Succulent morsels of meat marinated with spices and skewer-grilled in hearths or ovens have tantalised the taste buds of food lovers for centuries.
These define the cuisine of the frontiers – recalling memories of rugged deserts of Asia and Europe, the march of Islam and large armies cooking meat in open fires.
“Kebab”, or the way the meat turns, is derived from Arabic word “cabob”, a distortion of the Aramaic word “kabbaba” or “kababu” meaning to burn or char, says Monish Gujral, who manages the Moti Mahal chain of restaurants and has put together around 100 kebab recipes from across the world in a new book “On the Kebab Trail” (Penguin India), tracing the origin of the dish in Turkey and its journey to the Indian sub-continent.
Thirteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta records that kebabs were served in royal houses and even enjoyed by commoners for breakfast with naan.
In India, the history of the kebab is marked by rivalries between chefs over recipes, ingredients and whims of kings, who wanted their meat cooked in particular ways.
Gujral says kebabs over the years have captured the imagination of the world and become a symbol of fine dining.
“People are making kebabs at home. It is a family meal because kebabs are healthy since they can be cooked with moderate oil. They are easy to make because they involve two processes — marination and grilling — with both vegetable and meat alternatives,” Gujral told IANS.
With grilling meat becoming part of household cooking ritual, attention has returned to kebabs again, he said.
Gujral, a restaurateur, award-winning writer, cook and grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral, creator of the “tandoori chicken”, is just back from a kebab odyssey around the world to discover new delicacies.
“I decided to compile kebab recipes because there is no book about kebabs from around the world. Every country has its own version of the kebab — marinated meat with spices and ingredients specific to the country and its culinary habits.
“In India, as laymen, we have heard about regional kebab, but never heard of Turkish, Moroccan or Lebanese versions,” Gujral said.
The kebab was invented by a chance shortage of meat, he said.
“In ancient Turkey, invading armies were in short supply of kitchen hearth fuel. They skewered the meat in open fields. The soldiers pierced the meat with swords and charbroiled them in open fires. These kebabs were nomadic – basic grilled meat which later evolved into Turkish kebabs.
“The origin of the meat kebab was also associated with the fact that in those countries, there were fewer vegetables and more animals. And the soldiers had to be fed,” he said.
The Turks brought the aromatic kebabs to India, Gujral said. “And my grandfather created the tandoori kebab.”
Gujral says the Indian palate is compatible with “barra kebab” (large chunks of marinated and cooked meat), “chicken tikka kebab”, “tandoori chicken kebab” and “tandoori aloo” – skewered spiced potatoes.
“But my favourite is the ‘murgmalai kebab’ and ‘paneer tikka’,” Gujral said.
The kebab trail took the chef across the Middle East and Turkey, where two “unusual kebab recipes” lingered on his palate.
“I ate the traditional ‘testi’ or claypot ‘kebab’ in Turkey cooked in sealed earthen clay pots at 800 degrees Celsius for 12 hours with mutton, tomatoes, pepper and ginger. The pots are split open once the kebabs are ready,” Gujral said.
“The ‘bachivan kebabi’, another Turkish wonder, with fresh garden vegetables was beautifully balanced and cooked with mutton, black pepper, olive oil and onions and eaten with Turkish ‘lavash’ – a thin flat bread,” he said.
Gujral’s book lists recipes of nearly 100 kebabs from the Middle East, India, Africa and Southeast Asia, where meat is staple food with grain bread and rice.