[I’d written this several months ago, in an attempt to send it to some websites that publish content around food-writing and am now posting it on the blog.]
As a kid with roots in Surat, I grew up spending summers in the city, often tagging along with my mum on social visits to homes of extended family and their friends. Rati Kaka’s home was one such. My grandfather and Rati Kaka were what we’d call “chaddi buddies”. Even today, if you ask my grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s and Dementia, where he grew up, he brightens up a little and quips “Sagrampara, Jundasheri”. My visits to Rati Kaka’s often meant I got utterly bored but returned with Rs 51/- or Rs 101/- as token blessings. My mum, however, came back with lots of gossip, and the odd recipe.
She finally got around to making one such recipe when we were visiting her a few days ago. It’s called “tapelu” which literally means large pot – paatela in Marathi, pateelaa in Hindi, tapelu in Gujarati and is basically just chunks of lamb stewed with onions and spices. The Kadiwala family, from whom my mother got the recipe, has lived in Surat since the late 1900s and belong to the Khatri community that represents the ‘kha’ from the ka-kha-ga-gha social strata in Surat.
Ka for Kanbi – the farming community, Kha for Khatri – the working class, or the business community, Ga for Gola and Gha for Ghaanchi, who, I’m told, comprised folk from lower castes.
The Khatri community in Surat was a bunch of folk who worked under the Desais (the surname is derived from Sanskrit words deśa meaning ‘land’ and pati meaning ‘lord’) and eventually worked their way to being rich enough to purchase property across all of Surat, the Sagrampura area in particular. Sagrampura is an area cluttered with narrow parallel streets that house large homes. Almost all of these homes have a glorious living room entrance, a smaller seating arrangement and a backyard with the washrooms, kitchen and “chowk” (where you’d wash clothes, do the dishes and such). Bedrooms are usually up a flight of stairs on the first floor, often overlooking these chowks that neighbouring families sometimes even shared.
My grandfather grew up in one of the many lanes that make up all of Sagrampura, Surat – Jundasheri (pronounced june–da–shay–ree, there was a flag, jhanda, at the start of the street) and Rati Kaka’s forefathers had moved into the house next door, after ousting a lazy and broke Desai family, I would presume.
While Khatris in northern India belong to the warrior caste (Khatri being a variant of the word Kshatriya), most Khatris switched to mercantile (Vaishya) occupations during the British Raj. Surati Khatris enjoy eating meat and drinking, both men and women, unlike the vegetarian, non-drinking Gujarati stereotype we’re used to.
And the tapelu is a Khatri staple, made especially on good occasions. The name comes from the fact that it is always prepared by slow cooking lamb in large pots, in humongous quantities – 50 kilos or 80 kilos being fairly normal. My mum says that folk eat this in a communal fashion, at weddings, for instance – sitting in groups of 10 or 12, circled around a tapelu with several fried puris.
There are enough stores in and around Surat that sell “Tapelano masalo”, the spice mix that is added to the lamb. The recipe below, however, gives you details on how you can make the masala yourself. The original recipe my mum had at hand used 10 kilos of lamb. I’ve scaled the recipe down to feed about 4-6 people.
This is a "tapelu". Quite literally, it means large pot in Gujarati, what you'd call a paatela in Marathi or a pateelaa in Hindi. It's a mutton stew, loosely speaking, cooked with equal parts of meat and onion, and some home-ground spices. Also, it is called so because the Khatri community in Surat, who make this, do so in kilos (think 100kg tapelus and such). My mum made this for her son-in-law on Wednesday evening. And I can vouch for how much he enjoyed himself that evening. There's a piece I'm writing (and I hope to get around to finishing it soon) on the cultural significance of the tapelu and a little bit of a history lesson on Surat. Say aye, and I'll email it to you. It'd be nice to hear from people what they think about my writing (and of course, utterly depressing to be told I suck at it, but I promise I'll take this in my stride).
½ kg lamb (we used a mix of rib and shoulder)
½ kg onions, roughly sliced
3-4 green chillies
5-6 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp gms ginger
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp garam masala powder (ingredients below)
2 tsp red chilly powder (more, if required)
Oil, as required
Salt, to taste
Whole garam masala (each ingredient roasted individually):
100 g Dhaniya (Coriander) Seeds
30g Black Peppercorn
30g Jeera (Cumin) Seeds
10g Bay Leaves
10g Black Cardamom
10g Green Cardamom
10g Dagad Phool (Stone Flower, shebat al ajooz or ishna in the Middle East, Parmotrema perlatum botanical name)
10g Khuskhus (poppy seeds)
10g Javitri (Mace)
10g Naagkesar(Ceylon Ironwood, naagsampige in Kannada, Mesua ferrea botanical name)
10g Shahi Jeera (Black Cumin)
10g Star Anise
10g Tirphal (Sichuan Pepper)
A pinch of grated nutmeg
- Grind the green chillies, ginger, garlic & turmeric into a fine paste.
- Slice onions into large chunks, so that the layers separate easily when cooking.
- Heat some oil in a large, shallow-bottomed vessel and sauté lamb for 8-10 minutes, until tender.
- Once the lamb is tender, layer the onions on top of it.
- Add the paste to the lamb & onion, cover the vessel and let the meat cook on low heat for 45 minutes to an hour, until the lamb has cooked all the way through and falls off the bone.
- Grind all the spices that comprise the whole garam masala to a fine powder. This recipe needs only about a tablespoon (so you can save the masala for later). It is perfectly good to use as a substitute for regular garam masala in any other Indian recipe that calls for some.
- Heat some oil in another vessel and add the garam masala powder and the red chilly powder to this.
- Pour this into the mutton mix and give the meat a good stir.
- Now add some salt, to taste.
Note: The onions should have melted into a gravy at this point. There isn’t very much oil in the recipe, really, because the meat cooks in its own fat.
A good tapela/u should have the sweetness of the onions that have been slow cooked and caramelized, the warmth and heat of all the spices from the garam masala and, of course, juicy chunks of lamb.
Khatris usually eat the lamb with puris, the dough of which is fermented with yeast. It makes for a great treat with regular chapatis or rice all the same.
And for anybody who thought Gujarati food was fafdas and khakhras, theplas and undhiyu or khichdi kadhi, there’s a non-vegetarian’s paradise in some bylane of Surat or Ahmedabad, I’m sure. All you need to do is ask.
Up Next: Maamnaa (another Khatri favourite – meatballs made with lamb mince)