This mutton and vegetable curry comes from the days of the Raj, when travelling by train was a great experience, but limited to the privileged. This was a dish served to the first-class passengers.

This recipe can be traced back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Which, at around 150 years old, is one of the more modern recipes in this book. Basically, it is the Indian Railways’ version of “meat and three veg”.

You will need to start this recipe the day before to allow the overnight marination. Or, you could be like the poor cook mentioned below and get up before dawn to start preparing this.

The tale behind the dish is wonderful, if myths can be believed. The story is something like this.

An army officer was travelling in First class, and lunchtime was approaching. At that time, First class travel was limited to the senior colonial bureaucrats and their families, British Army officers, and the occasional members of Indian royalty. In Second class you would find more junior members of the army and administration, and well-to-do Indians. Third class was for the rest. Mahatma Gandhi wrote an amazing book of articles called “Third Class in Indian Railways” which talks about some of his experiences in 1917. Well worth the read, even if just for for an insight into those times.

You also need to know the way the trains were assembled back then. The First-class carriages were at the front of the train, with the First-class dining car behind them, then the kitchen, or galley car, next. The Second-class cars followed, then the remainder of train with Third class and baggage. The galley car prepared both First and Second class food.

indian railway dining car - ca 1930
indian railway dining car – ca 1930

Back to our officer. From late morning, he could smell wonderful aromas coming from the galley car, and was looking forward to his lunch. He took the early sitting, and was probably enjoying his pink gin, when his lunch arrived.

His lunch was some boiled mutton chops, boiled potatoes, boiled carrots and boiled peas.

Apparently dismayed, and upon tasting this unpalatable offering, he took his plate, went into the galley, grabbed the cook, and told him to “do something with this”. Which the cook promptly did, and the officer returned to his seat with a steaming, spicy, aromatic revised version of his lunch. His lunch companions were not enjoying their lunch much either, and seeing what he had brought back they all insisted on the same.

What then happened was this new way of doing “meat and three veg” went as viral as could be expected of the times. Every time they got onto a train, the original travellers insisted that it be prepared the way it was on the earlier journey. Others saw it, tasted it, and then also insisted upon it. Thus “first class mutton curry” came to be.

You can see from the recipe that the actual cooking process is quite simple. Most of the work is done in preparation and marination – all of which can be done before getting onto the train. You can even prepare the fried potatoes in advance.

I can only imagine what it must be like to prepare and cook on a swinging and bumpy train, so a dish that is simple to cook, with no last-minute preparation is highly desirable. Mind you, working with an old-time pressure cooker in such conditions would have had it’s moments, too.

As an aside, my great-uncle was an engineer responsible for maintenance on the Indian railways. He is from that part of the family that stayed in India during and after Independence. He told me that he was such an aficionado of this dish that he could tell where the train had originated from, based on the taste of the dish.

This is the Eastern Railways version. The South-Western Railways used vinegar instead of tamarind. Use three tablespoons of brown vinegar and add water to make up one cup to replace the tamarind water. You can also add quartered tomatoes at the same time as the potatoes.

The curry is traditionally served with fresh-baked dinner rolls. Well, it IS meat and three veg.

the recipe

prep 15 minutes
cook 35 minutes
marination 12 hours
total 50 minutes
servings 4 servings
calories 582 kcal

ingredients

  • 500 g mutton cut into 1cm pieces

for tempering

for the marinade

for the curry

  • 500 g baby potatoes cut into halves
  • 150 ml tamarind water
  • 2 carrots cut into 2cm pieces
  • 1 cup green peas

to serve

instructions

  1. Toast and grind the cumin and coriander seeds
  2. Heat half the oil in a pan, and add the whole tempering spices until they start to sizzle
  3. Now add the chopped onions, whole garlic cloves, ginger, salt and sugar. Fry until the onions and garlic start turning brown. Take off the heat, and allow to cool a little
  4. In a blender combine the fried onion and spice mix, the ground coriander and cumin seeds, turmeric and a little water, and blend to a paste
  5. Place meat and paste into a mixing bowl and combine. Cover and refrigerate overnight

  6. Heat the remaining oil in the pressure cooker and fry the potatoes, cut side down, until the edges turn a slight hint of brown. Remove from heat and set aside.

  7. Add the marinated mutton pieces into the pressure cooker. Cook on high flame for three minutes stirring continuously so that it does not stick to the pan. The pink colour of the mutton will turn a shade of light brown

  8. Add the tamarind water and fold in with the mutton. Seal the pressure cooker and cook on low heat for 15 minutes

  9. Remove cooker from heat and release pressure quickly.

  10. Add the fried potatoes, carrots and peas to the mix and add warm water, if required. Close and seal the lid and cook for 10 minutes on medium heat

  11. Remove from heat, and leave until the pressure comes down. Open the lid and stir. Add the ghee and garam masala. Close the lid and let the flavours seep into the meat properly for 30 minutes. 

  12. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve.

notes

  • Mutton can be hard to find, so lamb can be substituted. Adjust cooking times in accordance with your pressure cooker instructions.
  • If you don’t have a pressure cooker, then this dish can be done on the stove top. Adjust cooking times to allow for this. You may have to at least double the times.
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