What is your favorite lamb recipe? Chops? Shoulder? Leg? Steaks? Grilled? Baked? Marinated? Rubbed?
Most of us run out of ways to prepare lamb before our mint jelly is finished. If young mutton ranks high on your list of preferences, you’ll be interested to know the Royal Cooks for the Mughal Empire in India were able to create a different preparation of lamb for each day of the year. That’s well over three hundred dishes—far more than today’s cooks would be able, or inclined, to create.
Although other meat showed up in the Mughal cuisine, lamb was their meat of choice for both religious and geographical reasons. As Muslims they didn’t eat pork. Large quantities of beef were unavailable in the predominantly Hindu country (India) they ruled. Fish and other seafood were unfamiliar and not easily available in their landlocked empire.
These wealthy Mughals, builders of the memorable Taj Mahal, lived a life of luxury, drama, and complexity—an opulence which was reflected in their food. Any ingredient they wanted could be summoned to their table. Gold and silver foil garnished tops of food. Fifty different dishes would be prepared for a banquet. Multitudes of spices were daily ground for their meals.
A favorite Mughal lamb appetizer was muzbi. Its preparation began with a lamb breast. A marinade of garlic, onion, ginger, green chili, turmeric, red chili and garam masala was ground together then mixed with yogurt. Fatty cubes were cut from the marinated breast and dipped into a thin paste of crushed almonds, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds. Then the muzbi was quickly sizzled on hot stones. Several pieces would be served to each person on plates garnished with sliced onion, green chutney, and a wedge of lime.
You might not want—nor have the facilities—to prepare a whole fattened sheep and platter it on its back with its legs in the air, but the Mughal cooks did. First they liberally slashed the animal and filled each incision with spices. Then it was roasted on a spit. After the meat was cooked, the carcass was stuffed with flavored rice, whole roasted chickens, and hard-boiled eggs. The entire concoction was baked in a cauldron with butter, water, vegetables, rice, and more spices. The graphic shape wasn’t always attractive, but the taste was a tantalizing combination of strong lamb, bland chicken and eggs combined with the snappy combination of spices, vegetables and rice. Large feasts required several of these plattered animals.
Mughal kitchens are gone but many of their recipes, some of them adaptations, are still favorites in many parts of the world. The preparations below use lamb without the complexity and over-the-top- richness so frequently found in Mughal food.
One is biryani which is a rice and lamb combination. Spices such as cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, and saffron are used in various combinations. Biryani is garnished with small sheets of edible silver leaf.
Another, ground lamb meatballs filled with hard-cooked eggs, is a visually stunning dish we can thank the Mughals for. When Nargesi Kofta is sliced, the egg in the middle is sunnily exposed, reminiscent of the narcissus reflected in its name.
A third is kababs, seasoned ground lamb shaped into elongated “sausages” around skewers. They are grilled or broiled and served with a sprinkle of masala and perhaps a sauce made from pistachios, almonds, cardamom and cream.
Lamb can be prepared with a variety of masalas, each changing the flavor of the finished product. Masala is a combination of spices, herbs and others seasonings ground or pounded together and is used as the base for Indian curry sauces. They are fresh daily, and adjusted to the current ingredients. Coconut, coriander, hot chilies, ginger root, garlic, and onions are enjoyed in addition to the powdered ingredients.
Complex lamb dishes involving extended preparations, significant staff and unusually large platters are limited to royalty and the very wealthy. For the rest of us, cookbooks provide a wide range of ingredients and methods that present lamb as a worthy entrée.
A basic, home-style lamb curry for today’s cooks is accomplished by creating a sauce and cooking it with the meat. Sauté 2 chopped onions, four cloves of garlic, ¼” chopped fresh ginger, 1 ½ t coriander powder, a pinch of turmeric, ½ t cumin powder, ¼ t garam masala, 1 t chili powder. Add a cup of water and cook for 10 minutes. Add two chopped tomatoes and cook another five minutes. Now the curry sauce is ready for the 10 ounces of lamb cubes and 2 ½ cups of water. Cook until done and serve sprinkled with chopped coriander leaves.