Could a popular repurposed dish be the answer to the work meal that actually works for your health – and mind? Yes, if it is the famous Amritsar meat chawal.
Two years ago, when the culinary duo of Chef Harangad Singh and Chef Ravi Tokas – known for their expertise in traditional Punjab food – restarted their research on food with an emphasis on the later years of the Grand Trunk Road, the idea, to begin with, was simple: to enhance their comfort food repertoire, and make an earnest attempt at documenting some of the legacy cuisine that had started disappearing, says Chef Tokas, “not just from our dining tables, but from stories as well.” It is a red flag that often means that the once mainstay dish is on the verge of becoming a “lost recipe” – just that in this case, it would be truly lost. And it isn’t just the recipe, adds Chef Singh, “but the wisdom, technique, ingredients know-how and of course, the reason for which it was made.”
The journey, thanks to the pandemic, was done mostly through calls and voice notes that would be sent to them by distant relatives often in a dialect that would be hard to understand. One such dish was the hara kukad that was an ode to the greens that grew across the region, while another, of course, was the range of mango and karonda pickles along with pointers on which pickle should be served when. “But the eye-openers,” recalls the Mohali-born Chef Singh, “were these dishes that were made of leftovers and were an ode to our grannies and their grannies’ ingenuity of not only constantly creating new dishes but also this common aversion to food wastage. Dishes ranged from chapati rolls to upma to porridge to baked vegetables, chutneys and even the dal-chawal pakoda that the world of fine dining today knows as arancini.”
However, the dish that caught the duos’ interest was the meat chawal or the meat pulav – a popular street fare today that one would find in most eateries that specialise in making great meat curry. “The dish began its journey not as a popular Grand Trunk Road treat as believed but as a homemaker ruse,” recounts Chef Ravi, “to reuse leftover meat curry and rice. Mostly the meal on the day after a good feast, the idea of putting rice and meat together was rather simple: to create something that is equally scrumptious and to not allow the gravy, which most homemakers believed to be the good part of the meat curry given the flavours that the base had taken from the meat, go to waste.”
Traditionally the dish was finished in a patila where ghee instead of mustard was used to give the meat chawal its rich taste and aroma with a fresh bay leaf and some fresh coriander thrown in for taste measures. The result was a kind of one-pot meal that despite not having meat – not chunks of it anyway – still made for a rather delicious, addictive grub even better than biryani since it was moist enough, says Chef Singh, who grew up eating the dish as part of his special dabba that was packed on days when the routine was more gruelling (those physical training days or field trips) to keep him satiated until he reached home.
Such was the popularity of this homemaker’s innovation that it wasn’t considered a repurposed dish but had an identity of its own; even rising to the level of being an indulgent meal served with green salad – basically onion, cucumber, and chillies – and a nice yogurt dip as simple as boondi raita. An obvious graduation of its popularity was that it soon made it to the menus of small eateries where it became, say the duo, “a happy meal for those looking for a delicious treat mid-week.” Today, one has to go looking for the dish, which is made on request and has taken a more evolved format of a pulav. While there are different versions of the meat chawal available today, thanks to the different ways in which mutton is prepared in Amritsar and in Lahore – the two cities that are credited for creating the Punjab food culture we know today. The benchmark of a good meat chawal, often, is in the meat curry. Old-timers still go for a meat curry that is a day old since it has matured in flavours and has a luscious mouth feel rather than the one made on that day, says Chef Tokas, who gives the curry at least half a day of resting time to get the taste profile right. Although, he admits, “a stale curry has more pronounced flavours and works really well with rice, which in our case is the local Dehradun variety that has the right amount of starch to hold the curry and give the dish its quintessential shine. It is made fresh instead of the stale rice that is often used at home to make the dish.”
Interestingly, the change in the rice variety has not only helped the duo create a version very close to the original but has given it that filling wholesomeness meat chawal was known for. “The beauty,” says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “about meat chawal is that in composition, it has all the nutrients of a balanced meal for which one-pot meals were created to begin with. It has the right ratio of rice and a flavoured mutton stew that along with the micro-nutrients of the mutton such as soluble fat, minerals and vitamins, also has meat pieces in a broken-down format that would take the body less energy and time to digest. So, the first flush of energy would come from the protein and fat that is in the curry. Next is the combination of starch and protein, which ensures that the food is digested in stages thus keeping one satiated for a long time. This was one of the reasons why meat chawal, traditionally, was often had as a pre-travel meal or when the business of the day would leave no time for a good meal, much like the WFH scenario these days.”
The accompaniments of onion and yogurt, which are a standard practice these days, isn’t there for refreshing the palate or balancing the spiciness of the curries only, adds Bhassin. Raw red onion is rich in amino acids, quercetin, antioxidants and phytochemicals such as disulfides, trisulfides, cepaene and vinyldithiins – which together not only repair the digestive system but also aid in digestion of protein. Plus, the probiotic fibre works in sync with the yogurt in helping with gut health. In addition to this, the glutamine in rice takes care of immunity boosting cells and also, as per nutritionist Anju Sood, assists the body in producing glutathione, which maintains the pH levels of the body, resulting in improved nerve efficiency and fewer mood swings. A reaction that we perceive as feeling “happily full”, says psychologist Itishree Mishra, “and that leads to not just an increased level of productivity (not only work-wise) but also better management of stress.”