Real Roghanjosh (Pen and Brush by Sudha Koul)

September 4, 2014

Whose Roghanjosh is it Anyway?



In tracing the ancestry and essence of the popular meat dish, culinary expert Sudha Koul explores the idea of authenticity and Kashmiriat

The peppery, red lamb curry known as ‘Roghanjosh’ is now an ubiquitous Indian restaurant staple. This elegant dish is well known to have its origins in the valley of Kashmir. What is less well known is that unlike wazvan, the splendid Kashmiri Muslim banquet, Roghanjosh is a coveted Kashmiri Hindu entrée. Growing up in Kashmir, lamb was our meat of choice: Roghanjosh being the jewel of all lamb dishes, was only served on special occasions. Of course, it is now widely available: every Indian eatery worth its salt serves mutton concoctions of varying taste and hue, all baptised Roghanjosh, but few bearing the faintest resemblance to the Kashmiri classic. Confronted by a multitude of pidgin versions, one is more than a little dismayed. Prolific wantonness in ingredients is not all that has happened to Roghanjosh – it has suffered other degradations. Recently, while surfing the internet I came across a recipe for ‘Beef Roghanjosh’. This recipe was based on the one in my book, Curries without Worries, concocted by a chef for the delectation of the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association! I was bemused because of the sacrilegious connotations of beef for the Hindus, and wondered if I should send the livestock gourmets an email pointing this out, but then thought the better of it for reasons that will become apparent by the end of this article.

Which brings us to the question, what exactly does ‘Roghanjosh’ mean?

In a valley with a long-standing history of spiritual syncretism and peaceful coexistence, over the centuries, Hindu and Muslim cuisines have admittedly, gone their separate ways. The Muslim community took a delicious direction via sensuous aromatic bulbs such as garlic, shallots and onions, using them to mouth-watering advantage, reaching its zenith in the aforementioned wazvan cuisine. The Hindus excelled by substituting these ingredients with alternatives such as the resin, hing, or asafoetida. Hing is well known for its healing properties; James Joyce writes of asafoetida in this context, and it was de rigueur in poultices among the early settlers in America. But what happens to a pinch of the resin when an Indian chef throws it on hot oil is miraculous, an odour bursts forth that (though an acquired taste), is guaranteed to open up even the most clogged-up appetite pores. In the Indian Subcontinent it is used interchangeably with ginger as an anti-flatulent, not something you want to think about when talking of food of course. But there it is.

One of the guests at a dinner gathering I was at recently, pointed out that there are two types of Roghanjosh, one made by Kashmiri Muslims and the other by the Kashmiri Hindus or Pandits. I begged to disagree, and reiterated the acknowledged cuisine divergence in Kashmir. My friend, a Kashmiri Muslim, concurred and we agreed in delicious unison that Roghanjoshwas a Pundit dish, famously and impossibly made without onions or garlic.

Even the name, ‘Roghanjosh’, turned out to be, pardon the pun, the biggest bone of contention at our dinner that night. The term used to describe colour in Kashmiri/Urdu is ‘rang-roghan’ where ‘roghan’ means red. So I had assumed that the name of the dish referred to the fiery red colour of the sauce and since ‘josh’ means impassioned, it all seemed to fit in quite nicely. But when one of my more learned friends that night informed me that ‘roghan’ could also mean ‘essence’, it occurred to me that he might be right.

Illustration by Sudha Koul


After all, ‘Roghani Naan’, another Kashmiri favourite, has no colour except the wholesome hue of well-baked bread. I acquiesced for the moment, but the minute I got home I sought my primary source: I called my father, a retired octogenarian Brigadier of the Indian Army, who by his own admission had savoured more than his fair share of Roghanjosh. He was great to chat with but not much help; he had also taken it to be a self-evident truth that ‘roghan’ meant red, and ‘josh’ meant fiery. This was hardly surprising: the dish is so revered in Kashmir that no one had thought to question its etymology. So I turned to some on-and-offline secondary sources and found that the closest word to ‘roghan’ in Persian is ‘rohan’ which means purest form, presumably from ‘rooh’ or soul. There is a distinct possibility that Roghanjosh might have a connection to Persia. Kashmiri cuisine, having been on the invasion itinerary of nations to its West, is heavily influenced by Persian and Ottoman cooking. Kashmiri almond oil (a popular choice for massages in New Delhi beauty parlours) is described as ‘Roghan Badam’ which may be translated as the essence of almonds. But the meaning of ‘Josh’ was still moot: while some considered it to be a possible mispronunciation of the word ‘goshth’ or meat; some others believed it meant, ‘full of fire’. This was a tough call to take as the priestly Pandits, ever reluctant to admit to being carnivores (even though Himalayan climate and geography possibly necessitates a meat-based diet), often refer to meat dishes in euphemisms or nonsense names. I opted for the latter, i.e., ‘soul of fire’, for the simple reason that it
conveyed a lot more.

