This is all about the glorious textures of meat, from the satisfying chew of chunk meat to the insubstantial lightness of pates. There’s little you can do with a vegetable to alter its texture, but meat, now, that’s a whole different ball game.
There’s a grotty little dhaba in the bowels of the Old City around Delhi’s Jama Masjid. It’s called Al Jawahar, and it’s next door to Karim’s. It doesn’t spice its almost entirely meat based cookery the way that Karim’s does, and so it’s remained firmly in the background, but there’s one area in which Al Jawahar takes the pants off Karim’s, and that is in the cuts of meat it uses. It is streets ahead of its famous neighbour. Like Karim’s, Al Jawahar, which is owned by a family of butchers, cuts its meat across the grain. But there, all resemblance ends. Al Jawahar’s lamb never separates from the bone. What trick lies up its sleeve? I guess we’ll never know.
I’ve yet to encounter a recipe book of Indian cookery that tells you what cut of lamb is appropriate for what dish, but it’s vital. Imtiaz Qureshi, doyen of Lucknow’s cooks, differentiates every gravy dish from the next by the specific cut of meat he uses. In Hong Kong, and very probably mainland China too, meat – primarily pork and beef – is cut in a certain way so that it is tender and free of gristle. How do they manage it? That’s another trick we’ll never know. And it can’t be only due to the small size of the pieces they use, because Chinese restaurants in India also use similar sized pieces, but they entirely lack the texture of their Hong Kong counterparts.
My pet hate has just got to be Kashmiri recipe books that tell you to use finely minced lamb for ristas and gushtabas. It’s entirely misleading. These two meatballs differ in size but the treatment is the same: large chunks of meat are pounded for ages until not a trace of sinew remains, so it’s not at all minced meat, but pounded meat.
Ristas and gushtabas are pounded thoroughly when they’re uncooked, but shami kebabs and shikampur kebabs are pounded, by roughly the same method, after they’re cooked. And there’s a dramatic difference in their texture. On the other hand, the galauti kebab is made from chunk meat that has first been pounded, then minced (this is the 21st century after all) and then passed through a sieve. TV show host of Masterchef India, Chef Kunal Kapur, says that passing it through a sieve ensures that not only is the texture melt in the mouth, even the merest fibre gets eliminated for a completely silky texture.
Hyderabadi haleem and Kashmiri harissa are two meat dishes in which the meat is cooked and pounded at the same time, one with wheat and the other with rice. Here too, all traces of gristle and fibre are eliminated. But the one dish that elevates meat to another level altogether is chicken liver pate: it is as soft as butter, and is used to spread on bread.