Railway Mutton Curry | An Anglo Indian Express Recipe

The year is 1947. 

Nine children bouncing along on a train bound for Coimbatore, peering intently out the windows and reciting with full gusto R.L. Stevenson's poem, 'From a Railway Carriage'.

"Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches...
...And here is a mill and there is a river;
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!"
At Mettupalyam, once they disembark the broad gauge train and board the toy train bound for Ooty, their ditty now alternates between:
"I think I can, I think I can" and 
"I thought I could, I thought I could"
in an effort to encourage their little train as it pulls and puffs up the hills and through the tunnels.

That was my mother and her siblings making their way up from the coast to the tea gardens in the hill station of Coonoor for their annual summer holiday. Every part of the journey was an absolute delight for them. Right from being waved out of the station with much commotion by a whole host of cousins, relatives, domestic helpers and the odd well-wisher, to savoring all the special delicacies that were part and parcel of a train journey. And Railway Mutton Curry was one of those dishes that anyone who travelled by train at that time looked forward to.

Railway Mutton Curry, Indian mutton curry, Anglo Indian mutton curry, mutton gravy

Sadly, Railway Mutton Curry is synonymous with a bygone era of India. A time that is fast fading away and now only exists in ever fainter memories on the verge of being extinguished forever. A slower, more elegant period, when traveling by train was a real treat... Uncrowded stations, carriages with beautiful wooden interiors, two- person coupes in 2nd class that came with their own lavatory and shower, and meals and tea service in 1st class presented by white uniformed, turbaned bearers.

Spencer and Co. managed the catering for the Indian Railways from the late 1800s until well into the 1950s. At a time when rail menus featured bacon and eggs for breakfast, Roast Chicken and Railway Mutton Curry were popular luncheon and dinner fare. 

When trains stopped at major junctions like Aarkonam, Guntukul, Bezawada (Vijayawada) or Bitragunta, the Spencer's bearers would come aboard with trays of food, served on ceramic crockery and with real cutlery. This was all before my time. The white uniformed bearers with their green and gold turbans and cummerbunds are long gone. But, I still relish hearing my  mother tell me stories of her train travels as a child in the 1940s and as an adult through the 1950s and 1960s.

Spencers bearers in the Indian Railways, British Raj
The bearers have been known to pass trays to each other from the outside of moving trains. Photography by Steve McCurry.

As a hostellite studying in Madras (Chennai) in the 1950s, Christmas Eve was an exciting day for my mother and her fellow hostellites. That's when all of them would descend with great fervour on Central Station, clamoring excitedly to make their trains and get home to their respective hometowns in time for Christmas. Many of the hostellites were Anglo Indian girls from the railway colonies of Villivakkam, Arakkonam, Erode and Coimbatore whose families had worked in the Railways for generations.

One of the perks of coming from a railway family were the joys of concession tickets and getting to travel first class. But, the hostel girls from the railways would choose to travel second class with all their non-railway friends to enjoy each other's company and have a grand old time along the way.

The Anglo Indians in the Indian Railways are almost an extinct breed now. Fading out just like the Spencer's bearers and the Railway Mutton Curry that is no longer served on Indian trains or at refreshment rooms. What remains are fond memories... and written recipes that are passed down in the hopes that they will continue to be made and never forgotten.

I dedicate my Railway Mutton Curry recipe to my grand-uncle, Frank Lafrenais, who was a senior manager in the Furnishing and Loco Division in the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Madras in the 1950s. A charming man who enjoyed fine company and good food, I imagine him relishing this curry with equal delight on train journeys as when his Khansama (cook) might have prepared it for him at home.

My grand uncle Frank Lafrenais as a boy, with his mother (my great grand mother) Mary Lafrenais. Circa 1925.

What is Railway Mutton Curry?

There are just so many regional variations of this dish, depending on which part of India it is prepared in, that it is impossible to agree on what a 'traditional' Railway Mutton Curry should taste like.

