The best meals are those you finish and immediately want to start again

After weeks of anticipation, the Jhelum Girls met for lunch the other day. That all are not from Jhelum hostel may be excused by poetic licence, but “girls” begs definition. Since each is a senior academic or journalist with decades of experience, I might be stretching it a bit, but the spirit defines the word. The anticipation was partly of the company, the comfort of friends; and then there was the food. The JG are possibly great at their work. Their competence carries into their cooking. Everyone brought a dish, the menu was balanced in colour and flavour, and represented, like our student body at university, each region. The change was clearly evidence of age, umar ka taqaza: everyone started with salad, and vast quantities were consumed. It was pretty, all fresh and crisp and red and green, with red apples and tomatoes and new kakri and tender baby spinach from the garden of another of our contemporaries who was excluded because this was only for girls. But since I had decided that it was to be a day of self-indulgence, I sacrificed health and started with Shakti’s deep green haak and snowy white steamed rice. It was a faux haak: spinach, because of the season, but Shakti Kak was renamed Shakti Haak. And she had made yakhni that was not only different from any yakhni I’ve had before, but so delicious that I sat down with her later and wrote the recipe. It had no saffron that so far has defined the flavour of yakhni to me, which might be because this was her family’s version, or because all Kashmiri Pandits make it this way, or because saffron is “heating” and a winter thing. So it was soft, pale beige, with assorted cuts of tender mutton in golden, light gravy redolent with layers of flavour. There was no chilli heat, just a depth of delicately nuanced spices.

Nirmala’s deep red meen vevichathu, Maitrayee’s tok arhar dal soured with raw mango, Geetha’s raw banana moleshan, Utpala’s patishapta, each deserve a full column’s word count, but the one that was new to me was Rama’s aavasina perugu pachidi, carrot raita with mustard. Carrots are not my favourite vegetable. But the characteristic sweetness that puts me off was so cleverly offset with the pungency of mustard that all one could taste was chilled, smooth dahi with a crunch and an unexpected kick, thanks to the carrot and the mustard.

The entire meal was long, I had several helpings yet everything was cooked with such a light touch that we rose from the table ready to start again. I remembered the old food writer’s comment about the best meals being those that you finished and immediately wanted to start again.

Mutton Yakhni

Serves 8

4 tbsp mustard oil

6 drops of asafoetida in water

500g mutton (foreleg and chops)

Salt

Water

1 bayleaf

3 green cardamoms

1-inch stick cinnamon

A pinch shah zeera (optional)

1-2 cloves garlic

Powdered spices

2 tsp saunf

1/2 tsp dried ginger

1/4 tsp turmeric

1/4 tsp dhania

1/4 tsp zeera

1 tsp garam masala

500g firm yoghurt

Heat oil to smoking in a heavy bottomed pan. Keeping lid as a shield, sprinkle dissolved hing solution. Add mutton pieces and fry for a couple of minutes. Add salt, two cups of water and all spices. Cover and bring to boil. Meanwhile whip yoghurt till smooth. When “soup” of meat and water has come to a boil, stir in yoghurt. Keep stirring until it boils again. Transfer to a pressure cooker, close and keep on high heat until full pressure is reached (one whistle). Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool.

Rama's Carrot Raita

Serves 8

500g red carrots

1 litre yoghurt

1 1/2 tbsp whole black mustard

Salt

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp urad dal

2 dried whole red chillies

1 tbsp peanuts

Few drops of asafoetida in water

8 curry leaves

Wash, scrape and grate carrots. Discard tough cores. Whip yoghurt with a pinch of salt till smooth. Grind mustard seeds to powder and stir into yoghurt. Heat oil and sauté dal, red chillies and peanuts till their colour changes slightly. Add asafoetida and curry leaves. Pour on yoghurt and stir in. Refrigerate for a couple of hours.