This Anglo-Indian staple was reportedly invented on a long-distance train. On a cold night, this warming curry is just the ticket.
In the 18th century, the British East India Company set up shop in India. Over time, a significant number of its officers settled down and married Indian women. The kids born into this mixed British-Indian parentage were called Anglo-Indians and their cuisine was a marriage between Indian and European dishes. The Indian Railways, established by the British, also influenced this style of food. Its workers were from the Anglo-Indian community and Dak Bungalow chicken (chicken curry cooked in the railway guest homes), vegetable cutlets, vegetable jalfrezi, mulligatawny soup, and a range of cakes and puddings found their way onto their tables – as well as the menus of long-distance trains.
A gem of Anglo-Indian cuisine is railway mutton curry. Soft, succulent pieces of mutton float lazily in its onion base, while potato chunks soak up the viscous gravy – which has thickened after hours of simmering.
According to legend, the dish was invented when a British soldier got hungry on a long-distance train and headed to the pantry car for food. He encountered a chef who had leftover mangsho jhol (Bengali-style mutton curry), which was a bit too hot for the soldier’s palate. So the cook added some coconut milk to reduce the spiciness. The officer enjoyed the dish so much, he kept requesting it, but couldn't recall what it was called – so it was named railway mutton curry.
The meat is traditionally cooked for hours in large pots, so the protein becomes juicy and falls off the bone. The addition of vinegar, tamarind, or tomatoes offers a flavor-intensifying tang, while the inclusion of whole Indian spices gives a delicate aroma to the dish.
The officer enjoyed the dish so much, he kept requesting it, but couldn't recall what it was called – so it was named railway mutton curry.
There are variations on the recipe: sometimes the meat and potatoes are marinated in ginger garlic pastes beforehand, or they're already parboiled to speed up the curry's cooking time.
Nowadays you can find this dish in Anglo-Indian restaurants or homes and it never fails to remind me of summer afternoons in India traveling on long-distance trains. Even though the journey seemed so long, the possibility of a delicious mutton curry made it worthwhile.
Recepie: Railway mutton curry: Serves 6
2 tbsp vegetable oil
8 black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks (about 2.5cm in size each)
2 star anise
4 dried red chillies
5 green cardamom pods
2 tsp ginger garlic paste
2 large yellow onions, finely sliced
2 tsp red chilli powder
2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
Salt, to taste
1 kg mutton or lamb curry pieces
2 potatoes, quartered
3 tomatoes, finely chopped, or 2 tbsp plain vinegar or ½ cup of tamarind juice
100 ml coconut milk
Steamed rice or dinner rolls, to serve
Place a large saucepan over medium heat and add the oil. Heat for a minute, then add the peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, star anise, chillies and cardamom pods, and fry for 30 seconds.
Add the ginger garlic paste and fry for another 30 seconds before adding the sliced onions. Fry the onions until they caramelise (around 15 minutes).
Fill ½ cup with water and add the chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, cumin powder and salt. Mix well. Add this paste to the pan and fry on a low heat until the water has evaporated (around 1-2 minutes).
Add the meat to the pan and mix well until the meat is coated in the spices. Add ½ cup of water and let the meat cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan or burn.
Add the potatoes to the pan and tomatoes, if using, and mix well. Cook until the meat is tender and the potatoes are thoroughly cooked (around 45 minutes). Keep checking the curry to ensure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan or gets too dry. Add ½ cup water at the 20-25 min mark if necessary.
Once the curry has thickened and the meat is cooked, add the coconut milk to pan, simmer for 10 minutes, and remove from heat. (If using vinegar or tamarind juice, add this to the pan as a final step, cook the curry for 5 minutes on a low heat and remove from the stove.)
Serve hot with plain steamed rice or dinner rolls.
• To make the tamarind juice, place a marble-sized ball of tamarind in ½ cup of hot water. After 10 minutes, squeeze the tamarind until all the pulp dissolves in the water. Strain the juice before using.
• You can choose to marinate the meat in ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, 1 tsp ginger paste, 1 tsp garlic paste, salt to taste, and 1 tsp red chili powder for 30 minutes before cooking and follow the recipe as above.
• This Railway Mutton Curry can be refrigerated for up to a week.