Pahadi Gosht: The tale of mountain mutton

From an ancient communal meal to a popular Sunday treat now, Pahadi Gosht remains one of iconic meat dishes of the culinary repertoire of Uttarakhand.

Anyone who travels to the hills and enjoys a meal there will tell you this: almost everything is deliriously delicious, especially the Pahadi Mutton or, as legacy custodian Vineet Bahuguna, Executive Chef, Hilton Garden Inn New Delhi Saket, puts it, ‘Pahadi Shikar’.

While this testimony has earned the ancient communal table dish — most mutton dishes from the mountains date from a time when we were a nomadic pastoral community — brownie points among diners and culinary explorers in recent years, it is the making — which ranges from the simplistic shorba style to the modern luxuriant curry avatar — that has managed to keep chefs engaged.

Modern-day pahadi gosht has embraced new ingredients and techniques. Image: shutterstock/bappa pabitra.
Modern-day Pahadi Gosht has embraced new ingredients and techniques. Image: Shutterstock/Bappa Pabitra.

This coterie includes legacy chefs like Chef Vineet and Chef Pawan Bisht, Corporate Chef, One8Commune, who have spent the past few years documenting not just the cuisine of their respective regions (while Chef Vineet is a Garhwali expert, Chef Bisht looks at all of Uttarakhand) but also the produce and techniques that makes their home food nourishing and delicious. Topping their list of dishes is the Pahadi Shikar or Pahadi Gosht, which, say the chefs, “isn’t just about a single dish, but the tradition and philosophy that has help build the cuisine and the community.”

A communal affair

Chef vineet bahuguna says that the cooking and consumption of pahadi gosht was always a community affair.
Chef Vineet Bahuguna says that the cooking and consumption of Pahadi Gosht was always a community affair.

In fact, recalls Chef Vineet, “Back in the day, when a goat/sheep was slaughtered, it was for an entire community. The meat would be cooked in the common kitchen before being laid on the communal table and enjoyed by all. Over the years, with villages growing into towns, and towns becoming commercial cities, the tradition fell out of practice, but continued to be an integral part of my maternal grandmother’s village, where the goat is brought for the neighbourhood, slaughtered, portioned, and distributed, and the prepared dish is exchanged among close friends instead of the communal table of yore.”

For Chef Bisht, the origin of the dish lay in the age-old practice of hunting, thus the name, especially during pre-winters when “men would travel to different parts of the valley hunting in large numbers. The kill would eventually be portioned into different quarters and cooked accordingly. While the head and hooves were made into a thick soup-like stock, the offal was the first to be turned into food followed by the rest of the goat/sheep. Part of the meat would be stored, and the rest would be turned into these shorba-like treats, akin to today’s Pahadi Gosht, that had almost every part of the goat that couldn’t be preserved.”

According to chef pawan bisht, pahadi gosht originated as an offshoot of ancient hunting practices.
According to Chef Pawan Bisht, Pahadi Gosht originated as an offshoot of ancient hunting practices.

While these traditions were put in place to ensure zero wastage, mutton in the mountains is even today considered valuable produce as it can last the winters. This has led to a gamut of mutton delicacies, each of which, says Chef Bisht, “showcases not just local techniques, utensils, spices and new influences that came through history, but also the fine butchery acumen of mountain people. Each dish in our mutton repository is an ode to the cut.”

“Take for instance, Kachmoli,” adds Chef Vineet, “This drink accompaniment is amongst the first dishes cooked as soon as the goat is slaughtered, skinned, roasted, and then butchered. Made with offal, mainly liver, this dish was prepared when the meat was still warm because it didn’t need cooking. Today, of course, it sees the skillet for a few minutes.”

Likewise, he continues, “is the case of our khad gosht, where a hole is dug and the entire goat, except for the stomach and parts of the rump, or the raan is cooked with minimum use of flavouring.”

In pahadi gosht, it's all about the right cut of meat. Image: alka jena.
In Pahadi Gosht, it’s all about the cut of meat. Image: Alka Jena.

But the queen bee of the mutton hive, says Chef Bisht, “remained the Pahadi Gosht, a dish so versatile in its composition that it can be made of any cut and innovatively flavoured, thanks to the great marbling the meat has thanks to the traditional style of goat rearing in Uttarakhand.”

