it’s not possible to think of history while thinking of chops. especially mutton chops. and yet, i tried. one may not think that’s an achievement… and this would only be because one hadn’t had a mutton chop, the way bengalis make it.
chop, to a bengali, is not a cut of meat. it’s a beatific smile inducing joyful experience that involves getting lost in another world while recalling exactly how mother or grandmother or boro ma or younger kakima, or elder jethima, or the cook keshto made it. all the while reaching for the next, and the next, not bothering to ask if there’s enough to go around.
i haven’t a clue what the british might call what we call chop; but it is their sojourn in our land, not exactly benevolent though it might have been, which unleashed this lovely interlude between minced meat, potato, eggs, bread crumb, oil, and fire. the brits and the portuguese, actually. the latter brought along potatoes, tomatoes, and chillies to india, the record shows. history again. sigh, everything has that i guess.
perhaps it was the croquettes the sahibs liked and their cooks and khansamas learnt to make that helped create the bengali chop. after all, it was bengal that first let the british walk in, defeat the nawab, and take charge. croquette, as the spelling gives away, was not a blighty invention really. it came from france, croquer meaning “to crunch”.
to the basic concept of meat and potato mashed, then dipped in egg and rolled in crumb and fried as snack, bengalis added spice, aroma, texture, artistry, and love. i can hear my mother saying, so and so made the best chops, all evenly same in size, and the identical perfect golden brown colour. neither our cook ibi nor i reach quite that level, but we talk about it, as i think one should.
it was never just enough to get the stuffing right or the taste delightful, the look was important. very. and the artist’s touch was needed to stuff the exact amount of “pur” or stuffing into the potato shell, so that neither was the outer layer too thick, thus dousing the flavours and blunting the bite, nor was it so thin it didn’t provide that cushioning of a gentle taste and mouth feel before the richness within hit your senses. and if you were simply mashing both stuffing and potato together, shaping them, dunking them into egg and crumb, and then frying them off, well, that could not be called chop. no, you could call them croquette, maybe.
mutton to bengalis, actually to most indians, is not the meat of sheep or lamb, it’s goat meat. “mangsho” is bangla for meat. we call mutton chop… “mangsher chop”. not that if you make this with beef or lamb, it wouldn’t taste good nor qualify to be called mangsher chop, but yeah, i do miss that tender delicate flavour of “panthar mangsho”; “pantha” being the poor goat; the “n” is not pronounced, it adds a nasal note to the “pa”. and the “mang” in the mangsho rhymes with “rung” not “rang”.
doesn’t really matter how you pronounce it, usually once you have it, you’ll find your own way to indicate you wouldn’t mind another one of that hot, deep fried, not at all bmi friendly thing. since the meat used was never a fine cut or anything, i am presuming, croquettes didn’t take birth in a wealthy kitchen. but chops i’m sure were initially the domain of the rich and crafty, who “managed” their relationship with the new rulers and created fancy food that blended imported cooking ideas and ingredients, and made them more indian. ah, the green chillies in mangsher chop, that tinge of cumin, the whiff of cloves and cardamom… now where would bangla food be without that helpful lugging over of chillies by the portuguese.
chops though refused to stay confined in mansions and manors and uppity clubs. they made their way all the way to the street. you can get wonderful mutton, or even vegetable chops at roadside hawkers and “cabins” in kolkata. yes, we have fish chop or “maachher chop”, egg chops, and vegetable chops. this being india, not everyone eats meat. also, you can’t deprive the strictly vegetarian of this find. the bengali vegetable chop with lots of beet in it, makes yet another “foreign” ingredient, beetroot, seem utterly indian.
(muttering to myself, i can’t believe chillies aren’t indian… i bet if we look hard enough at the ramayan or mahabharat, maybe the vedas or upanishad, or even the puranas, we’ll find them there.)
confession. i have no idea exactly where or how chops entered bangla cooking, i just felt it must have started with the mingling of the zamindars with the sahibs. every home and its “ginni” – from “grihini” or lady of the house – will have a personalised, specific take on the chop. some will never add garlic, some would go easy on the cumin, others will be generous with the sugar or ghee… and many these days stay away from frying the boiled potato with a little onion to add texture and taste. all the recipes work. you can find several on the net, each one is fine, and you can add your own signature if you wish.
to me, chops will always bring thoughts of my mother. she loved them. every once in a way, even if we weren’t having guests or anything, she’d ask the cook to make some… for tea time and/or dinner. she’d give careful instructions: about the slow frying of the stuffing, no stinting on that; how much of this or that ingredient to put; how to make sure the deep frying was done properly without burning the coating of crumb nor leaving it bland and pale. she taught me as well when i asked her. no noting down or exact measurements; just words, a telling of how you start with some ingredients and end up with a happy grin, diving into a hot crisp fried chop. here’s the recipe as i remember it.
