The First Indian Food I Ever Made: Rogan Josht

Long, long ago, before I had married Morganna’s father, and before I had even heard of anyone named Zak, I was still a curious cook.

My curiosity was curtailed, however, by several factors: one, I was poor and could seldom afford interesting ingredients, two, Morganna’s father was not a very adventurous eater and I lived with him, and three, even if I could afford ingredients, I lived in a place where they were hard, to downright impossible to find–Huntington, West Virginia. (This was twenty years or more ago–it is possible that by now, they have a decent Middle-Eastern, Chinese or Indian market. I doubt it, though.)

While these limiting factors slowed me down, they did not stop me. Not by a long shot.

I still read cookbooks voraciously, and while I was not allowed to touch the wok (I was supposedly incapable of using it properly–whatever), and so had stopped trying to cook Chinese food, I was still fascinated by Indian food.

I don’t know why, really. I know that I had, from childhood, been equally fascinated with China, Japan and India, and had always yearned to visit. I read all I could find about India as a little girl, and I very much admired Ghandi–the man who peacefully stood down the might of an empire. I learned about the many religions that coexist in India: the many types of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoarastrianism, as well as Christianity judaism. It was, in fact, after exploring these religions, that I quite pointedly told my Sunday School teacher that I could not imagine that God meant only Christians to go to heaven, as I imagined God’s heart would be much bigger and less–petty than that. That was one of the first times I had the guts to speak aloud my belief that God didn’t play favorites with people, and that good people went to heaven, period: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists–God loved us all.

Needless to say, this started quite a stir in the class, and some of the kids took to calling me “heathen,” but even the teacher was stunned into silence when I declared that I could not and would not worship a God who would throw so moral and peaceful a man as Ghandi into hell for all eternity just because he wasn’t Christian.

So, now you know–I grew up a blasphemer. Oh, well. There are worse flaws to have than a logical mind which is not dazzled by religious dogma. (My mother sighed at these antics, but my father always chuckled. I think that secretly, he was proud of me.)

Be that as it may, through my entire life, I wanted to taste Indian food. (Which struck my parents and friends as odd, because I had a strong aversion to dishes that people made and called “curry” that involved apples, black raisins, sweetened dried coconut, curry powder and lots of onions. These “curries” always smelled awful to me and tasted worse. The only thing I liked curry powder in was scrambled eggs–a pinch of it perked them right up.)

However, as there was no Indian restaurant to be had in Charleston or Huntington at the time, there was no opportunity.

So, I read cookbooks, and experienced it vicariously.

Until I read Madhur Jaffrey’s description of Rogan Josh in her book, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. “Rogan Josh gets its name from its rich, red appearance. The red appearance in turn, is derived from ground red chillies, which are used quite generously in this recipe. If you want your dish to have the right color and not be very hot, combine paprika with cayenne pepper in any propirtion you like…”

Yes, it was the chiles that did it for me. The chiles and the other ingredients: garlic, ginger, cardamom, bay leaves, clove, cinnamon stick and peppercorns, along with coriander, cumin and yogurt.

She advised to keep the whole spices whole and in the dish, and she said that lamb on the bone was better, because the flavor of the marrow infuses the sauce with further richness. Since I came from a family that ate lamb, and had relatives who would dig marrow from bones to eat it, I was not shocked by the concept at all.

I checked that book out of the library over and over and read and re-read it until I had parts of it memorized. Over a period of months, I gathered spices, and hid them in an upper cabinet, and bought basmati rice, and waited for the 4-H lamb season.

That is when all the 4-H lambs, steers and calves were all slaughtered after the county fair, and Kroger’s bought them up, and sold them at amazingly low prices. Every lamb-eating person of Middle Eastern and Indian descent waited for this time in September, and would flock to the meat department and buy cartloads of inexpensive, amazingly tender and flavorful local lamb, and put it in the their freezers. I usually was waiting with them, and would be one leg of lamb, and maybe some stew meat and ground lamb, or for a special dinner, lamb chops.

This year, I was waiting for lamb shoulder meat, and lamb shanks.

