The Taste With Vir: The Tandoori Chicken is a Punjabi bird and we should say it loud

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I wrote last week in Brunch about the battle over the invention of Butter Chicken. It is not surprising that the piece generated so much interest – Delhi is a Butter Chicken-crazy city.

But I learned three things from the responses.

First of all, we have done such a bad job of recording the history of Indian food that even people in the business were surprised to know that Butter Chicken was popularised as late as the 1950s in Delhi. Many chefs regard it as one of the seminal dishes of Indian cuisines, but still do not realise how recent its origins are.

Perhaps because of that, they don’t understand how important the tandoori flavour is to the dish. It was originally made with fully cooked Tandoori Chicken and later versions used Chicken Tikka, (sometimes fully-cooked; sometimes half cooked).

But so many of those who responded to the column (including chefs) acted as though this was just another curry that you could make with raw chicken or par-boiled chicken. One reader who commented bragged about the flavour of the bones that came through when he put raw chicken into the curry. (“Never let them make it boneless”, he advised).

If even chefs and restaurateurs know so little about Butter Chicken in the city where it was invented, then you fear for the future of Indian cuisine.

The second learning was that, at some intuitive level, North Indians believe that Hindus were vegetarians and that Muslim rulers brought non-vegetarian dishes to India. Butter Chicken, I was repeatedly assured, came from Persia or Turkey.

The truth is that there was a huge inter-change of dishes between India and the Middle East, dating back to the times before the Prophet was born. Many of the dishes we regard as entirely Indian were creations of these exchanges: the samosa and the jalebi, for instance. Coffee came from Arabia. And so on.

But these dishes were not necessarily non-vegetarian and they were not brought by rulers or armies. They were part of the regular trade interactions and exchanges between the regions.

The case of tandoori cooking is particularly interesting. Tandoors, or ovens like them, have been popular in the region for millennia. You find them in Central Asia, Afghanistan and many other countries in Asia. Archaeologists have even found early tandoors in excavations of Indus Valley sites.

However, tandoors were usually used to make bread. The kabab tradition all over West and South Asia was based on pieces of meat that had been grilled on an open fire or cooked on a tawa (especially if the kabab was made of minced meat). There is no great Hindu-Muslim divide here, either. Meat was grilled on skewers at the time of Chandragupta Maurya (around 300BC) before Islam had been established.

The significance of tandoori chicken is that it was the first major dish to emerge out of the unusual confluence of tandoori and non-vegetarian items. As far as I can tell a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar popularised the dish in the 1930s. Some people say that other dhabhas in Peshawar also served the same kind of dish but I have never seen any proof of this.

After Partition, the founder and staff of Moti Mahal came to India as refuges and started their Delhi outpost. This is where Butter Chicken was invented.

The significance of this is lost on many chefs who claim that Butter Chicken is a Mughlai dish (whatever ‘Mughlai dish’ means) or that it was served at the Delhi Court or that it came to India from abroad.

In fact, tandoori chicken and all its descendants are triumphs of Punjabi cooking. This style of cooking was invented by Punjabi Hindus and came to India with them after Partition. No Mughals or Iranians were involved.

Why do so many people ascribe Muslim origins to it? Well, it is partly because we do, as I said, still associate Muslims with North Indian non-vegetarian food. And partly, it is to do with the North West Frontier mythology generated by restaurants like Bukhara to promote tandoori food.

This is bogus because tandoori kababs were never a staple in the North West. Plus, many of us have forgotten that there were Hindu pathans in Peshawar — the term has now come to be associated solely with Pakistanis (Imran Khan, for instance) and Muslims in general. But before Partition it was not linked to any religion.

Though Punjabis never get the recognition they deserve for creating some of the best dishes of Indian cuisine, there is something magical and uplifting about the success of refugees who left their homes with nothing except for the clothes on their backs. They still managed to transform Indian cuisine. Today there can’t be a single major Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi restaurant anywhere in the world without a tandoor. And that’s because of the creations of Punjabi Hindu refugees.

While leads to my third and final learning. We may remember Moti Mahal but we must never forget that there were also many other excellent restaurants created by Punjabis in that era.

Many of those restaurants never got the recognition they deserved and most are now forgotten.

My friend and former colleague Pankaj Vohra knows Delhi like the back of his palm. His father went to school in Peshawar and knew many of the Punjabis who went into the restaurant business after Partition. All this makes Pankaj an encyclopedia of knowledge about the growth in cuisines in post-Partition Delhi.

Pankaj’s father knew Kundal Lal Gujral, one of the founders of Moti Mahal. But, says Pankaj, Moti Mahal assumed such prominence only because Gujral caught Pandit Nehru’s eye. Nehru’s patronage (state guests were all taken to Moti Mahal) ensured that Moti Mahal became the best known restaurant in Asia.

Was it necessarily the best? Pankaj is not sure. His family always preferred Peshawari located a few shops away from Moti Mahal in the Daryaganj area of old Delhi. Pankaj remembers the Butter Chicken as being even better than Moti Mahal.

Pankaj also has warm memories of Khyber, a restaurant at Kashmiri Gate owned by a family called the Sethis who had once run a restaurant of the same name in Peshawar. When New Delhi opened up, many Punjabis moved their restaurants there. The National in Connaught Place was, says Pankaj, legendary for its mutton dishes.

Pankaj’s point is that Moti Mahal is a symptom and not the sole example of a wider trend in which Punjabi Hindus came to India after Partition and opened restaurants that transformed our cuisine.

He also makes an interesting observation about the food. According to Pankaj when these restaurants opened, the cooks were also refugees from West Punjab. But, as time went on, the cooks moved on to other things (or their children did) and while Moti Mahal etc. continued to flourish, the composition of their kitchens changed with the cooks coming from the hills, from places like Kumaon.

It is not Pankaj’s case that only Punjabis can cook this cuisine but, he says, it is worth noticing that most Punjabi restaurants no longer employ Punjabi cooks, Surely that must make some difference to the cuisine?

I often wonder why Hindu Punjabis who have made such a great contribution to our cuisine are so reluctant to own up to their great inventions.

Both the tandoori chicken and the butter chicken are Punjabi birds.

And may be, they should say it out loud. They are Punjabi and proud.

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