In the case of Roghanjosh the Pundits had obviously opted for a descriptive term, but as squeamish as we are about calling meat by its rightful name, we are very savvy and particular when it comes to the butcher’s craft and skill. This is what led to the next controversy at our prandial discussion – the cut of the meat, cut me to the quick. A few of us found a fellow diner’s suggestion that real Roghanjosh is made of boneless bits of mutton or lamb, not in the least bit palatable. It was contested that Kashmiris always make Roghanjosh from meat-with-bone cuts, preferably thick lamb chops, which incidentally, is also a word of Indian origin. It comes from the Hindi word ‘chhaap’ or ‘stamp’ of the meat inspector during the Raj, denoting a cut above the rest, always a pre-occupation of the hoity-toity Burra Sahibs. Our unforgiving snowbound winters, being neither Hindu nor Muslim, have made ferocious meat eaters of all of us Kashmiris, and every bit of bone, gristle, innards and organ is put to good use. In a valley where adept Muslim butchers made perfect one piece trachea-lung-kidney-liver offerings for the reigning Hindu goddess, and still pulverise lamb for ‘kofta’, or meat-balls, to a pulp with just a cleaver on a wooden block, a filet is a completely wasteful and wimpy idea. So, that was the end of that as far as I was concerned. Boneless Roghanjosh lacked that most important culinary ingredient, authenticity, and I had won that round.

Knowing by now that when we talk about India everything goes back centuries, the American guest asked, “How old is Roghanjosh?” I had never thought about that until that moment. The spice ingredients of Roghanjosh are mostly non-indigenous to the Kashmir region: red chilly pepper, cardamom, cloves, fennel seed, ginger, cinnamon, bay leaf, cumin, some brought over by the Portuguese from the New World, some imported from South India or South East Asia. So it has to have been as old as the discovery of the New World at least seeing that the distinguishing ingredient, apart from the lamb, is chillies. It may be difficult to say when and how in the evolution of Kashmiri food, did the consumption of a rudimentary leg or shoulder of lamb morph from being a survival strategy to a culinary classic. It would however be safe to estimate that this process occurred several centuries ago.

When my brother got married it was a much anticipated milestone in my family. Having moved to the US I could only participate in the year-long preparations for the wedding over the telephone. As the day approached I cautioned my grandmother, “Make sure that after the guests have eaten there is enough Roghanjosh for the family.” Hundreds of friends and relatives from all over Srinagar and the surrounding hills and lakes were to be invited to the wedding, and they would make sure to attend at least a couple of the sabhas, or community meals, cooked specially on makeshift outdoor kitchens with fires blazing at industrial strength, and where guests sit down on either side of the chhador or dasterkhan (long cloth yardage) rolled out on the carpets to partake of the delicacies all together. Miscalculation was a common hazard at such gatherings and I was haunted by the memory of tragic tales about family members, who, when they finally sat down to eat after feeding hundreds of guests, had to contend with a denuded meatless marrowbone or a lamb’s ear cartilage, onomatopoeically called truk truk. I certainly did not want to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the Arabian Sea only to miss out on the pice de résistance of wedding banquets. Happily, the lamb joint I was served at my brother’s wedding banquet weighed the better part of a pound; there was no question of having seconds. My grandmother Tulli, triumphant as ever said, “We may not live in America, but we know how to eat!” Besides, she reminded me, the size of the piece of Roghanjosh may indicate the heart or the generosity of the family, but it is the taste that tells you everything about the kind of stock they are from. For the ignorant a flaming red curry constitutesRoghanjosh, for the cognoscenti only a subtly scented and judicious mix of cayenne and yogurt will pass muster.

At the dinner party we were still quibbling over the final and most important point. If there are no Kashmiri Hindu celebratory meals left in Kashmir now, what with the Pandits having fled their cherished valley, what, if any, is the real recipe for Roghanjosh now? I had to concede, albeit very reluctantly, that in the end, today Roghanjosh is what we have brought with us, what we remember from those halcyon meals enjoyed under the blue-green Zabarwan Hills. That brought a hush upon the gaiety and the evening’s friendly drubbing. Then my Kashmiri friend who started the whole argument reminded me of something I had said to him many years ago. It seems I said that there really are no authentic recipes; otherwise Italians would say they have been eating Chinese food all along. Or is it the other way around, Marco Polo?

Sudha Koul is the author of Curries without Worries and The Tiger Ladies – A Memoir of Kashmir. Born and brought up in Kashmir, she is the first Kashmiri woman to be selected by the Indian Administrative Service. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Seminar and other publications. She has just completed her first novel, The Kashmir Chronicles.


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