And I procured them. While waiting for the butcher to put the meat out, of course, the other customers and I got to talking. It is natural. For one thing, Majid, one of my math instructors from college, was there, and so he and I started up a good conversation about how he had no understanding why most Americans did not like lamb. He was Persian, so the concept of life without lamb was a befuddlement to him. Next to him was a neighbor–an Indian Muslim doctor who had brought her family to Huntington and settled in to practice medicine. This was to be her first time at the 4-H sale, as she had only recently come to West Virginia. She was a lovely woman, expecting her first child, and she asked me why I liked lamb, if most Americans did not.

Well, I explained about how my father’s family were recent German immigrants, and so they brought their food traditions with them, and so she asked if I was going to cook the lamb German-style, and was quite curious as to what that would be like.

I told her that I intended to make rogan josht.

She blinked and then smiled brilliantly. “You know rogan josht? Have you ever had it?”

I had to admit that I had not.

Magid laughed and told her that I was always carrying around cookbooks that I had checked out from the library and taking notes from them, and sometimes had difficulty closing them when class started.

This interested her. “Rogan josht is my favorite dish,” she said.”What made you want to make it?”

I told her about the description, and how it just sounded so good I had to taste it, and since there was nowhere I could get it, I would just have to make it myself.

She nodded sagely, and was going to say something else, but was interrupted by the appearance of the butcher and his assistants, pulling carts out of the back, piled high with wrapped, freshly butchered and cut meats.

I ended up making the rogan josht, some spicy green beans, steamed basmati rice, and lentils with yogurt and mint. I invited our friends, and since I followed Jaffery’s suggestion to leave the whole spices and bay leaves in the sauce, there were skeptical glances when I opened the pot.

A cloud of fragrant steam arose, wreathing our faces. Chris looked in, cocked and eyebrow and said, “It looks like you put a tree in there. I see leaves, twigs and buds.” He grinned and said dryly: “I didn’t know that the Indians stewed Druids.”

He dug in quite fearlessly. Lynne was right behind him, though she elbowed him at the Druid comment. “It smells really good,” she said as she, too, took a healthy portion.

The other Chris and Angie were quieter, but still appreciative. “The spices all smell like different musical notes,” the poetic Chris said. He was always saying things like that, as he worked very hard to be a poet.

Morganna’s father picked through the pot, avoiding the spices, and put small amounts on his plate. I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t like it.

I remember my first taste. An explosion of pepper, chile and cinnamon blossomed in my mouth, tempered by the creamy yogurt and the flowering essence of cardamom and cloves. The meat was juicy and tender, and the ginger, garlic and onions had made a rich sauce that clinged to the meat and flavored the snow-white rice.

“Stewed Druid is good,” Chris commented as he ate. “I don’t even mind the tree bits.”

Morganna’s father didn’t like it, so, until I left him, several years later, I never made the dish again.

But I kept the recipe, smudged with reddish sauce, in a notebook that smelled of my dreams of India.

Over the years, I made it often, after I had come to Athens. It was a special recipe, one that everyone who tasted it loved.. As is the way of things, it changed over time, as I encountered new recipes, new equipment, and tasted different versions at restaurants.

The version I made night before last is the way I made it for my clients. I employed the pressure cooker, because it cut down on the cooking time, so that I could make up to eight long-cooked dishes for them in a fraction of the time it normally would have taken. (I was not paid by the hour, but a fixed rate–therefore, the faster and more efficient I was in cooking–the higher my hourly wage would become.)

Now, the recipe is very different than that one I wrote down many years ago, but it still is very good, and every time I make it and take that first bite, I am transported back to my first experience cooking Indian food, when I was flying blind by the seat of my pants, trusting in Madhur Jaffrey to guide my hands and heart.

Rogan Josht:

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter or ghee
2 medium onions, cut in half, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder or leg, most of the fat trimmed: cut it into cubes with or without bones
3 bay leaves (fresh ones, if you can get them, are amazing in this)
8 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
5 whole cloves
1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 whole black cardamom
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
4 teaspoons half-sharp or sweet Hungarian paprika (I used half-sharp)
1/2 quart whole milk yogurt, cream from top stirred in and whisked until smooth
1/2 cup water
salt to taste
garam masala to taste
handful of fresh cilantro or mint, roughly chopped

Method:

In a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat butter or ghee on medium heat. Add onions, and start stirring. When the onions turn transluescent and golden, sprinkle with salt, then keep stirring until onions are deep, reddish brown. Be careful not to let them burn. Scrape them from the pan into a bowl to allow them to cool.

