When I peek under the lid, an intense aroma turns my sensory taps on to a full gushing speed. The savoury smell of lamb mingles with the rustic breath of Indian masalas, both of which hover about my nose with the surprising smoky charm of charcoal that is nowhere to be seen in my mum’s kitchen. She has done it again. She has managed to elevate simple ingredients with one very counter-intuitive touch that will leave every person at the dining table playing culinary guessing games: “How on earth has she made the lamb so exquisitely smoky?”
I always broach the sensitive topic of secret ingredients with Mum after the guests have left. After all, a clever cook must guard recipes with appropriate caution, especially ones such as her duhadar gosht (smoky lamb). She might say that the lamb has been cooked for a few minutes with the usual Indian suspects: coriander powder, ginger and garlic paste and cumin. But she might skip how a few nigella seeds had been tossed into the pot – all the better to let people guess the mystery sour, pickled touch. She might surrender that the spiced lamb chunks had then been pressure-cooked until they could practically dive off the bone and land into the pool of rich, brown gravy. But she will never throw away the final critical touch: a piece of instant charcoal placed on a baby disc of flatbread and dropped into the cooker after it is safe to reopen. Hidden away from the prying eyes of curious aunties, she clasps the cooker shut again and lets her secret ingredient heave a husky sigh all over the lamb. She stealthily removes the charcoal, replates the lamb and extinguishes all signs of secret culinary play that have made the lamb taste like the painstaking product of a charcoal barbecue.
Even if I were to scrawl the entire recipe all over The National, there will always be that inherited magical touch that belies words in print. Some culinary secrets and skills are best preserved like precious honey, gluing together kitchens across the generations.
Arva Ahmed founded Frying Pan Adventures (www.fryingpanadventures.com), which takes people on tours through hidden culinary gems in Dubai
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