In many non-vegetarian households, a lamb or goat dish is often found amongst a plethora of other decadent dishes on Deepavalli day. My family usually ate vegetarian breakfasts before heading out to the temple and in the evenings when we had guests over, we almost always had a lamb or goat curry with idli (steam rice cakes), thosai (rice crepes) and perhaps another meat curry – a guaranteed food coma!
I wanted to showcase a different lamb dish other than the usual lamb or goat curry that’s made in many south indian households. So, a trip to the north and a bhuna it is. A bhuna dish is not a curry. It’s characterised by the thick, luscious and extremely delicious gravy that clings to the meat. Bhuna actually refers to the technique of cooking the meat rather than the name of a dish. It involves cooking the meat in spices and its own juices and so no water is actually added throughout the cooking process. A lot of the flavour comes from continuously tossing the meat in a thick, circular and deep cooking vessel like an indian kadhi/karahi, which results in an almost jam-like, sensuous, deep coloured gravy. In many restaurants, a bhuna dish has a lot of gravy and is light brown in colour and this is actually not reflective of what the dish is really supposed to be.
Meat: In India, people prefer goat meat and so they pressure cook it before adding it to the kadhi to make it tender. It’s almost impossible to get goat meat in Singapore as most goat meat stalls actually pass off lamb meat as goat. So, for this dish, I used bone in, leg of lamb as I like the ratio of fat-to-meat and the wonderful flavour that the bone adds to the gravy. You could also use boneless lamb shoulder with some fat but I would not advice using any lean meat as the long cooking will dry out the meat. With lamb, I prefer not to pressure cook the meat before adding to my pot as I like the soft meat texture. However, if you prefer very soft meat, I would recommend pressure cooking your meat for 2 whistles – medium-high heat for 1st whistle and then low heat for 1 whistle and let the pressure reduce before removing meat and juices.
Marination: The beauty of bhuna is that a lot of flavour comes from the gravy that coats the meat so it’s not necessary to marinate the meat overnight with a lot of flavouring. I just add a pinch of salt with a 1/2 a tablespoon of ginger-garlic paste and leave it for about 4 hours. Too much salt toughens the meat so I add more salt right after I add it to the pot.
Spices and flavourings: Though the dish looks complex, it really is a cinch to make. There are just two important processes that need to be spot on and the rest is simple. The onions need to be a deep amber, brown and the meat needs to be tossed constantly at the end. What you want is a beautiful, sticky, mildly sweet flavour from deep brown onions that balances the deep earthy notes from the black cardamom, roasted cumin powder, cinnamon leaf (also known as indian bay leaf) and cinnamon. The oil prevents the onions from burning and a pinch of salt draws out the moisture from onions and quickens the browning process. The colour of the onions will be the final colour of your dish so your patience will pay off when you take your first bite. Tip: Pan roast and grind all your own coriander seeds and cumin seeds to elevate your indian cooking. Trust me on this. I make my own coriander and cumin powders and I’ve never looked back. It’s a game changer. Also, the use of black cardamom is non-negotiable. Black cardamom and red meat is a match made in heaven as the gorgeous, smoky notes from black cardamom are just outstanding when paired with mildly gamey young lamb or robust beef. So, it’s worth buying a small packet just for red meat curries. With meat curries, I like to add quite a lot of garlic, especially slow-cooked ones as garlic ‘melts’ into the unctuous gravy.
Suggested food and wine pairing : I love to pair my Lamb Bhuna with chapatis, plain basmati and some fresh, vibrant vegetable sides. I really like how quick pickled red cabbage brightens the earthy robust flavours of the gravy and even a simple cabbage dish would be a nice autumnal addition. For wine, I’ve tried Pinot Noir and Bordeaux. Any robust, red wine would go perfectly with this because this is a celebratory, utterly decadent dish – so why not some wine?
Cooking tips: A thick bottom, high-sided, slopped pot like the 26cm Le Creuset Marmite is well-suited for the preparation of this dish. The satin black enamel coating actually browns the onions perfectly due to its even heat retention. The onion sugars caramelise so beautifully – deep, brown and jammy. The wide base of the Marmite also helps speed up the evaporation/thickening of the the gravy. Using a curved wooden spoon helps to stir and toss the meat during the bhuna process and the curved sides of the Marmite also make it easier. It’s much easier to stir food because the curves of the wooden spoon glide along the sides of the Marmite pot. I now cook all my curries using the Marmite – it has become my Precious!
Not long ago, I used to be terrified of cooking lamb as I was under the impression that all lamb dishes were all too complex. But then, I found Lamb Bhuna and there was no turning back. I had success making it the very first time and I remember doing a happy dance in my kitchen when that happened. Since then, in the guise of recipe testing, I’ve made it about five times! It is that freaking good. In other words – please make this! And then drop me a note here, by email or on my Instagram page (which I seem to be constantly on these days). I’d love to hear about how this dish was life-changing or not , which I seriously doubt.
Recipe by: Vasun, http://www.cupcakesncurries.com
Recipe can easily be doubled for 4-6 servings
- 500-600 grams bone in, lamb leg, medium 1- 1.5 inch chunks
- pinch of turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
- 1.5 tablespoons natural yoghurt
- 1/4 cup neutral cooking oil ( I used rice bran oil)
- 1 small cinnamon leaf/ indian bay leaf
- 2 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
- 1 large black cardamom
- 1/2 inch cassia bark / indian cinnamon stick
- 1.5 cups red onions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
- 1 medium tomato, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1-2 heaped teaspoon chilli powder
- fine sea salt, to taste
- Garnish: thin ginger strips, coriander, mint leaves, *sprinkle of garam masala
- Marinate the lamb pieces with turmeric, salt, ginger-garlic paste and yoghurt for about 4 hours or up to 10 hours, in a refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before cooking.
- In a 26-cm Marmite pot or any thick-bottom pot, heat pot on medium-low and add neutral cooking oil. Add whole spices – indian bay leaf, cloves, crushed black pepper, black cardamom and cassia, when oil is hot. Fry for 20 seconds or until aromatic.
- Immediately add all the sliced onions to stop the cooking and add a pinch of sea salt. Fry the onions, tossing constantly until onions have become brown and very soft, about 15 minutes. Do not rush this process.
- Once onions are almost evenly caramelised, add ginger-garlic paste and fry for 30 seconds.
- Now, add chopped tomatoes and ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and chilli powders. Add a pinch of sea salt. Fry till oil starts to separate and tomatoes are completely mushy.
- Increase heat to medium and add all lamb pieces with marination. Slowly toss the pieces from time to time to completely sear the surface of all the meat. The meat will change to a light brown. Once most pieces are seared, reduce to low heat, add a sprinkling water, toss with all the masala and cover pot completely. Cook on low for about 15-20 minutes. Check if meat is done at 15 minute mark. A sharp knife or fork will be able to easily pierce the meat.
- Once meat is about 90% cooked, remove cover and increase heat to medium-high. The meat would have rendered its own juices and there will be a thin gravy. (*If using a pressure cooked lamb/goat, add it at this point to a a wide base pot.) Use a wooden spoon, keep stirring and tossing the meat until the gravy thickens and the colour of the gravy become a shade or two darker- the bhuna cooking technique. Once the gravy reaches close to your desired amount of gravy, immediately switch flame off and remove pot from heat as the the gravy will continue to cook and thicken with the pot’s residual heat. The gravy should still be slightly wet, jammy and not powder-dry.
- Garnish, sprinkle a little garam masala and serve immediately. If serving later, cook till step 6 and complete the bhuna just before serving.