There are few dishes that evoke the tempestuous passion of the land they spring from as perfectly as Rogan Josh does.
Rogan Josh, which roughly translates to “red heat,” is a classic meat dish from the belly of Kashmir, an exquisite land infused with both sublime romance and turbulent tragedy. When I was growing up in the hot crush of Bombay, Kashmir was where everyone I knew wanted to go to on a holiday. It was the land of icy blue Himalayan peaks, majestic Chinar trees reaching for the sky, and beautiful women in ornately embroidered wool gowns. The land of houseboats sitting on the glossy, glassy Dal lake and of Bollywood heroes with puffy hair serenading their heroines in equally bouffant hairdos. Of fragrant musk, hot salt tea, and delicious saffron, the tiny red stigma of the saffron crocus flower that is so prized by cooks.
There is one more thing Kashmir has always been known for, apart from its breathtaking beauty and its unfortunate tragedies: its rich and distinctive cuisine. I have shared a few Kashmiri dishes with you in the past, like Dum Aloo, a saucy side dish that takes the humble spud to a whole new level of deliciousness, and these delicious collard greens.
Rogan Josh is just as special as these dishes, if not more so. Traditionally it is made with mutton or goat’s meat–an ingredient Kashmiri cuisine tends to rely heavily on. But this vegan version for which I used tempeh cubes is just as delicious. You could also use vegetables like eggplant or mushroom instead of the tempeh, but I really prefer the chewy texture of tempeh in this dish. The recipe also calls for yogurt and I substitute that with some coconut milk and lemon.
Kashmiri cuisine also makes liberal use of a local chilli that is moderately hot and imbues dishes with a vibrant and appetizing redness. Because I don’t get Kashmiri chillies at my local Indian grocery store, I chose instead to go with a Guajillo pepper, also a moderately hot chili that imparts a wonderful color.
I wanted those of you who have never been to Kashmir to see exactly how wonderful it is, so I racked my brains to choose for you one of hundreds of Indian movie songs shot there. I settled finally on this one from the Tamil movie Roja because the breathtaking cinematography by Santosh Sivan does perfect justice to the splendor of this region. This song is also one of my most favorite compositions of the Indian music director A. R. Rahman who later won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. Roja, if I remember right, was his debut movie.
After the song comes the recipe. Enjoy, all!
Vegan Rogan Josh
1 eight-ounce package of tempeh, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 medium onion, finely diced
1-inch knob of ginger, sliced
4 cloves of garlic
1 guajillo chili pepper, lightly toasted on a dry skillet until the color darkens a few shades.
4 green cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
1 half-inch stick of cinnamon
5-8 black peppercorns
1 tsp powdered cumin seeds
2 tsp powdered coriander seeds
1/4 tsp of garam masala
1/2 cup coconut milk mixed with the juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Place the garlic, ginger and guajillo chili in a blender with about 1/4 cup of water and process into a smooth paste. Add more water if necessary.
Heat the oil in a nonstick or cast-iron saucepan. Add the tempeh cubes and brown over medium-high heat, about 2 minutes each side. Remove and set aside.
In the same pan, add the cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf and whole peppercorns and stir-fry about a minute or until the bay leaf darkens a couple of shades. Add the onions and saute for about 8-10 minutes over medium heat until they caramelize into a brown color. You can help them along by adding a teaspoon of sugar.
Add the ginger-garlic-guajillo mixture to the saucepan. The add the powdered coriander and cumin. Stir well and fry until the raw smell dissipates, about five minutes.
Add the tempeh cubes and stir them well to coat evenly with the spices.
Add the coconut milk-lemon mixture and stir thoroughly into the tempeh.
Add 1/2 cup of water, more if you want a thinner gravy. Cover and cook about five minutes to let the flavors mingle and merge.
Stir in the garam masala and add salt to taste.
Serve hot with rice or rotis.