Takeaway

Meat of the matter

Tanushree Bhowmik | Updated on November 29, 2020

Currying favour: Sunday lunches, when many families eat together, are made special by mangsher jhol   -  IMAGES COURTESY: TANUSHREE BHOWMIK

Chunks of mutton in a thin aromatic curry — the Bengali’s love affair with the Sunday lunch favourite has had its share of ups and downs. Yet, the attachment endures

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There are common threads that run through most middle-class Bengali families, whether from Bengal or outside of it — probashi as we Bengalis say. It is food, literature, music, passionate discussions about politics and fanaticism for football. One such thread is a manghser jhol or a thin, runny meat curry. This light yet aromatic jhol, ideally with big chunks of potatoes, veiled in a thin layer of oil that floats on top, was once a staple on the Sunday lunch table of Bengali households. A true-blue Bengali would demolish a mound of steamed white rice with a mangsher jhol for Sunday lunch and enjoy a siesta, only to wake up for the evening cup of tea.

Till some decades ago, mutton or chicken wasn’t a regular affair in Bengali middle-class kitchens. Goat meat or mutton was expensive and chicken, though cheaper, hadn’t yet become the meat of choice. In most homes, the grandparents would not eat it; chicken was considered unclean. In ‘heretical’ families, it had started making guest appearances, but, for some strange reason in our home, it was either food for the sick or was always served for dinner. So mutton made appearances only at the Sunday lunch table or if there was a guest over for a meal. For every other day there would be a piece of fish with every meal. A big reason for that was a community whose collective conscience was being shaped by events such as the Partition and migration and hence affluence was measured. Even more so for families from erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh, many of whom were just about finding terra firma beneath their displaced feet. It was also not a time of abundant disposable incomes in a pre-liberalisation economy. Each penny was budgeted, every food indulgence planned. The society was on the brink of the changes in food habits that globalisation would soon bring about.

So Sunday lunches, when the entire family ate together, were made special by mangsher jhol.

Best complement: Rice cooked in the same pressure cooker picks up the notes of the spices and caramelised bits deglazed from the vessel

 

Ma would marinate the meat with spices, curd and mustard oil before making breakfast for us, so the meat got about three hours to tenderise. She would then heat a good amount of mustard oil in a wok to fry the potatoes and temper the oil with whole spices. Next, the onions would be browned and the ginger-garlic paste went in. She would cook down the mutton with the marinade, stirring it frequently in a process called koshano, which sets the great cooks apart from the good ones. By then, Didi and I, finishing our mandatory study hours or sitting in front of the television watching Sunday morning specials, would be acutely aware of the aroma from the kitchen. Ma would then transfer the mutton to a pressure cooker, deglaze the wok with hot water and add the water to the meat, enough water to form a runny jhol. Once the jhol came to a boil, and before she put the lid on the cooker, my disciplinarian Ma would shed her hard exterior and transform into the doting and giving Indian mother of movies and scoop out pieces of mutton liver and some jhol into a bowl and pass it on to us. For tasting, she would say. To make sure the seasoning and spices were balanced. Something on her face told us that really wasn’t the intended purpose.

After that, every minute weighed heavily. Each whistle made sure that the heavenly aroma of the jhol wafted around the house and lingered on. After a good few whistles, and after the pressure released, Ma would add the sweet-smelling Bengali gorom moshla, freshly ground on the mortar and pestle. She would then make rice in the same pressure cooker, without washing it, so that the rice picked up the notes of the spices and caramelised bits deglazed from the vessel. Didi and I would fall in line like obedient children, take our baths and sit down to eat by 1 pm. The jhol was magical.

The meat was always rationed — two pieces per head. On some Sundays, after a good performance in school exams or in a competition, Ma would indulge us with three. Thankfully she was never the kind who would empty her share to feed us, she was firm in her discipline about equal shares. The meat, however, was not what we would hanker after. It was those big, golden, buttery potatoes that soaked up the goodness of the meat stock and spices. I would save the potato till the end of the meal, and go on to eat it bit by bit, making it last till I could.

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Slowly, by the mid-’80s, everyone in my little world became aware of cholesterol. The awareness was made more acute by the fact that Baba suffered a cardiac arrest. Red meat got pushed to the list of food that were to be treated with caution and consumed once in a blue moon. Chicken slowly replaced mutton at the Sunday lunch table. Interestingly, it seems that almost the entire urban Bengali middle-class switched from mutton to chicken around the same time, the change that can be attributed largely to globalisation that made Western scientific knowledge more accessible to the Indian middle class, and health awareness was on the rise. The pre-cleaned broiler chicken also started appearing in the market, making it easier and more convenient for the woman of the house, a lot of whom had started to juggle jobs with household duties. Murgi (chicken) dislodged mangsho and made home in that aromatic, thin jhol. The pressure cooker was no longer needed. The excitement, however, remained the same.

The generation turned, and the world changed; the average disposable income increased and meat, whether chicken or mutton, was no longer restricted to weekends. We could have it as and when we pleased. New dishes and styles got added to our average repertoire of recipes, thanks to our travels, the internet and social media. While time and age scattered a lot of us around, it also set us on a nostalgia induced journey towards our roots, childhood and simple yet comforting memories. Slowly and steadily, as food became the prime marker of this exploration and social media the biggest platform of expression, Bengalis, in quest of those rationed yet special Sundays, coined a new moniker for that humble jholrobibarer mangsher/murgir jhol — the Sunday meat/chicken curry. Murgi more commonly than mangsho because that was the more recent memory. A hitherto non-standardised recipe, that each household, each region, each person made differently, which only had three common points — meat, potatoes, and runny jhol — was branded into a genre of its own by the sheer power of social media and fuelled by the collective nostalgia of the Sundays of our childhood. So much so that, today, the children of the ’80s call a runny jhol made on any day or night of the week a robibarer mangsher jhol.

Don’t believe me? Go check the internet.

Tanushree Bhowmik is a food researcher and writer based in New Delhi

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Published on November 29, 2020
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