A recent banquet that was hosted by Major SSH Rehman, Director, ITC Ltd., showcased the best of regional Indian food. Amidst the haleems and qaliyas, there was a curiosity counter. Its contents? Desserts made respectively from eggs, dal, lamb and chicken. Unusual? Most avowedly so. But was it good to taste? Yes, certainly, because the proof of the pudding is, after all, in the eating. At the ITC feast, there was mutanjan: a sweet biryani with cubes of lamb in yellow rice, a chicken barfi, gulab jamuns made of pounded lamb, one halwa made with ground dal and another made with eggs. In addition, the conservative palate had a range of kulfis and phirnis made from more conventional ingredients.
It took me back to my childhood days when, at a party, I ate a dessert that I imagined was coarsely chopped almonds in reduced milk. After everyone played the guessing game, the hostess finally told us what the key ingredient was: bottle gourd or lauki – the most homely vegetable imaginable. Apparently, it was her cook’s speciality, and not one person who ever ate it could guess what it was! That, apparently, is the key to a successful dessert made with unconventional ingredients: nobody should be able to guess what they’re eating.
The whole desserts counter at the ITC dinner could have been transported to the Mughal court in the 1600s, or the court of Awadh, two centuries later. For, although the cooling effects of a tiny amount of sugar was known for centuries in Ayurveda, it is thought that combining meats with enough sugar to create a dessert was the preserve of the Mughal court, via Persia.
According to Chef Manjit Gill, Corporate Chef, Welcomgroup Hotels, desserts made with chicken and lamb were the highest point on a continuum that started with a pinch of sugar being added to rice gruel, eaten as a breakfast dish in India, centuries ago. Because sweets aid in digestion, it is not unknown to serve a tiny helping of sweetened rice before the meal – an Indian amuse bouche! There is the other example of sweet rice pulao. In the annals of Awadhi cuisine alone, three types of rice cooked with sugar are known: muzafar, a sweet rice dish that contained saffron, mutanjan, sweet rice with the addition of mutton cooked in syrup, and sheer baranj, a sweet rice dish boiled in milk. Chef Gill’s collection of antique cookbooks all deal with desserts made with lamb or chicken, under the section chashnidar, which means that they are based in syrup. One important component of chashni or syrup is that it has to have minute quantities of a souring agent. “Vinegar, raw mango, lemon or tamarind always plays a part, however minuscule.”
Sweet meats, (is that really the origin of the term?) soon enough developed a set of rules. Meat needs to be washed in several changes of water, to leach out the smell that we associate with it. After being cooked to a pulp, recipes usually call for it to be pounded well. So, in addition to the smell vanishing, the texture has to go too. It is usually combined with dairy products – milk, cream or khoya, three things that are not usually associated with non-vegetarian cookery. Sugar, of course, goes into any recipe of this nature, but so do the sweet spices. Gill outlines them, “Ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, elaichi and cloves, but never, ever garlic or zeera.”
The other ingredient that often goes into desserts like these is saffron. “It is extremely heating to the system,” says Gill, “as opposed to sugar that is naturally cooling in moderate quantities.” Naturally enough, the use of chillies in a dessert is an abomination; when a spicy note has to be introduced, black pepper usually does the trick. There are other rules too: fish is used (as in maachher taunk) but never shellfish, and any lamb-based dessert has to have the fat trimmed away completely. That’s because such desserts can be served chilled, at room temperature or warm, and is there anything worse than a cold dessert that contains congealed fat?
So, when is it appropriate to serve these unusual desserts? Chef Gill is too polite to say so, but it’s obvious that it’s only for the specialist, with lots of time and plenty of kitchen help at hand. There’s nothing to stop you from trying out a couple of them out in your kitchen, but do experiment on your self or your immediate family before unleashing them on guests. The trick is to disguise chicken and mutton completely, altering the smell and texture completely. Once you do that, your dessert is successful. Leave their fibres intact, and you’ve given away a clue to the key ingredient. And somehow, in a dessert, lamb that has the texture of meat is hardly a triumph. Perhaps protecting the sensibilities of the average diner who has conventional tastes has something to do with it.
Murgh ke Lauz
You have a choice: you can either use de-boned pieces of chicken, or pass it through the mincer and work with chicken mince. According to Chef Manjit Gill, the latter is considerably less work. After you’ve cleaned the bird as much as possible – no skin, fat, blood or bones, wash it in several changes of water. You can even soak the completely washed chicken in water for an hour. Poach the chicken in water until it disintegrates when you stir it with a wooden spoon. At this stage, you should have hardly any poaching liquid left.
Strain through muslin, discarding anything that looks like the bird’s natural fibre. You’ll be left with a runny liquid. Choose your heaviest saucepan, take the phone off the hook and on the slowest possible heat, gradually reduce the chicken, stirring all the while. If you have to answer the doorbell, switch off the gas first. This part is hard work – not only do you have to stand over it constantly, you need to make sure your spoon is scraping the bottom of the pan evenly.
What you are left with is a thick paste with the texture of khoya. While the khoya is cooling, grind almonds to a paste (unsalted cashew nuts with a dash of almond essence is a cost-effective substitute). In a second saucepan, boil sugar with enough water to make a thick syrup. Add the almond paste and then the chicken paste, stirring all the while. It’s ready when the mass clings to your wooden spoon, leaving the sides of the pan. At the ITC dinner, it was served at room temperature.