that in, and scrape the sides of the pan to get as much flavour from there as possible. Then, cover and cook the meat over simmering heat for at least 40 minutes, checking occasionally to see if the water levels are too low, and if that is the case, add half a cup more of hot water. When the meat is 70% done, add the potatoes (if desired), whole green chillies and another cup of hot water. Then, let it come to a rolling boil, simmer till the potatoes get fully cooked, about 20-25 minutes more.
4. Just before taking the meat off the heat, check for seasoning, then sprinkle the freshly made garam masala powder and (optional) a teaspoon or two of ghee, cover, and turn off the heat. Let the meat sit, undisturbed, for 15 minutes, for the flavours to be fully infused.
5. Serve with hot rice.
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About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.