In India, there is no standard or all-purpose combination of spices. We even have different names for various kinds of gravies.

“Curry powder” is a concept that, I think, no Indian understands; which must cause some disbelief among Westerners cooking “Indian” with a heaped teaspoonful of the stuff. We know that we use combinations of spices – different ones for sambharor chanaor tandoorichicken – but a standard combination for all curries?

I suppose it must infuriate Italians equally to hear of “Italian seasoning”; is there any one such? I need to say this: does the West think India has one “curry”, with one fixed combination of spices?

We even have different names for different kinds of gravies: the process, not just the product. So a korma is oil-based, in which all the moisture has been reduced, and a qalia is a thin sauce with a lot of water or milk, particularly in Kashmir and U.P. In other words, a jhol or tari and this word comes to Hindustani derived from the Persian tar, wet. One view is that the word is from the Tamil kari, and the dish should contain curry leaves. A qalia, when it's in Bengal though, is a rich onion-based “party dish”.

My mother once asked me – after I had attained the status of householder and cook – how to make a really thin gravy. I wish I had known then what I know now. Either the onions should be sliced, fried crisp and then crumbled into the gravy, or there should be no onions at all.

Disapproving belief

Like most North Indians, it has taken me a tremendous leap of faith to cook a mutton curry with no onions; there is this disapproving belief that only the strange easterners eat watery curries; and they are welcome to their cuisine, because they boil some water, add a piece or two of fish and, hey presto, their dinner's ready.

I find that not only does this makes a gravy of the right consistency, but the fat needed for cooking is much less: grated or puréed onions demand vast quantities of oil or ghee and absorb a large part of it. And the taste of an onion-based masala can be lovely, but sometimes you don't want the sweetness of onions nor the muddiness they add to the gravy.

Some weeks ago my husband decided to cook. Like most men I know, his ultimate favourite mutton curry is one which is thin, red and spicy – all the better to eat with rice; a jhol/qalia. As he says, the word curry doesn't quite describe the dish. So he dug out Sudhir Dar's book on Kashmiri cooking and made qalia. The downside of the event is that he misplaced the book and, in my vast and orderly mansion, it cannot be found.

So the other day I decided to cook it from memory. I'm sure that some of the spices in the original recipe were different, and maybe there were more or less as well, but I remembered the outcome and approximated it.

The Kashmiri qalia is at once delicate and powerful; red gravy, pungent with cloves and reeking of hing, with the slight tartness of dahi and hot and deep red with Kashmiri chillies. Dar suggests adding baby shalgams, turnips, to the curry, but I find tindas even better, especially since the dish is so light that it's more appropriate for summer, when tindas abound.

Tinda, Indian round gourd, apple gourd, Indian baby pumpkin, is my favourite cucurbit and I happened to have some small tender ones in the fridge. They gleamed like uncut jade in the dark orange qalia, and, simmered till tender, were bursting with all the flavour they had absorbed and still firm.

Retain the essence

Some ingredients, like the haldi, seem excessive but are not. The smell of that un-fried haldi is not just memorable but essential. And if you eat with your fingers, as I do, it stains the nails and needs a good scrub with a wedge of lime. Hing, asafoetida, should be dissolved and refrigerated; a piece about the size of a pea in about a tablespoon of water.

And the ground spices, especially chillies, should be mixed in a little water before cooking. This prevents burning and helps retain a fresh red colour. So what we got might not have been the real, original recipe, but the essence remained intact.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).

Kashmiri Mutton Qalia

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 tbsp vegetable oil

250 gm tinda, peeled and halved

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 tsp whole peppercorns

8 cloves, finely ground

2 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp haldi

500 gm mutton pieces from dasti, foreleg

Few drops of hing

1 cup dahi

Salt

2 green cardamoms, ground

2 cloves, ground

1 tsp saunf, finely ground

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

1 tsp haldi

1 tsp sugar

Method: Heat one tbsp oil in a non-stick pan and sauté tindas till sealed. Reserve. Heat two tbsp oil in a large heavy bottomed pan and add peppercorns. Add ground cloves and paste of red chilli powder and haldi. Keep heat to minimum and keep stirring for a couple of minutes. Put in washed and dried mutton pieces and stir on medium heat. When colour turns golden, add dahi. Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently. After the dahi has dried, the meat will tend to stick to the bottom of the pan. Keep scraping; a reddish sediment will form and this should be stirred and scraped. Add a few drops of water if the meat is too dry and in danger of getting scorched. When the meat has turned an even reddish brown, pour in boiling hot water. Four cups should be adequate, but start with less and add more, depending on how tender your mutton is and therefore how long it takes to become tender. When it comes to a boil, add salt, ground cardamoms, cloves and saunf. Simmer on low heat till mutton is almost done. Add tindas, one tsp haldi and one tbsp chopped coriander. Cook till both meat and tindas are done. Stir in sugar, sprinkle remaining coriander and serve with steamed rice.

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