Rarely anybody makes this emblematic Bengali delicacy perfectly these days. The true meaning of Kosha Mangsho cannot be captured with the words “Mutton Curry”. It is a much more complicated and multi-sensory experience that requires hours of patient cooking, skillfully balancing flavours and aromatics, to produce the queen of Indian meat preparations.
Nobody makes Kosha Mangsho at home. We say it’s “Kosha Mangsho” during Sunday lunches, but everybody knows it isn’t. It’s just Mangshor Jhol, or Mutton Curry. The domestic Bengali mutton curry is a flavoursome spicy gravy, reddish brown in colour, with chunky pieces of mutton almost falling off the bone, whole potatoes, chopped pieces of papaya (or grated; papaya has the enzyme peptin that tenderises meat), and a thin layer of fat swimming at the surface. It is delicious, to say the least, and pair gloriously with steamed rice and a comfortable snooze afterwards. Mangsho-Bhaat or Mutton Curry-Rice can be a weekend cook, a picnic menu, or can even be rustled up for a quick get-together. It stands alone. It needs no one else.
But when it’s time to celebrate, it’s time for Kosha Mangsho.
For starters, if the final dish is a red gravy, your Kosha Mangsho is grammatically wrong. And in all these years of eating around the world, I have come across enough grammatically incorrect Kosha Mangsho. Bengali restaurants in and outside West Bengal peddle it enthusiastically, overpriced, of course. Experimental “pan-Indian” restaurants, shred the meat up and serve it like tacos. Some do rolls. Others make bite-sized adaptations. I am okay with the adaptation if you are getting the gist of the novel right. If in your version, Macbeth is a buffoon who doesn’t want to be king and Lady Macbeth is busy watching bad Indian telly, that’s not an adaptation — it’s a travesty. Most Kosha Mangshos I have had, have been travesties.
For starters, Kosha Mangsho is not a pressure-cook-meat-and-marinade-and-then-toss-with-onion-and-etc-paste-and-spices-and-voila kinda dish. The word “Kosha” means to “fry for a really long time, stirring and tossing constantly”. Slow-frying is a common technique in Mughlai cooking, the Chaanp being a classic example. Mostly borrowing that concept, the Kosha Mangsho requires slow frying, allowing the dish to cook in the meat’s juices itself, with almost no additional water. Now, I must admit that cooking meat on low heat, tossing it constantly without water, sounds like an arduous process. It is. I have cooked it myself with the original method about four to five times till date. But, when I am landing up at a restaurant, I deserve the authentic experience, right? Most people — and I can bet on this one — have not tasted an authentic plate of Kosha Mangsho. My cheat code, of course, is to pressure cook it, but there is a twist to it. The recipe asks for the mutton to be marinated overnight (ideally) with a host of pastes and spices. You kick off the cooking with frying the onions to a dark caramelisation — this is called birista – and then adding the spices, frying them, and then adding the marinated mutton, to finally start the slow frying process. Most people dunk the pressure-cooked mutton into the fried onion mix, and just fry off the water. What this does is, the mutton becomes drier as the pressure cooking has already forced out most of the juice and fat out of it, and, secondly, just because the water’s evaporated and the meat is already tender, doesn’t mean the dish is ready. The secret lies in pushing the spices to their absolute best self. What I choose to do, is semi-cook the meat in the pressure cooker, separate the meat from the juice, and then turn the meat juice, fat, and marinade goodness into a reduction. This is introduced to the main kadhai in sips, occasionally, to maintain the water balance in the dish. That way, during the slow frying, the kadhai has enough moisture, and doesn’t need to suck any out of the meat. Having said that, this is definitely a cop out. Also we must remember that the texture of the meat in the final dish has to be tender, but not galouti. It needs to have a slight bite to it because, although we love meat falling off the bone, when meat has been cooked to that degree, we cannot experience its own flavour. Unlike western cooking, the subcontinent mostly doesn’t want to taste the animal. The only factor that we care about is the tenderness of the meat. But that is not the case with Kosha Mangsho. Bengalis consume three types of goat meat — khashi, kochi pantha, and rewaji. Khashi (castrated goats) and Kochi Pantha (kids) are reared for their soft tender (“tultuley”, an oft-used adjective that closely resembles “supple”) flesh, while the revered Rewaji is specially bred goats, feeding on specific diets to build the right amount of fats and render delicious flavour to the meat. Introduced by the Mughals, Rewaji meat is used for Mughlai dishes, Biryanis, and Kosha Mangsho, while Khashi and Kochi Pantha turn into broths and curries. Which is why pressure cooking the meat and killing its flavour is not a part of the Kosha Mangsho syntax.
The other crucial factor is the colour. The Kosha Mangsho is dark brown in its final stage. The dark colour comes by caramelising the sugar in oil before frying the onions (a common technique in the Bengali kitchen to redden gravies), the darkly fried onions, from the long frying, and from the magic combination of the Kosha Mangsho spice mix — nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, clove, and black cardamom. Dry roasted, and when added in the correct ratio, the colour and fragrance of the dish changes almost immediately. Gol Bari, in North Calcutta, an establishment more than a restaurant, that has been famous for more than a century for its Kosha Mangsho, has also been known to secretly add black tea to the dish for that brownish-black colour. Kosha Mangsho also doesn’t have much of a gravy, almost the consistency of a Chaanp. The almost-black thick gravy is haloed by a thick film of fiery red fat, coating the chunky mutton pieces, soaking through the delicious shank stuffed with juicy-spicy marrow goodness, and of course, the tender-creamy whole potatoes that add that textural softness and sweetness.
The Kosha Mangsho deserves more than steamed rice, of course. It pairs wonderfully with a sweet kaju-kishmish pulao, a sweet-fragrant ghee bhaat, and all fried breads like Parathas and Luchi. Served as bhog to Goddess Kali on Kali Puja ( referred to as “vegetarian” Kosha Mangsho, because of the absence of aliums from the recipe as they are banned ingredients in bhog cooking), the Kosha Mangsho is sweet comfort after heavy alcohol consumption. And for the politer crowd, pairs exceptionally with a drier-than-dry Shiraz.