mutton chop / mangsher chop
i don’t have exact measurements, will try indicative ones.
about a kg of finely minced goat meat/lamb/beef
3 green cardamoms
1″ long piece of cinnamon
2 red onions, diced small
1 to 1 1/2 tbsp garlic paste
1 to 1 1/2 tbsp ginger paste
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 to 2 tsp cumin powder
1 to 2 tsp (depending on how strong it is) chilli powder
3/4 green chillies, chopped fine
about 4/5 tbsp white oil
a little sugar, say 1/2 teaspoon
heat the oil. put in the bay leaf, then the 3 garam masala (clove, cardamom, cinnamon). when they sizzle and release aroma, add the onion. stir and fry till onion is brown: lower the flame and cover after you throw in the onion, and let it simmer for a bit, then uncover, you’ll find the slices have gone soft, now raise the flame and stir frequently till onion turns golden brown, then a shade deeper.
now add the ginger, garlic, turmeric powder, cumin powder, chilli powder, and sprinkle a little water. fry it all well together till the “raw” smell is gone, look for pleasant smell and a sticking to wok bottom. you may want to splash a little water from time to time as you turn the masala and it begins to stick, so that it all roasts nicely. usually, i mix the three dry powders, turmeric/chilli/cumin, with a little water and set it aside for around 10 to 15 minutes, before cooking with it.
then add the meat, stir and turn and fry it together. add salt, sugar, cover and slow cook on low flame. add a little water if needed. finally it should be a dry mince which can be stuffed. when it’s almost cooked, add the green chillies (optional but they do add flavour).
you may add a pinch of ground roasted cloves/cinnamon/cardamom mix at this point, to enhance the garam masala flavour. since we keep kosher, i don’t add ghee to the stuffing, but if you’d like to, drop in about a teaspoonful now. tastes great, brings together all the flavours in a way only ghee can.
let the mince cool. remove the whole garam masala and bay leaf.
2 kg and a bit
1 large red onion, finely diced
boil the potato, peel, and mash well.
in a wok, heat a little oil, throw in a handful of chopped red onion, fry till it’s about to turn colour. add the potato and on low heat turn it, frying. add salt. idea is to take that “boiled” sloppy feel and taste away, get it delicious and unhealthy (possibly, we’ll never know… this is one of those arcane secrets, science will never crack). my mother always insisted on this process. you can do with plain boiled potato too, but really, don’t.
you may have noticed a lot of turning and frying/roasting on low heat is involved. in bangla, we call it “kosha”… to “tighten” something is the closest translation i can think of, like making something get to the right point… in hindi, it’s “kasna”. shall we make it “kassoing” in english? kasso away merrily.
oil to fry
everything has cooled down, now shape the chops. take a little potato in your palm, stuff the mince or “keema” in. get a nice amount of stuffing into a not too thick (mother would say it must be pretty thin) layer of potato shell.
you’ll have to wet you hands from time to time as you pat the chops into shape.
we usually make oblong chops. i like it a bit flattened, you can do the bolster shape too (as we’ve done here). for some reason, could be just because that’s what i’ve seen growing up, we don’t do a round mangsher chop.
should be about 3 to 4 inches in length, not too small.
once that’s done, get a couple of eggs and beat them in a bowl, add pinch of salt.
spread out plain bread crumb on a sheet or large bowl
dip the chops in egg, roll in the crumb and set aside.
leave in the fridge for a while (think you can freeze them too but haven’t tried).
heat plenty of oil in a wok. deep fry the chops to golden brown. one more thing, these can’t be baked, steamed, broiled, shallow fried, etc., got to drop them into lots of hot oil in a wok/kadhai, and hear the roil, see the burst of bubbles, watch the colour turn slowly, and the chops begin to sound crisp against the slotted spoon/spatula as you gingerly turn them over.
this should make about 30 chops. you can serve the chops with any chutney or sauce. in kolkata it’s often served with “kashundi”, the bengali take on mustard sauce.
try a simple coriander chutney. blend together a bunch coriander leaves, a green chilli or two, two cloves od garlic, a little ginger, lime or lemon juice or a little tamarind to taste, salt, and a bit of sugar. you can add mint leaves too.
looks pretty when the chops are served with a green chutney and a red chutney or sauce.
can be a starter. or teatime snack. nothing like a just fried, hot chop to bite into and forget all your worries.