Kunchikutty Amma’s Mutton Curry
Kunchikutty Amma’s mutton curry was always eagerly awaited by her family even though it took a while to transform a few pounds of meat into this delicacy. It started a day or two ahead of the event when her husband, Narayanan Nair, told the village butcher (there was only one in Cherpalcherry up until late into the 70s) to set aside choice thigh meat. The meat was actually goat, so not strictly mutton. The cooking itself was done in a kitchen that had three wood-fired addupus. Apart from the goat, the contributors to the meal included Kittunni who provided firewood to the house and Kalikutty who did the heavy work of first powdering and then grinding the spices.
Narayanan Nair constructed the house in August 1940 just before the birth of his second daughter. Being frugal in his habits he was loath to cut down coconut trees indiscriminately. Thus, it came be that a coconut tree towered within the perimeter of the house, its trunk poking through an opening in the tiled roof. This arrangement persisted for about two decades until the cost of replacing the broken tiles from the falling coconuts outweighed any economic gain. The kitchen was to the side of the house with a big window overlooking the front courtyard. It was dimly lit, and soot darkened the wooden window grills over time. A square area set in stone slightly below the kitchen floor allowed you to draw water from the well. The house was modest as befitting a schoolmaster’s salary. Perhaps its one claim to distinction was that the writer T. A. Rajalakshmi describes something like the environs of the house in her novels. She was Kunchikutty Amma’s niece and stayed at the house when she and her sisters were evacuated from their home in Ernakulam because of the perceived Japanese threat during WWII.
Into this house some 18 years after it was constructed, I was born. Electrification had beat me by about seven months, but I beat indoor plumbing by a good two decades. As a child, I remember electricity was never a sure thing, particularly during the monsoon season. Lanterns were kept on the ready, wicks trimmed and oil reservoirs filled. My mother was the eldest daughter and I was the first grandchild my grandparents had; they doted on me for years to come.
It was a 90-mile drive in our Standard Mark Ten (its speedometer was calibrated in MPH) from where my parents lived in Ernakulam to Cherpalcherry. We made the pilgrimage many times a year, and my Amumma’s cooking was a big draw for me since I had no friends in Cherpalcherry. I never attempted to learn how she made her mutton curry or even watched her and Kalikutty labor over the making of the dish. But my grandparents taught me other things: Amumma taught me to swim, in her sister’s kulam, and my grandad taught me how to fashion wristwatches and balls out of coconut palm leaves. I still know how to swim, but alas, desuetude has taken a toll on my other skills.
My parents moved about because of my dad’s job, and we left Ernakulam for the big city of Bombay for five years. We visited Cherpalcherry once a year during the summer holidays. I did not enjoy those trips; it was very hot in Cherpalcherry, my cousins were all too young to play with me, and no amount of Amumma’s delicacies made up for lost time with friends in Bombay. We came back to Ernakulam in the middle of my 10th school year, leaving me to get through the SSLC examination.
I did my only year of high school in Kerala at the Rajagiri High School in Kalamassery. Having studied in Bombay for the previous five years, my Malayalam writing skills were well below par to pass the SSLC Malayalam paper. I got an exemption from Malayalam and instead, wrote two extra papers: one in Special English and another in Additional English, which explains to some degree why I am not writing this article in my mother tongue. Rajagiri is a good 30 minutes by bus from Ernakulam without traffic, so I had a choice of taking a packed lunch or eating with the boarders at school. Carrying lunch was not something I liked, so I opted for eating with the boarders.
Rajagiri was run by Jesuit priests and they certainly believed in mens sana in corpore sano. They fostered a high degree of academics, had first-class sports facilities, and a great kitchen to provide nourishment to their charges. I benefited by them all, but it is to the kitchen that I draw your attention. There I met dishes like beef fry, meen peera, fish in kokum-flavored fiery red curry, and several others. By happy coincidence, my parents’ dear friends and next-door neighbors, were the Jacobs from Kottayam. Reproducing these Rajagiri delicacies at home from Mummy’s (Mrs Jacob’s) recipes was easy for my mother. And as always, I passed from childhood to adulthood not knowing how to cook any food except to boil an egg, make an omelet, and make tea.
I had read about scrumptious European food, first in the novels of Enid Blyton, then in more grown up settings. As an undergraduate at IIT Madras, I used to scrimp on my allowance from home to dine at some of the fancy restaurants in the City, like The Connemara, that catered to the Western palate. Somewhere in my fourth and fifth years, it occurred to me that all this would be more readily accessible were I in the USA. I believe it was food first, and then higher education that brought me to these shores. In the process, I clearly overlooked the difficulties of transporting Amumma’s mutton curry and Mummy’s beef fry to California.
