Lamb for an Eclipse

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When I was 3 years old, my family moved to a high-rise apartment overlooking the Arabian Sea in Mumbai’s “uptown” area of Napean Sea Road. My father was an officer with the Indian navy, and many of the units in that building were reserved for his peers and their families. One evening, when I was 8 or 9, I was trying to make time speed by with my brothers and sisters, playing a card game as we waited for the solar eclipse to pass.

As was customary in my mother’s Brahmin kitchen, fasting was in order until the moon finished its two-stepping with the sun, shadowing the solar’s intense rays from the Earth. When we heard the scurry of feet and the animated voices from the courtyard below, we grabbed a pile of old clothes we reserved for such an occasion. “If you give us your old clothes or money, the eclipse will go away,” bellowed the ragged-looking beggars from our building’s courtyard, hoping we would believe they had the power to move sun and moon. We tossed the clothes from our sixth-floor balcony and watched them sail in the air and land in a limbless heap on the concrete ground.

The beggars ran from one piece of clothing to the next, stuffing them into large gunnysacks hanging from their shoulders. The sun was partially hidden behind the moon, playing peekaboo with the world below. We had to wait for the game of Surya, the sun god, to end before we could break from our daylong fast.

The sacrificial goat

Across the building’s courtyard, a construction crew worked in shadowed glory on a half-erected cement high-rise. A group of men from shanties nearby gathered too, checkered lungis around their waists, a harmonious chanting rising up toward the darkening sky. A mature goat stood in their circle tied to a metal post, a tear-shaped red spot anointing his forehead and a small garland of marigold blossoms resting between his two horns. He was blissfully unaware of his sacrificial role. The sharp, dagger-like khukaris blade glistened against the smoldering embers of an open pit fire. A bleat hung in the air as the knife sliced through the goat’s jugular vein, the life force draining in a metal bucket. A few deft strokes separated the meat from the skin, and soon hunks of flesh lay in a garlic-and-clove-perfumed marinade.

Love, doomed, in the afternoon

During this ceremonial ritual, I watched Shakuntala, our second-floor neighbor, run into our courtyard, her sky-blue dupatta trailing over her left shoulder. She was a 22-year-old beauty with hair the color of black mustard seed and eyes as shockingly wide as the goat’s. But hers were brimming with love-torn tears: She was angry at her parents’ refusal to grant permission to marry her chosen soulmate. She handed her black purse and kolhapuri chappals, sandals, to a neighbor as she ran barefoot into our building.

While I watched the men preparing the goat, a large form intercepted my view, plunging from above and landing in the courtyard with a sickening thud. Shakuntala lay in a grotesque pile. Her dupatta billowed in the wind and covered her twisted face. As the crowds gathered below, the goat meat across the street, swathed in an aromatic poultice of yogurt and freshly ground spices, hung between two poles over a hot pit.

The combined offerings of discarded clothes, unfulfilled desire and an animal’s innocence did indeed lift the eclipse from darkness. In my pre-teenage mind, they also shed a harsh light on the mysteries of life and death.

Vibrant Lamb Chops (Gosht Masaledar)

I’ve adapted this recipe for lamb, which is more popular than goat in the West.

Serves 4

Ingredients

½ cup plain yogurt
½ cup raw (unsalted and unroasted) cashews
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh ginger
8 medium-size cloves garlic
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from green or white pods)
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks (about three inches each), broken into smaller pieces
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
4 bone-in steaks leg of lamb steaks or loin chops (six to eight ounces each)

Directions

  1. Plop the yogurt, cashews, ginger, garlic, cardamom, peppercorns and cinnamon into a blender jar. Purée the ingredients, scraping the insides of the jar as needed, to make a spice-speckled marinade.
  2. Scrape the marinade into medium-size bowl and fold in the cilantro and salt. Cloak the steaks completely with the marinade and refrigerate, covered, at least one hour or overnight.
  3. When ready to cook, heat the coals or gas grill for indirect heat. Spray the grill grate with nonfat cooking spray. Remove the lamb steaks from the marinade, reserving the excess marinade for basting. Cover and grill the lamb, 4 inches to 5 inches from medium heat, brushing occasionally with the reserved marinade, turning the steaks once or twice, until the lamb is barely reddish-pink when cut, 7 to 12 minutes.

Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning “660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Photo: Gosht masaledar. Credit: Raghavan Iyer

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