Looking back at some of the happiest moments of my life, I am drawn to those cold winter nights I spent as a child in my mother’s native home in Nagpur. The memories still fresh in my mind of the shawls wrapped around for respite against the cold, the fun and laughter of a family coming together and ofcourse, the mandatory mutton curry made on a sigdi or traditional stove fueled by coal and wood.
As a child, visiting my maternal family was something I looked forward to eagerly. Every Diwali, the whole family would get together in my mama or mother’s youngest brother’s home to celebrate the festival of lights. My mother was one of nine siblings, which meant every gathering was crowded to say the least. The family congregated in their childhood home and with the arrival of every new member, the fun and excitement grew.
Our days would consist of nothing but indulging in local street food and homemade treats while thinking about what could be devoured next. Before the first meal was over, everyone would be discussing the details of the next meal and then the next. But irrespective of how many dishes were eaten, a spicy mutton curry was something everyone looked forward to the most. Making this dish was a family affair and its preparation is a communal activity. The prep for this dish started in the morning for it to be had for dinner (and most likely lunch the next day).
Everyone had a part to play in the making of this dish and were assigned a task each. Someone had to bring the coal and wood to set up the sigdi, while another went meat shopping to bring in freshly cut mutton. All the spices were locally sourced from old time trusted vendors and roasted in-house. The grinding of the masala was the task of one person, and chopping the garnishes was another one’s responsibility. This was one dish that truly got everyone working together, almost like a collective mission. Although as children we weren’t thrust with much responsibility, watching the chaos and enthusiasm for something as simple as mutton curry was fascinating.
Come evening, all the prep was mostly done. The onions, tomatoes and chilles were chopped, the meat cleaned and the masala ready. Around 7pm the sigdi would be taken to the rooftop by one of my uncles, along with the ingredients. The whole set-up would be placed in the right hand corner of the L shaped rooftop and the sigdi would be lit up. An old, well-used clay pot would be put atop and the cooking would begin. My youngest mama (mom’s brother) was incharge of manning the sigdi. It was his adaptation of my grandmother’s recipe and he took his responsibility seriously.
First the oil went in, then the whole spices followed by the onions. The crackling sounds and pungent aroma would fill the terrace, engulfing the space like a blanket of the most wonderful smells. The rest of the ingredients would go in one by one until the star of the show, the mutton was thrown in and from then on it was a waiting game. A few quick glances every now and then to check if the dish was done yet. By then, everyone moved to the terrace with their chatais or mats and stools, and found a corner that was warm and comfortable. Jokes and tales of the olden times made their way into conversations, while everyone waited for the dish to cook.
It took no less than 3 hours for the dish to cook, until the meat was tender enough to fall of the bone with a tarri or curry base that was smokey, spicy and tangy with a generous layer of oil sitting on top. Even though the spice level made everyone’s eyes water, it didn’t deter even the youngest members of the family from enjoying dinner with a smile. The people of Nagpur take great pride in their spice tolerance and this dish is proof. The whole family sat gathered around with their plates, helping themselves to the mutton curry, spoonfuls of steaming rice and Lambi roti, a local flatbread that is made with wheat, semolina, salt and water and is much thinner than a regular roti or flatbread (think distant cousin of the rumali roti).
The night ended with happy bellies, lots of laughter and conversation about what’s to be had for breakfast the next day. In a big family like mine, the process of cooking often was often more than just an activity, it reflected upon a shared sense of responsibility and was more often than not a labour of love. During festivals, specially, cooking itself was a celebration and it put forward the value of family, community, and the joy that is derived from something as simple as making dinner for the family.
Now those days seem like a lifetime ago and I have come to realise, that in life, it’s the small things matter the most. A good meal with your family being one of them. And although things have changed and such family gatherings have become rare, some days I do look back and cherish the moments that were made around a simple dish. Sadly, over the years, we’ve lost a few people but the things I still hold onto are the wonderful memories and a taste of the sigdi mutton curry.