Contributed by Siddhartha Singh
First off, let me clarify this not about cooking mutton in the decorative copper lined pots that you come across in restaurants as handi gosht. This is slow cooking in an earthen utensil – something like thick-walled ghadas (pots).
During our last visit to my hometown in the semi-urban environs of Avadh, we were hosted to a rustic, but not simple dinner of handiya gosht by Indrajit and Priyanka. PhDs in Geography and Sanskrit respectively, Indrajit and Priyanka are unburdened by intellectual superciliousness and have a strong attachment to their roots, which is required to go through this whole rigmarole.
We first bought the thickest-walled handiya we could find in the kumharon ki basti (potters neighbourhood). It cost us merely Rs. 40, but would cost few times more in larger cities. We also bought kandi (cow dung cakes) from a ghosi (a community among muslims of cowherders and milkmen). Finally we placed a mason’s cement mixing tray on a discarded gas stove, and placed the kandis in it. This became our stove.
Since the handiya cannot take very high heat, it cannot be used to make the oil sufficiently hot for tadka. Hence, we heated mustard oil separately in a pan. The empty handiya was slowly heated on our makeshift stove so it wouldn’t crack on the addition of hot oil. Cumins seeds, dry whole red chillis, and whole garam masala (comprising green and black cardamom, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves and mace) were added to this. A couple of heaped tablespoons of ginger and garlic paste along with almost a kilogram of onions and two kilograms of mutton were added. From here on the cooking process was easier than normal cooking as no bhunoing is required. The focus however shifted to temperature control and pot balancing. Considering the kandis would unevenly get burnt out on one side or another, the pot which is resting on them can quickly become unbalanced, and since there is no way of lifting a full pot, regularly adding pieces of the kandi to balance the weight and heat becomes much trickier than it sounds – at least I wouldn’t be able to manage it and would probably end up with a broken pot with all the goodies spilled on the floor!
Couple of gentle stirs every 15- 20 minutes, and in about three hours we had we had the most sondha (a Hindi word, for which I couldn’t find an appropriate translation – but those who managed to read through Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies can bear with me for one such word) mutton stew that I had ever eaten. The thick onion gravy gives it the resemblance of a do-piaza but it tastes very different from the caramelised onion taste that is key to the do-piaza.