Food & Wine

The story behind rogan josh, an authentic Indian lamb curry


Courtesy of Amber India
Rogan josh lamb curry pulls passion from its whole and powdered spices, but not too much heat.

Rogan josh is a type of Indian curry distinguished by its thick, flavorful red sauce and tender meat.

“Rogan” means clarified butter or oil in Persian, or “red” in Hindi, and “josh” refers to passion – fiery or hot – so this dish is all about cooking in an oil-based sauce with an intense heat.

Rogan josh was introduced to Kashmir by The Mughals, whose cuisine was influenced by Persian cuisine.

Generally, rogan josh consists of lamb or goat that has been slow-cooked in oil, yogurt and a mix of many different spices. Despite its intense red hue, it is usually not a particularly spicy curry. Rogan josh remains a common dish in Northern India and is a popular menu item at Indian restaurants in North America and Europe.

To prepare rogan josh, most cooks begin by browning their meat of choice – traditionally lamb or goat – in oil. The meat is then removed and a number of spices, including garlic, ginger, whole black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander and red pepper, are added to the hot oil in stages. Next, the meat is returned to the pan along with plain yogurt. The pan is then covered and cooked over low heat until the meat becomes very tender.

A large number of rogan josh variations exist. For instance, some cooks add tomato paste or tomato puree to their recipes. Others include mild red Kashmiri chilies or paprika in their spice mixture. These additions alter the dish’s taste and intensify its red color.

Amber India – relocating to Los Altos from Mountain View – serves one of the best rogan josh dishes and is definitely worth a visit. The restaurant’s executive chef Sandeep Basrur said the key to a perfect rogan josh “is the use of the freshest ingredients.”

“The lamb we use is locally sourced and processed in-house to get the desired cut and size, only hours before being cooked,” he said. “Even the spices used are an in-house blend that is roasted and pulverized separately for each individual batch.”

Often, rogan josh is served with a side of plain basmati rice, or the Indian bread known as naan, or both.

Gitika Baveja is author of “Indian Flavors to Savor: The Easy Home-Cooked Way.” To purchase a copy of her cookbook, visit flavorstosavor.com.

Rogan Josh Lamb Curry

Meat stir-fry

• 5 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

• 1 cup onion, finely chopped

• 1 teaspoon garlic clove, grated

• 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and grated

• 1 pound bone-intact or boneless lamb or mutton (marinate in salt and lemon juice for 1-2 hours for best effect)

• 1 cup tomato puree 

• Tomato paste (optional for color)

• Pinch of sugar

• 1/2 cup plain yogurt, stirred, room temperature

• 1/2-1 cup water

• 1 tablespoon lemon juice

• Pinch sugar

Spice powders

• Salt to taste

• 1/2 teaspoon garam masala

• 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

• 1 teaspoon store-bought meat masala powder

• 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)

• Pinch dry fenugreek leaves (optional)

Garnish

• 1 teaspoon ginger, grated

• Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

• Pinch garam masala

Heat oil in wide, heavy pot or pressure cooker over medium heat. Pour whole spices in hot oil and let them sizzle.

Add onions and stir-fry for 5 minutes until they turn medium-brown but not burnt.

Add ginger and garlic paste and stir 30 seconds, then add lamb/mutton pieces. Fry until brown, for a minute or so.

Add spice powders and tomatoes to meat masala. Cook 30 seconds. Take pan off heat and add yogurt, continuously stirring so that it does not curdle. Add water as needed to achieve desired consistency.

Cook curry, covered, on slow heat until meat is fully cooked – approximately 1 hour – or pressure-cook until done. Curry should be thick. Check for taste.

Balance flavor with lemon juice and sugar to taste.

Garnish with cilantro leaves, ginger and garam masala. Serve hot with basmati rice or naan bread.

Notes: The butterball portion of boneless lamb available at Draeger’s Market in Los Altos is the leanest I’ve found, and it cooks quite quickly. Make fresh tomato puree by blending tomatoes in a blender. Add a tablespoon of fresh cream to garnish.

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