Pat meat dry and put pan back on the fire and let it reheat. Brown meat, in batches if necessary, so as to keep from crowding the pan. Add bay leaves with the meat and allow them to brown slightly–their flavor will permeate the ghee and the meat.

Grind all of the spices, garlic, ginger and the like, with the onions to a thick paste. You know what I am going to say–the Sumeet is the best way to accomplish this.

When the meat is mostly browned, add the spice paste, and keep stirring and frying. Once the meat is browned the spice paste should be very fragrant and starting to stick to the meat and the pan. Use a tiny bit of water to scrape it off the pan.

Bring out the pressure cooker, put the meat, bay leaves and spice paste into it, along with the yogurt and the water.

Bring to a boil, lock down lid, bring to full pressure, then turn down heat and cook for fifteen minutes. When the timer goes off, turn off heat and allow the pressure to fall naturally by waiting until the pressure indicator shows it is safe to unlock the lid. Open the lid, turn the heat back on, bring to a boil and boil away excess moisture, until a thick, clingy sauce is left behind. This usually takes about ten minutes of brisk boiling and evaporation action.

Taste for salt and adjust as necessary. If you like, sprinkle with garam masala, and then garnish with plenty of chopped cilantro or mint.

Serve with raita, steamed basmati or a sweet pillau with golden raisins, saffron and almonds, and a vegetable dish or two. Zak is very fond of Navrattan Korma with this.

16 Comments

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  1. Sounds like heaven… Love the photos and the descriptive recipe! And, of course, the story that accompanies it!

    Is a sumeet like a mortar and pestle?

    Comment by Tracy — February 6, 2006 #

  2. Ohh Barbara! Stop tempting me! I LOVE Roghan Josh! The sad thing is its hard to get lamb at the regular grocery stores here, and I can’t stand going to the buther.

    My mom learnt making this exotic from Madhur Jaffery too. I remember her religiously taping every episode of the cookery show. :o)

    PS: Please update my link. Yup, I finally got my site running on my own domain!

    http://www.hookedonheat.com

    Comment by Meena — February 6, 2006 #

  3. I knew I should have put a link to the Sumeet, Tracy! It is an electric grinder from India that can grind anything into a paste. Dried spices, wet spices, lentils, soaked corn, whatever. Since I cook so much Thai, Indian and Mexican food, it is indispensible.

    Maybe I will just put a link to their website permanently on my sidebar, because I refer to it so much.

    Meena–I will update today! Congratulations! I am glad that Zak could help.

    Most grocery stores will order in lamb for you these days, Meena–usually at no extra charge. You just have to give them a week to get it in, though.

    I have only seen Madhur on television once–and loved the show. I have seen Julie Sahni, once–both on Food TV early on in its life. I really enjoyed them! Mostly, I have learned Indian food from books, eating out and from my clients and their friends. Hence my bias toward northern Indian cookery–most of the food I know is technically Pakistani, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi, Punjabi and Mogul.

    Comment by Barbara — February 6, 2006 #

  4. Yum–I adore Indian food. But I can’t imagine Morganna’s father eating that, either. I remember eating at his house as a kid and having Ragu sauce on noodles straight out of the jar and being quietly freaked out, because even my mother, who can’t cook, heated it up and put oregano in it!

    Comment by Azalais Malfoy — February 6, 2006 #

  5. This story somehow reminds me of the “dinosaur meat” story.
    I think it was the “stewed druid is good” comment.

    Comment by Morganna — February 6, 2006 #

  6. Oh I just ate Barbara and you’ve made me hungry all over again! I really need to start cooking indian food.

    It’s getting kind of ridiculous how I drool over your photos and recipes and keep talking about them to my classmates (who must want me to shut up about it by now :-)

    Rose

    PS. I think you should be getting a commission from Sumeet!

    Comment by Rose — February 6, 2006 #

  7. At least you were not subjected to the tuna noodle stuff, Azalais–ick. I still shudder to think of it.

    Morganna–you would like Chris. Hopefully, you will get to meet him someday–he is very funny, and a lot of fun to talk with.

