The Magic of Mangsher Jhol

In my house, mutton wasn’t cooked very often, and usually reserved for special occasions. One of those occasions was Pujo, when a batch of mutton would be brought from the market and cooked into a delicious jhol. Which is why, to this day, a mutton curry to me feels celebratory, almost ceremonial, and also why my brain has made a sort of subconscious association of mutton with this time of the year, making me write the kosha mangsho article on the Shoshthi of 2019, my first article on Bengali cuisine, and the mutton biryani article on the Nabami of 2020. This Saptami, we will focus on the more homely mutton curry or mangsher jhol.

Photo Courtesy : Akash Bhattacharya

Any good mutton curry starts with the mutton. We’ve talked about the mutton misnomer before, but it is worth repeating. The word “mutton” has very different meanings in India and the West. In the West it refers to meat of a lamb less than two years old, while here in India it refers to goat meat, which Westerners call chevon. But the matter does not end there.

“There are two kinds of goat meat available in Kolkata – the former being the pantha (locally raised, grass-fed goat), and the rewaji khasi (grain-fed, and often brought in from Uttar Pradesh or Haryana) being the latter. There is a good deal of controversy about which one is better, and it is a never-ending discussion, but one of the things that I have learned over the years is that more than the meat’s origin, it is the cut that matters according to preferences, and the foreleg as well as the shoulder region fares better in dishes that need to be cooked for longer.”

Robibarer Mangsho, Poorna Banerjee

The reason for that is something we have covered in the slow cook series. The mangsher jhol is nothing but a braise, and we need tough cuts of meat for it, rich in collagen and connective tissue which over time will transform into gelatin, lending the jhol a luscious mouthfeel. The other big ingredient we need therefore, is time, for the mutton to work its magic, transforming the almost watery sauce into ambrosia. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Mangsher Jhol (Courtesy : Debjanir Rannaghar)

Both kosha mangsho and mangsher jhol have a lot of ingredients in common. We’ve got the holy trinity of aromatics namely onion, ginger and garlic, along with a handful of whole and ground spices. Whole spices include bayleaf and dried red chilli, and the all-too familiar trio of cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Ground spices include the familiar quartet of chilli, turmeric, cumin and coriander. You could add Kashmiri red chilli powder as well if you want a vibrant colour.

While a kosha mangsho definitely needs some marination, you could bypass this step in some instances when making mangsher jhol, although marinating the meat before cooking it has always been the norm in my house. Kochi patha or young goat meat could do without marination as it is already pretty tender. A tougher meat or khashi on the other hand requires a marinade of of yoghurt and aromatics. Adding some raw papaya paste helps tenderise the mutton, ideal for a quick marinade.

When it comes to the actual cooking, there are again lots of similarities with kosha mangsho, especially in the early steps. Add oil, temper with whole spices, add in the aromatics, whisk in the yoghurt, and cook out the mixture before adding the mutton and browning it thoroughly. It’s the whole Maillard reaction routine all over again, which we’ve discussed at length in the kosha mangsho article as well as the slow cook series.

Kosha Mangsho

And now for the big difference. While the kosha mangsho took a lot more effort, adding in little splashes of water at a time to allow browning and deglazing to occur simultaneously, a pathar jhol is a lot simpler, with all the water dumped in at once, much like a French beouf bourgignon. With so many flavours going on, you don’t need wine or even stock to bring the dish together, and plain water is enough to create a flavourful sauce. The resultant dish has a lot more sauce or jhol compared to the kosha mangsho, perfect with rice.

You could cook it in a korai (or kadhai) which takes longer than the more commonly applied hack of using a pressure cooker. While the former is a lot more time consuming, it gives more time for the connective tissue to break down, creating a jhol with a slightly richer body although to be fair, the pressure cooker method produces a delicious end-product too. It comes down to how much time you’ve got on hand, and how patient your diners are.

One big similarity between the mangsher jhol and the Kolkata biryani is the mandatory presence of aloo or potato. Just like in a biryani, the aloo helps soak up all the flavours to produce plump, fall-apart orbs of golden deliciousness, full to the brim with all the flavours from the mutton, the aromatics and spices. When I was young, I was not a big fan of these potatoes which I used to call jhaal aloo. Now that I know better, no mangsher jhol for me is complete without it.

The Mangsho Algorithm (Courtesy : Prithwish Sannigrahi)

You could fry the potatoes beforehand like you would do with a Kolkata biryani, or you could add them directly. The analogy is similar to the frying of the fish before dunking it into a machh er jhol versus the direct addition of seafood into a French bouillabaisse or Italian cioppino. Add in the potatoes with the mutton if you’re using the pressure cooker, or add them into the simmering karahi around the time when the mutton needs 30-40 minutes to cook through.

And now, we wait. This is the passive part of the cooking which, in Bengali households, is filled up by the other chores like cooking the rice and preparing some other simple vegetable sides to precede or accompany the mutton. The dish is done when the mutton is tender, the potatoes are plump, and the jhol has reached the right consistency. This dish is a lot runnier than a kosha mangsho, although there is no compromise in flavour.

Although not common in my house, robibarer mangsho is very much a thing, akin to the Sunday roast in the UK. The mutton goes on early and cooks away as the other dishes are made. With a dish this great, you need little more than a heaped pile of steaming white rice, and a wedge of lime to cut through of the richness. Another popular accompaniment is the fluffy luchi, that enigmatic crisp orb of nothingness that pairs beautifully with anything from the simple shada aloor torkari to the decadent mangsher jhol.

Mangsher Jhol with Luchi (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

Nabami lunch is earmarked for mutton, a stark contrast to the fully vegetarian Ashtami bhog. And it is the Nabami lunch which all kids of our neighbourhood, including me, would eagerly look forward to, mixing up the delicious jhol with the steaming hot rice, teasing apart the tender pieces of mutton, calling out to the servers for extra helpings or mutton or jhol, or both! Years later, the magic of Nabamir pathar mangsho still lingers on.

Tomorrow is Ashtami, so go ahead and savour the majesty of the khichuri bhog. And as we transition via the Sondhi pujo to Nabami, let us embrace the almighty mutton with open arms, be it a Pujo community pathar jhol for lunch, or homemade kosha mangsho for dinner. Happy eating!

Shoutouts to Akash Bhattacharya and Sayanava Saha Biswas, both of whom have gracefully allowed me to use some of their amazing snapshots to illustrate my article. And a special thank you to Prithwish Sannigrahi, who has painstakingly crafted, with impeccable calligraphy, a flowchart that sits at the intersection of the Bengali, nerd and foodie Venn diagram.

Wishing all the readers of The Gourmet Glutton a very Happy Durga Puja!

Photo Courtesy : Sayanava Saha Biswas

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