Growing up in Hyderabad in the ’seventies, Begum Kulsum would always look forward to weddings. That was when the making of the mo’alla kebab took place. “It was around five feet in diametre and took several kebabchis to prepare. Filled with biryani, the trick was to work dexterously with the sheer quantity of ingredients, specially the coating of ground meat so that you’d get a perfect ball which had to be evenly cooked on all sides. When it was covered with gold leaf, it made a sight so spectacular that I clearly remember it to this day.” Alas, today there are no cooks who are capable of making the ultimate kebab. Nor any utensil makers competent to make the gigantic vessels that would accommodate what must rank as the world’s largest, most exotic kebab. Today, Kunwar Rani Kulsum Begum, a food consultant with ITC Hotels, serves up a pale imitation of the mo’alla kebab that is a mere foot in diameter. First-timers are beside themselves with joy at the novelty of it all, but the Begum herself is all scorn for a shadow of the real thing that, in its heyday could feed an entire neighbourhood.
Sophisticated kebabs like the mo’alla, the nargisi kofta and the gilavati are way down the evolution of the primeval – not to say primitive – taste of grilled meat. In fact, one theory about the worldwide popularity of the barbecue is that it is a continuing tradition that links us with the distant past when our nomadic forefathers hunted their meal and cooked it over live coals. Come to think of it, it’s not so far-fetched either. Now, as then, grilling a leg of lamb outdoors is the ultimate celebration of manliness, quite on a par with fishing expeditions, chilled beer and male bonding.
A couple of centuries down the line, food historians will probably view kebabs and Punjabi-Chinese through the same prism: as imports into India, albeit at different periods in history. The true blue kebab (a Persian word, simply meaning meat that has been grilled) undoubtedly came via Central Asia and into the repertoire of ‘Mughlai’ dishes, though Babur would probably have had acute indigestion at some of the atrocities that are served in that guise.
Babur’s forefathers may have been nomadic warriors who ate barbecued meats out of necessity rather than choice, but before long, the Mughal court in India attracted Persians who were the epitome of refinement in contrast to their somewhat rustic Central Asian masters. They brought with them cooks whose repertoire was at sharp variance with the simplistic taste of grilled meats. In no time, given the adage that the way to an emperor’s heart is through his stomach, Mughal cuisine came to knit the twin strands of subtle flavours with robust, hearty desert fare. Which meant that kebabs no longer had to be grilled. They could be pan fried, deep fried, cooked in the tandoor, steamed in a shallow vessel or cooked on stone. Then, lamb was not mandatory. Kebabs were often made from all kinds of game, or even camel meat.
“And no,” says Persian scholar and consultant to ITC Hotels, Salma Husain. “The Mughals did not consume vast quantities of cream in their food. Today’s restaurants that top every dish with cream in an attempt to pass it off as rich, and therefore Mughlai are just plain ignorant. Menus at the Mughal court were drawn up, or at least vetted by unani physicians. And they would have been unlikely to allow the lavish use of a dairy product like cream.” Instead, Husain’s painstaking research into Mughal menus (soon to be published) have thrown up a few surprises. The only spices that were used were clove, cinnamon and pepper; and condiments included onions and ginger. Innovations included colouring kebabs variously with beetroot, spinach and saffron.
By the reign of Emperor Jehangir, kebabs were made of minced as opposed to whole meat. And from there to the use of meat tenderizers was but a short step. Gilavat ‘gilauti’ kebabs refer to the presence of a tenderizer, usually juice of the raw papaya. It is usually used for kebabs made from finely ground meat. Kakori kebabs which are wrapped around a skewer and grilled are one example; gilavat kebabs made famous by the one-armed kebabchi in Lucknow’s Akbari Gate – Tunde Mian – are another. These patty shaped kebabs are typically dry roasted on a pan. The trick is to tenderize them until they are they are just about soft enough to retain their shape. If they’re too firm, not enough tenderizer has been used. On the other hand, if they break up too easily, the kebabchi’s skill is in question!
Ashfaque Qureshi, son of legendary Awadhi chef Imtiyaz Qureshi, says that often kebabs travel from Lucknow to Hyderabad (or vice versa) adding local touches. Pan-grilled shami kebabs are said to have originated in Shams, as Syria used to be referred to historically. It emerged in Hyderabad as the shikampur kebab because Hyderabadis typically use a souring agent in most meat preparations, and the belly of the kebab is stuffed with sour curd or minced onions sprinkled with lime juice. “Shikampur” literally means full belly. Similarly, the “pasanda” kebab of Lucknow was cooked atop a granite slab in Hyderabad which led to the name “patthar” kebab.
Ashfaque’s earliest memory was of the dora kebab, so called because it had to be secured with string to retain its shape. “It’s on its last legs now,” he rues, “as much because tying the coarsely ground mince is a dying art as because no customer has the patience to untie the kebab.” If the dora kebab is not exotic enough, Chef Imtiaz, now into his eighties, remembers the days when mussallam of lamb was commonplace at wedding banquets in Lucknow: it’s a whole lamb stuffed with spices and dry fruits and cooked underground.
If Karan Singh of Narendra Bhavan, Bikaner is to be believed, cooking whole animals underground were commonplace in Rajasthan until hunting was banned. “My research shows that Rajasthani soolas pre-date the Mughal period by far. What is remarkable is how they both existed for centuries, seemingly unconnected to each other.” Khud khargosh, according to this collector of royal Rajasthani recipes, is a near perfect blend of intricacy, gastronomy and expedience. A skinned and prepared hare was stuffed with spices and buried in the sand. Live coals were heaped atop it, and the hunters would leave it all day. When they returned to their campsite in the evening, they knew they were assured of a tasty meal. “It had to be stuffed, rather coated, with spices because of the sand,” he says.
The hundreds of varieties of Indian kebabs that exist, still pale in comparison besides the worldwide figure: from the Pakistani chapli with its generous amount of fat to the slightly grotesque panja kebab of Tashkent which is fashioned like the human hand to the largest of them all – the Maori haangi.