Some recipes from South India (Kerala) use a profusion of their local ingredients like pepper, star anise, ground cashew nuts and coconut milk for a more aromatic, richer gravy. Whereas recipes from the East of India (Bengal) are quite different using ingredients like mustard oil, fennel seeds and yogurt.

I would say that this recipe is influenced by the cooks of the Madras Presidency of British India, which now forms the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Once the hub of a large Anglo Indian population who were for generations employed in the Indian Railways, this dish was popularly prepared not just for First Class train dining cars and at train station dining halls, but also in Anglo Indian kitchens to be enjoyed by the family for dinner.

This very simple Railway Mutton Curry is flavored with curry leaves and aromatic whole spices of cinnamon, clove, cardamom and nutmeg. Tamarind gives this curry a dark color and helps in thickening the gravy. It also helps preserve the curry, preventing it from spoiling and thereby making it most suitable for taking on long train journeys.

The Express Recipe

There are two ways that you could prepare this Railway Mutton Curry. Either by taking 'The Mail' or by taking 'The Express'. It really is a matter of how much time you want to spend getting to the final destination.

The journey on 'The Mail' is going to take much longer. It requires marinating the meat overnight and then slow cooking the mutton on low flame for 2-3 hours until it is tender. 

However, given that I don't always have (or want) to spend that much time preparing a dish, I prefer to jump on  'The Express' bandwagon. I pull out my secret weapon, my handy pressure cooker, that helps take hours off the preparation of this curry. Twenty minutes in the pressure cooker and the mutton is fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Though, I will say that the curry tastes better the next day, after it has had time to absorb all the flavors. So, if you have time, prepare it a day in advance.

The best cuts to use for this recipe are goat/ mutton pieces with bones, preferably shoulder or hind leg cuts.


The Anglo Indian Express Recipe


☐  1/2 kg mutton cut into pieces (Can also use lamb)
☐  1 large boiled potato cut into pieces or slices
☐  10 peppercorns
☐  2 onions sliced
☐  2 pieces of cinnamon
☐  2 cloves
☐  2 cardamoms
☐  Pinch of nutmeg
☐  10 curry leaves
☐  4 round chilies broken into bits
☐  1 teaspoon  chili powder
☐  1 teaspoon ginger garlic paste
☐  1/2 cup tamarind juice made from a marble size piece of tamarind
☐  3-4 tablespoons ketchup
☐  Salt to taste
☐  Vegetable oil

Step by Step Instructions:

1. Marinate the meat

Rub the mutton pieces with chili powder, salt and ginger garlic paste and leave it to marinate for 30 minutes or longer while you fry the masala.

2. Fry the masala

In a deep, thick bottomed pan, add 3-4 tablespoons of oil. 

When the oil is hot, add the sliced onions, curry leaves, cinnamon, clove and broken red chili pieces. Fry until the onions are golden brown.

3. Cook the meat

Add the mutton pieces to the fried masala and fry the meat on high to brown the mutton.

Transfer everything into a pressure cooker. Add 2 cups of water and the tamarind juice.

Once the steam comes through, put the stopped on the pressure cooker and wait for one whistle on high heat.

After one whistle, simmer on low heat and pressure cook for 20 minutes. Allow the pressure to release on it's own before opening the lid. The mutton will be soft and tender. 

4. Thicken the curry

Open up the pressure cooker. Below is what the cooked meat curry will look like. It needs to be thickened up a bit.

Railway Mutton Curry

Add the nutmeg and the ketchup to the curry.

Continue to cook it on medium heat for a few minutes to thicken the gravy. 

Then, add the boiled potatoes.

Serve hot with bread, buns or rice.

The Spencer Saga by Maddy on "Maddy's Ramblings".
Photograph of train bearers- Steve McCurry- https://www.stevemccurry.com/ 

If you like this recipe, you might like my other Anglo-Indian dishes:
Chicken Vindaloo
Green Masala Pork Chops
Ball Curry
Coconut Rice

To read about Anglo-Indian Cuisine in India:
Anglo Indian Cuisine | The Best of East meets West

Check out all my other Anglo Indian recipes, by clicking on "ANGLO INDIAN" label below.

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