A while ago, the brilliant team behind EatwithIndia invited me to be on the panel of judges for a competition to judge the best lal maas, prepared by 11 different home cooks. The most vociferous on the panel of judges was Hemendra Singh of Bhainsrorgarh, an erstwhile noble state in Mewar. He was the only Rajput on the panel – even the home cooks did not include anyone from Rajasthan. Our panel was one of the Delhi-based ones: there are two more from Rajasthan and one more from – of all places – Guwahati. The winners of each city will eventually gather for a cook-off in Delhi amidst, I daresay, much pomp and splendour. After all, this is the same company that conceptualized and hosted Dine with Royalty not long ago.
The format of the competition was that each contestant would come forward bearing a serving dish that he or she had prepared at home and the panel would ask questions about the kind of chillies that were used, which spices went into the preparation and what the method of cooking was. To our surprise, we found that every last one of the 11 contestants had widely varying ingredients and methods of preparation. One had used kalonji in the ingredients, half had used ghee, the other half mustard oil. To a man, all had used onions: some claimed to have used two or three; others had used half the quantity of onions to meat. The amount and type of whole aromatic spices varied as widely as every other aspect. Some had used tomatoes, curd or kachri as a souring agent, most had not. Cumin and coriander, turmeric and dry red chillies had gone into everybody’s rendition. One version, by an unfortunate accident, had become completely dry, but most had minimal amounts of very thick gravy, bright red in colour.
Not surprisingly, Hemendra Singh was the most vocal of the judges. He kept asking the competitors leading questions, to elicit responses, but it was clear that he was not getting the response that he was seeking. Finally, when the winners were declared, Hemendra could contain himself no longer. It transpired that lal maas is a dish cooked throughout Rajasthan and the popularity was so great that a number of restaurants took to making their own rendition of it, where bulking up quantities was a considerable factor, as was short preparation time. The other factor was what I would call general acceptability. In Rajput homes, lal maas is cooked with a generous quantity of thin gravy, the better to soak the rotis that are placed to line the bowl or soup plate. By the time the meat is eaten, the rotis have softened to the point of disintegration, when they’re enjoyed at the conclusion of the meal. By contrast, most of the contestants had paired the lal maas with rice or very thick bajra rotis (they were getting marks for presentation, as well as for flavour and authenticity.)
None of this suggests any shortcoming in the contestants, whatsoever. I am writing about this path-breaking initiative by EatwithIndia because it leads up to the famous question: What exactly is authenticity. Chef Manjit Gill has been a proponent of an Indian version of Gastronomy Larousse, in which concepts like mushroom galawati will automatically die a painful death. Gill points out that while mutton forcemeat is softened with galawat (softening) agent, it is redundant in the case of a mushroom ‘kebab’ so the name is ludicrous and unworthy of a cuisine as venerable and ancient as ours. He points out many other anomalies as well. My own doubt is about lal maas: how much regional variation is acceptable and at what point of the continuum must we call it out as being a travesty.
Says Dharmendar Kanwar, author and food critic based in Jaipur, as well as a member of the Rajput community herself, lal maas used to be made bright red because of the kind of chillies that were used. These were usually chillies from the tiny town of Mathania near Jodhpur. She says that members of her community present each other gifts of food from their thikana which would translate to ‘hereditary land’. Ladies visiting daughters in their married homes would carry cumin, red chillies and lentils to last a year, and so, Mathania chillies with their delicate floral flavour travelled to many parts of the state, to be used for their flaming red colour.
Can you call a thin, watery mutton curry Lal Maas if it is not flaming red? Can you call a flaming red mutton gravy Lal Maas if it is thick with onions? Do you make allowances for the consistency of the gravy to be thickened for easier portioning in a commercial establishment? Would you insist on serving four rotis on the base of a soup plate and pour Lal Maas over it as in a Rajput home, even if your guests wanted to eat it like any other ‘curry’? I think we must be prepared to ask these questions of ourselves and others in the interests of preserving our culinary heritage and/or taking it forward.