Lamb Bhuna (The South London 1980s Version)

I'm told that ‘bhuna’ means ‘brown’ and refers to the way that this curry is cooked until the colour darkens. In yet another of my shameful fits of nostalgia I'm attempting to recreate a curry that used to turn up on the menus of some of the nicest South London Indian restaurants back in the 1980s when I just happened to be living there. I've come across many bhunas that look and taste nothing like this in the intervening years. To be honest, this is close to the original but not entirely faithful. I think I've toned down my spice craving a bit since the 1980s and I definitely use less oil these days.

I imagine that you can still find something like this dish in restaurants somewhere in the country, but it's probably not fancy enough for many London establishments these days. I've checked Google and the place where I first ate this bhuna is now an estate agents. That sums up the recent history of South London rather well I think. 
Lamb Bhuna
The number of spices here might seem like a bit of a faff but the cooking process itself is very straightforward as long as you keep a close eye on it towards the end. This will serve 2 people quite generously as a main course or a few more as part of a shared set of dishes, which is just how we liked it back in the 1980s.

I thought I'd add a few short notes on some of the ingredients that I use in this curry, just in case they're useful to someone or other.

The Oil - I've been told by people who understand these things far better than I that olive oil is alien to this kind of cooking and should never be used. Then I came across a Nepalese chef who always uses olive oil and seemed to find the 'alien' idea hilarious. As a result, I tend to use a light olive oil in this kind of dish these days. 

The Chillies - Dried Kashmiri chillies are fragrant, delicious and relatively mild but you can substitute any dried chilli or chilli powder you like. Don't use too much, though, because this curry should be aromatic rather than really hot.
Kashmiri Chillies
Fenugreek seeds add a distinctive and satisfying flavour to this dish but it seems that some people with peanut allergies can also have problems with fenugreek, so please be cautious if you or your fellow eaters react that way.

Anardana powder is made from dried pomegranate seeds and it adds a sweet and sour touch to dishes. It seems to divide opinion: some people don't really see the point of it while others find it almost addictive.

450 g lamb neck fillet, cut into chunks of about 2 cm
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped
2 cm ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 dried Kashmiri chilli, crushed or chopped
400 g tin of peeled tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée

The spices:
    4 cardamom pods, seeds only
    1 tsp cumin seeds
    1 tsp coriander seeds
    ½ tsp fenugreek seeds
    ½ tsp black peppercorns
    ½ tsp fennel seeds

To serve (you can treat these as optional, but they are good):
    A sprinkling of anardana powder
    A squeeze of lemon juice
    A sprinkling of chopped coriander and mint leaves

Briefly toast the spices in a dry frying pan over a medium heat to get the flavours going, then crush them in a pestle and mortar. 

Fry the onion quite gently in 1 or 2 tablespoon of oil until it softens and starts to take on some colour. Add the garlic and ginger and continue frying for 2 or 3 minutes. Increase the heat a little and add the chunks of lamb. Continue frying for around 5 minutes until the lamb has taken on an even, light colour. Add the crushed spices and the dried chilli and fry for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring all the time.

Stir in the tomatoes and the tomato purée and season with a little salt. Bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, cover the pan and let it simmer gently for 45 minutes. (Make sure the pan is covered well enough and don't allow it to dry out). 

Uncover the pan, increase the heat and, stirring frequently, reduce the sauce until it becomes quite thick and coats the meat. Continue frying the meat in the reduced sauce for around 5 minutes, stirring all the time. (Please don't walk away and leave it at this stage or it will burn and taste bitter). 

Pour in about 1 cup of water and bring back to a simmer. (The amount of water you add is up to you. I prefer it fairly dry but add more or less according to your personal taste.) If you're adding anardana powder then sprinkle a little on now, together with a squeeze of lemon (this helps to freshen the taste). Sprinkle on the chopped mint and coriander immediately before serving.

Rice and a flatbread of some kind would be good with this curry. A pickle with a touch of sharpness (such as lemon pickle) would provide a nice contrast.


  1. Phil, that looks and sounds delicious. And I chuckled at the idea of the olive oil being "alien." I use extra virgin olive oil in absolutely everything. Of course, I may be a bit alien myself! PS Thought of you earlier this week when I made Teurgoule. Wonderful stuff.

    1. There are a number of chefs and cookery writers in this country who are very concerned that food should be authentic and are very vocal about it. If they don't come across an ingredient when they visit India, then they insist that that no dish that has its origins in India should ever use such an ingredient. I respect anyone who produces truly authentic food but we've been eating hybrid, Anglicised versions of Indian dishes in this country for a very long time (Veeraswamy in London was said to be the first Indian restaurant and was opened in 1926). The kind of dish that I'm talking about here is definitely a hybrid and I've come up with this recipe based on the dishes produced by chefs who, to the best of my recollection, came from Bangladesh.
      I'm really pleased that you're enjoying Teurgoule. It's hot here at the moment and ice cream is more suitable.

  2. This sounds really good. Love the spice mix.

    1. Of course, you can buy some very good spice mixes from shops and supermarkets but I do find it oddly satisfying to make my own - at least now and then.


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