In fact, this ease ensured that there were as many Pahadi Gosht recipes at one time as there were communities.

The charm of Pahadi Bhuna Gosht

Often referred to as Pahadi Bhuna Gosht, the dish, say the chefs, “is cooked at the end and is often the piece de resistance of any meal. Besides being the finest showcase of native taste-making herbs and fresh produce it celebrates the bell-metal craftsmen too, who have aced the art of creating pots that aid the process of slow cooking and preserving the natural goodness of mutton.”

Incidentally, for a dish that is so nuanced in its flavours, the initial iteration of Pahadi Gosht was somewhere between a hearty shorba made especially for kids and elders, adds Chef Bisht, “and a gelatinous porridge depending on the season that one made it in. From there the next avatar of the Gosht was that of a settlers’ food, which was this fragrant but rich curry flavoured with coriander, cumin, and rock salt. The meat was cooked in a thick kadai or deg that imparted its own interesting flavour. Then, with invasions and trade came new ingredients and the dish, now a popular festive one, was the first to transform. The new iteration, which one finds widely, has onion, green garlic, chillies, and later tomatoes. That marked the beginning of Pahadi Gosht’s journey to becoming a Sunday special.”

However, what remained sacrosanct, adds Chef Vineet, “was the mutton. Despite all the new influences, the best Pahadi Bhuna Gosht is still made of the chest and the rump area of a young goat. This means the meat has the ideal layering of meat and fat that makes it perfect for slow cooking. The process helps render the fat gradually, turning the meat succulent, which in turn incorporates any flavour added to it beautifully.”

Pahadi gosht cooked in a traditional utensil, the dhabbu. Image courtesy: chef pawan bisht.
Pahadi Gosht cooked in a traditional utensil, the bhaddu. Image courtesy: Chef Pawan Bisht.

Another reason for using local mutton is the use of very less water as most of the slow cooking is aided by the fat that is layered around the chest and rump area. This makes the mutton, says Chef Vineet, “doubly good to taste, and accentuates the flavours of Pisyun Masala made with the indigenous variety of fresh coriander, which like its Thai brethren has a great flavour profile and gives the mutton curry that distinct summery, easy-on-the-palate feel.”

“The biggest draw,” adds Chef Bisht, “of the Pahadi Gosht, however, is its smokiness, which isn’t from the dungar but from burning the last layer of hair from the sheep. It gives the meat an inherent aroma akin to one that comes from the tandoor.”

In fact, the process of burning off the hair before skinning the goat was a process, say the chefs, “first devised to ease the process of cleaning the goat. But as the herdsmen turned butchers soon realised, it also helped in keeping the meat warm for a long time, delaying the onset of rigor mortis. This ensured the meat remained tender and easy to cook, the bhuna taste a bonus.”

Suggested read: How Sairaj Dhond of Wakao is transforming the Indian mock meat industry

Pahadi Bhuna Gosht by Chef Pawan Bisht

Ingredients

  • 1 kg roasted mutton with skin
  • 4  large onions (finely chopped)
  • 3 mid-size tomatoes (finely chopped)
  • 1/2 cup mustard oil
  • 3 tbsp garlic (finally grated/paste)
  • 1 tsp ginger (chopped)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 bay leaf
  • 1 big cardamom (crushed)
  • 2 cardamom
  • 2 cloves
  • 4-5 black pepper corn (whole)
  • 2 green chillies (finely chopped)

For Pisyun Masala

  • Handful fresh coriander (roughly chopped)
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 2 tbsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Method

1. Clean the mutton cuts and keep them aside.

2. Take an iron kadai or a thick, heavy-bottom pan, and pour in the mustard oil. Once the oil is heated, add the cumin seeds, bay leaf, big cardamom, clove, black peppercorn, cardamom, and green chillies.

3. Once the spices leave their aroma, add ginger, garlic, and sauté well till fragrant. Add the onions and cook till golden brown. Once the oil leaves the sides, add the Pisyun Masala and cook further. Once the raw smell of masala disappears, incorporate the tomatoes, and let this mixture cook till done.

4. Add the mutton and cook for 40-45 minutes on medium flame. Once the pieces are tender, add hot water to the mutton and adjust the seasoning.

5. Garnish with fresh chopped coriander and serve with steamed rice.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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