Lamb curry

Gulai Bagar

In West Sumatra, where I was born, this lamb curry was often cooked for big feasts and celebrations. We always had it, for instance, when one of my boy-cousins was circumcised, because this was a major family event and huge numbers of people used to gather for it. Half-a-dozen or more sheep would be slaughtered and cut up into quite large chunks—Gulai Bagar is a chunky dish, and even the daily meal of a largish family might require half of a lamb, bones and all, to make the food tastier. On ordinary days, when there might be no more than fifteen or twenty of us in the house, my grandmother used to cook Gulai in a large earthenware pot over a wood fire outside the kitchen door.

However, you can make excellent Gulai Bagar inside your own kitchen, using quite an ordinary joint of lamb, and it is still delicious.


  • 1 leg or shoulder of lamb
  • 7 tbs freshly grated coconut or desiccated coconut
  • 2 tsp coriander seed
  • 5 kemiri (candlenuts)
  • 2 aubergines (optional)
  • 8 shallots, or 2 large onions
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 5 red chillis or 2 tsp chilli powder
  • 4 cloves
  • pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 4 cardamoms
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • pinch of powdered lemon grass
  • 3 Kaffir lime leaves or bay-leaves
  • 500 ml (1 pint) thin santen (coconut milk)
  • 250 ml (½ pint) thick santen (coconut milk)
  • salt
  • 2 tbs tamarind water
  • 3 tbs oil


Cut the leg or shoulder of lamb, with the bone, into 4 or 5 pieces (ask the butcher to do this for you if necessary).

In a wok or frying-pan, roast the grated or desiccated coconut until brown. This will take only a few minutes. Then roast the coriander seed in the same way, stirring continuously, for about 2 or 3 minutes. Pound the coconut, corainder seed and kemiri in a mortar. Alternatively, grind them all together in a mixer or food processor, using equipment that is suitable for grinding nuts.

Peel and slice the shallots and garlic finely. Seed and slice the red chillis. Now heat the oil in a large saucepan, and fry the shallots, garlic and chillis for 2 minutes, stirring all the while. Add the meat and cover the pan for 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover, put in the kemiri and coconut mixture, stir, and cover the pan again for another 2 to 3 minutes. Then it is time to add all the remaining ingredients except the thick santen, tamarind water and salt. Simmer for 50 minutes and put in these final three. Continue cooking for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the sauce is beginning to thicken.

At this point, in Indonesia, we would throw in 8 or 10 small round aubergines, called ‘terung gelatik’. What I do in London is to cut two ordinary greengrocer’s aubergines into 6 or 8 thick pieces. The Gulai then goes on simmering until the aubergines are cooked, which should not take more than about 5 or 6 minutes.

To serve, take out the chunks of meat and slice or carve them as you please. Arrange the meat in a flame-and-oven-proof casserole, and the aubergines on top of the meat. Extract from the sauce all the unwanted solids—cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon and leaves. Pour away the excess oil, which is floating on top of the sauce, and pour the sauce over the meat. Keep the dish hot on a low flame or in a moderate oven until everyone is ready to start eating it, then bring it to table very hot. The best thing to eat with it is plain boiled rice.

By the way, this is the only recipe in the book which calls for cardamoms, Elettaria cardamomum. They are grown in Indonesia and have various Indonesian names, but in my experience are so rarely used that they have not been given an entry in the Introduction.