    Rose–you should learn to cook Indian food. It isn’t that hard–I used to be horribly intimidated by it, but I am not so much anymore. I have cooked it for enough years, I guess that now I don’t often use recipes, just as I am confident enough to cook many homestyle improvisational stir fries when it comes to Chinese food.

    It is like learning anything–take baby steps first, and then bigger steps, and soon, you will be cooking beautifully spiced foods, redolent with the scents of fruit and yogurt, cinnamon and pepper, chile and lime.

    It will be a beautiful thing.

    Comment by Barbara — February 7, 2006 #

  8. Oh, and you are right–I should write to Sumeet and show them how many times I talk about their grinder in my blog. Maybe they will give me that new bigger model that I am drooling over profusely. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara — February 7, 2006 #

  9. Ahhh—thank you for sharing the recipe and the experiences that first led you to prepare it. It illustrates why food is such an important part of life, and much more than simply eating something.

    Of course the eating part is heaven!

    Comment by Sher — February 7, 2006 #

  10. Barbara, I am thrilled to see your interest in Indian food and culture and more importantly your appreciation of it. I hope you do fulfill your childhood wish of visiting this country. Have you tried any other regional cuisine of India?

    Comment by Ashwini — February 7, 2006 #

  11. you are correct. there is not a decent market in huntington. but there is one, with shifty hours. sometimes they’re open at 3 pm in the afternoon, sometimes they’re not. it’s very disconcerting. they also have fantastic baklava in both middle eastern and greek varieties. they mainly carry japanese food, though. and we do finally have an indian restaurant, too. we’re slowly moving up in the world.

    Comment by ashley — February 7, 2006 #

  12. Glad you liked the story, Sher–it was a big step for me to cook Indian food before ever tasting it.

    Ashwini–I am learning more about the foods of Goa, and some about the vegetarian foods of the Vaishaiva Hindus. They have a beautiful vegetarian cuisine that has delicious recipes–I think that if I ate mostly Chinese and Indian foods, I could be mostly a vegetarian without feeling deprived of anything.

    But I am still learning, and having a good time doing it! And someday, I do hope to see India. I still long to see the Taj Mahal in person, because when I was a child, it was my favorite building in the world. To me, there was no place more beautiful. I remember my mother gave me an alabaster carved miniature of it for Christmas one year, and it was my prized possession for many, many years.

    Sadly, it was broken and lost long ago in a very bad situation. But that was how much I had longed to visit India, that I would look at that carving for years and dream.

    A strange thing for a little girl to dream of, I suppose, but I was probably just an odd child.

    Hello, Ashley!

    I am sad to hear that the market in Huntington is not that great, though good baklava almost makes up for the market’s deficits.

    And an Indian restaurant, too? That is wonderful! We even have one here in Athens, and it is pretty good, but not perfect.

    Comment by Barbara — February 7, 2006 #

  13. Hi my fellow Sumeet-loving friend! I don’t know if you caught my Kashmiri posts in December. I also made Rogan Josh largely based on one of Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes. You can read it here. I like the idea of cooking it in a pressure cooker. I was just looking at pressure cookers today in the store, largely because you are always mentioning how much you like yours. If it works half as well as a Sumeet, I’ll be happy. Take care!

    Comment by Brett — February 8, 2006 #

  14. I remember that post, Brett–you did the Brahmin version with asafoetida in it, as opposed to my Pakistani Muslim version!

    You know–I really like the smell of asafoetida–I don’t know why everyone else seems to think it smells bad. It is a homey smell–strong, pungent, yes, but not bad. But then, I like the residual smell of garlic on my fingertips, so what do I know, anyway?

    Comment by Barbara — February 8, 2006 #

  15. I didn’t know that you lived in Huntington. I grew up there, though I haven’t lived there in 12 years. I am really enjoying reading through your blog.

    Comment by Leslie — February 15, 2006 #

  16. I lived in Huntington for about eight years. I first went to college at Marshall, then moved away and went to Ohio U here in Athens. There were many years in between, though.

    I prefer it here in Athens.

    Glad you are liking the blog–come back anytime!

    Comment by Barbara — February 15, 2006 #

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