The story behind laal maas: How the fiery Indian curry beloved by kings got its name

Now made with lamb and red chillies, the dish was originally eaten with game meat on hunting expeditions

Laal maas at Noormahal hotel in Karnal, India. Photo: Rakesh Kumar 
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At a food stall that was part of a national handicraft exposition last year, visitors, this writer included, gather around an earthenware pot bubbling away on a wood stove. Coming closer, I am assailed by the twin aromas of spices and burning wood. The cook manning the stall informs me that this is laal maas, a fiery meat dish from the Indian desert state of Rajasthan.

Lacing this information with a warning, he adds with a grin: “It’s not for the faint-hearted. Order it only if you can withstand high-voltage chillies.”

He takes off the lid to give me a peek at the bright red curry, which lends the dish its name – laal maas translating from Hindi as red meat.

A dish consumed on royal hunting expeditions

Laal maas is typically made with red chillies, which lends it its fiery colour. Photo: Rakesh Kumar 

The dish, which is part of any Rajasthani feast, dates back to the 10th century, when it was consumed as camp food. The western part of India was ruled at the time by Rajput kings, who would often undertake long outings – often for hunts, sometimes for war.

State guests would be taken for the shikar, a big part of which was lavish hospitality. The military camps were more frugal, yet the taste buds of the royals and their guests had to be pampered.

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The initial version of the dish was made with meat from wild boar, deer or jungle fowl

The caravans of horse carts and elephants would be accompanied by a retinue of people, including khansamas. These royal cooks would be armed with just a handful of ingredients such as chillies, garlic and yoghurt besides rationed water. When the travellers halted or set up camp, hunters would bring in locally available game, mainly deer, wild boar and rabbits.

The game would be sent ahead to the camp kitchen on horseback while the hunting party slowly made its way back on elephants. The meat would be marinated and kept ready for that evening’s dinner.

Origins of laal maas

Although it has adapted, laal maas was originally cooked on wooden stoves. Photo: Rakesh Kumar 

“Today, most people know laal maas as a spicy lamb curry from Rajasthan, but the initial version of the dish was made with meat from wild boar, deer or jungle fowl,” says Rajesh Sharma, executive chef from The Roseate, Delhi.

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Mathania chillies are hot, but will not kill your taste or make you numb. You will end up wiping your forehead, though

Legend has it that laal maas came into being when a king from Mewar (one of the erstwhile princely states of Rajasthan) rejected the deer meat that was prepared with nothing but garlic and yoghurt, which did not take away the strong gamy odour.

Through trial and error, the cook raised the heat of the dish with copious amounts of Mathania chillies (named after the Mathania region in Jodhpur where these chillies are cultivated) and thus laal maas was born.

Today, with hunting banned in most parts of India, the dish is made with goat meat, but the ingredients remain simple and extremely hot. Over the years, the dish has also moved from royal kitchens to more humble homes and it can now can be found on the menu of many restaurants in India and abroad. However, the journey of this dish to different places has changed the original taste and preparation style that also suits more modern taste buds.

“If you talk about the authentic dish, it doesn’t contain any thickening agents such as tomato or yoghurt, just a judicial usage of spices and Mathania mirch. A speciality of Mathania is that it is hot, but will not kill your taste or make you numb. You will end up wiping your forehead, though,” says Sandeep Pande, executive chef of JW Marriott, Delhi.

Although most families cook their own versions, the recipe from the royal family of Mewar is considered most superior. Many in the interiors of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer still follow the centuries-old tradition of cooking laal maas on a chulha or wood stove and using only Mathania chillies.

A dish cooked by men 

While the original dish uses Mathania chillies from Jodhpur, chefs have adapted the spice levels to suit modern taste buds. Photo: Rakesh Kumar 

Bure Khan, who hails from Jaisalmer and is a chef in Sairafort Sarovar Portico, says the dish was popular among picnickers when he was growing up.

“I remember my grandparents used to go for hunting with friends. They would cook lamb in the forest around the water bodies and feast there.”

Khan says traditionally laal maas was cooked by men and that women were said to be repulsed by the dish.

“Whenever my grandfather or father would go for a picnic to cook laal maas, they were not allowed to come home with any leftover curry. If they prepared the dish at home, they were not allowed to use the household kitchen or utensils,” Khan says with a chuckle.

Chef Narender Singh, who is from Bikaner and works in Noor Mahal Hotel in Karnal in the neighbouring state of Haryana, says the meat – typically served with the bone – is associated with hunting, which in itself is considered a bastion of masculinity.

Another lore, which is popular in Singh’s village is that the cultivation of Mathania chillies is done with soil from burial grounds. The locals believe that it adds taste to the spice.

Where to find laal maas in the UAE

Laal Maas is best enjoyed with flat bread or rotis made with whole wheat in summer and with bajra [pearl millet] in winters. In the UAE, it is served in Indian restaurants including Zafran, Cafe Funkie Town, Via Delhi and Claypot.

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