“Cumin and asafoetida is an appropriate combination, as is onion with garlic. Just don’t go mixing up the two combinations.” I was learning how to make the Rajasthani signature Lal Maas (which translates less than felicitously as red meat) from Arvind Singh of Mewar, Maharana of Udaipur. Shreeji as he is called affectionately, reportedly keeps a good table. It turned out that he is an excellent teacher to boot. Our classroom was an ornate drawing room, overflowing with gigantic crystal mirrors and gilt furniture that overlooks Lake Pichola.
The Rajput community may have started cooking this signature dish in the wilds, during the hunts that used to be held a generation ago. Like its gravy-less counterpart, khud cooking, this was as far as red-blooded males (including a few blue-blooded ones) would venture into the kitchen. For, all across the world, sweating over a freshly killed animal out in the wilderness and turning it into a delectable feast was not quite the same thing as mincing around a domestic kitchen to create mangodis, chutneys and dals.
Cooking lal maas is a time-consuming process. Anyone can make a thick curry, but the whole point of lal maas, Shriji informs me, is to end up with a thin, yet flavourful gravy, that can be poured atop rotis. For this is one preparation that is not poured into a katori but over a plate with rotis lining it. Making the gravy extra thick is to Punjabify it, and the wince that flits across his countenance says exactly what he thinks of the cuisine of one state sliding inexorably into its neighbours, till everything loses its special character.
My teacher, let it be said had a few unorthodox methods of teaching. From time to time, to illustrate a point, he’d call out to the bunch of equerries that were standing, invisible, on the other side of the door, to bring him an ingredient or a utensil that he wanted to show me. They’d come tumbling into the room, dash back to the kitchen and return trundling an extra heavy saucepan made of tinned brass or a jar of chilli powder on a silver salver.
Spices were something of a preoccupation with Shriji. He derided the coriander seeds of today, saying that 30 years ago, coriander tasted the way it had to, unlike the more mealy ones that have invaded the market. He called for his bottles of chilli powder – there were several, judging by how long it took the troupe of equerries to fetch the correct ones. One jar had powdered chillies from Raipur (Rajasthan) with the seeds, whose colour Shriji heaped scorn on. Another was from Raipur chillies from which the seeds had been removed, in true-to-type Rajput fashion (chilli seeds are believed to upset the stomach) and a third bore the brand name Ramdev.
The next time I meet one of Rajasthan’s royals, I’m going to wrest the recipe for khud khargosh: it’s politically incorrect even to admit knowing how to make it.