I spent three quarters at UC Santa Barbara. I acquired a Masters and a good 10 pounds on lashings of dorm food. The subsequent Fall, in 1983, I found myself in Sunnyvale, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had my own apartment with a kitchen but did not know one end of a ladle from the other. I cooked no meals, but boiled water for tea and made eggs, things that I was long adept at. The Indians I knew didn’t know how to cook Malayalee food, and no Indian restaurant on the SF Peninsula attempted the cuisine. That changed when Helen from Kerala, a former nurse, started Helen’s Kitchen in San Mateo. I don’t recall how I stumbled on it, but if you called them ahead of time they would do anything you wanted, at a price. And I wanted it all, but my pocketbook couldn’t really keep up with it.
Finally, my mother decided to visit me in 1986, and she brought with her all her motherly qualities and the know-how to make those dishes that I had been waiting for. Approximately four years out in the cold had convinced me that if I didn’t learn to cook, Amumma’s mutton curry would be an ephemera that departed with my mother when she returned to India. In the next six months, my mother showed me how to cook those lovely Malayalee dishes, and I cooked with her till I became proficient. In fact, by the end of her visit, I fancied myself so proficient that I was venturing into foolhardy territory like making biriyani.
Cooking has remained a part of my life ever since. A few years after my mother’s visit, my wife and I met Susan, an accomplished cook and gourmand, who was my wife’s Ph.D. advisor at UW. Susan introduced me to the joys of French cuisine and wine, and over the years my repertoire expanded, but the seed that started it all was Amumma’s mutton curry, which I reproduce below. The first recipe is what my mother taught me and is adapted to conditions in CA circa 1986. The second is from my aunt, who got it from her mother, and is labor intensive. I have never tried it, but my aunt used it routinely, in the same kitchen where my grandmother cooked. My aunt’s eldest son lives in that house now. Rumor has it he continues the family’s manly tradition of making tea and boiling eggs.
I recommend you read the recipes through a couple of times before you use either one. Within a few attempts you will be able to produce the first recipe in 30 minutes and get consistent results.
Simplified Recipe adapted to the US
Lamb 2 lbs boneless Coriander powder 5 tablespoons Red Chilli powder 1½ tablespoons Pepper powder ½ teaspoon Turmeric powder 2 teaspoons Salt 1 tablespoon Green chilli 6 slit lengthwise Ginger chopped 2 teaspoons Canned coconut milk 4-5 tablespoons Curry leaves 2 stalks Red onion 1 large chopped, reserve 1 tablespoon 5 qt saucepan with a tight-fitting lid Small sauté pan
Cut the lamb into bite-sized pieces and salt it.
Mix 2 tablespoons of coconut milk with water to yield 1/3 cup of liquid.
Heat coriander powder and red chilli powder in the saucepan on medium heat until light brown. Do not overheat or it will affect the color and taste of the curry.
Off heat, add lamb, pepper powder, turmeric powder, green chilli, ginger, onion, and the diluted coconut milk to the saucepan. Close the lid, bring to the boil, and then simmer for 5 minutes. Correct for salt.
Check the fluid level, and the doneness of the meat. If the fluid level is too low, add a little warm water, cover, and continue simmering until done.
If the fluid level is high and the curry is diluted, add a tablespoon of un-diluted coconut milk, raise the heat a bit and cook uncovered till until done.
When the meat is cooked, take the saucepan off the heat.
Sauté the reserved 1 tablespoon of onion and curry leaves. Add this and the remaining coconut milk to the saucepan and heat on medium heat for a minute.
Mutton 2 rathal (pounds) Coriander seeds 1 nazhi (about 8 oz) Red chilli 15 (this is not for the faint-hearted) Peppercorns 1 teaspoon Turmeric powder 2 teaspoons Salt 1 tablespoon Green chilli 6 slit lengthwise Ginger chopped 2 teaspoons Coconut ¼, freshly scraped Curry leaves 2-3 stalks Red pearl onions Sliced fine crosswise, sufficient to yield 2 tablespoons Coconut oil 2 teaspoons Water As needed Kal Chatti (soapstone dish) big enough to hold meat and water
Grind the scraped coconut on a grinding stone and reserve.
Dry roast the peppercorns for a minute, ensuring they are not burned or fried.
Pound the coriander seed and red chillies. Grind them with the peppercorns to a smooth paste on a grinding stone.
Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and mix it with the turmeric powder, salt, and the ground spice from the previous step.
Add slit green chillies, chopped ginger, and meat to the soapstone dish.
Add enough water to cover the meat completely. This is tricky because you need different amounts of water depending on the quality your meat and how long it will take to get it properly cooked. And adding too much water will make the curry too watery. Also, the meat will release its juices, particularly since it has been salted.
Bring the water to a boil and simmer until meat is cooked through. Correct for salt.
Add the ground coconut and curry leaves to the dish and simmer for a couple of minutes.
While it is a simmering, sauté the pearl onions in the coconut oil and add to the dish.