A revolution knocks on the door – and it comes with a fork and knife. The world of food is more exciting than ever before. New restaurants are coming up offering novel cuisines or digging out old ones. Chefs are looking at unusual ingredients and dramatic ways of presenting food. Meanwhile, some wizened old experts continue to wield magic with their skewers and ladles in remote parts of the city. There is a world waiting to be discovered or re-embraced– new cooking styles, world food, sub-regional cuisine and tiny holes in the wall which produce the most delightful dishes. Here’s a guided tour.
Mention Kolkata, and you think of Roshogollah. Think of Punjab, and you imagine sarson ka saag. Say Delhi, and an image of a plate of butter chicken pops up in your mind.
But there is butter chicken, and then there is butter chicken. When we think of the dish, we picture a plump chicken in a tomato-based sauce thickened with cream, butter and nuts. That’s how the butter chicken originated in Delhi.
Legend has it that a restaurateur, faced with left-over tandoori chicken, didn’t know what to do with the grilled fowl because it didn’t taste the same when simply heated up the next day. So he let it simmer in gravy – and that’s how Delhi’s most popular dish was born.
But that’s not the only kind of butter chicken that you get in the city. In some little lanes of Old Delhi, there is another version of butter chicken – and it’s the kind that leaves you drooling. Just the aroma is heady enough to make you want to demolish a bird right there and then, without even saying an excuse me to your date.
In Old Delhi, two men have made a name for themselves with their butter chicken. One is Anmol, and the other is Aslam. I went to Aslam’s recently and found that the place was as crowded as always. The shop is about 20 years old, and is now a four-storeyed bustling eatery. He sells chicken tikkas and fried fish, but is by and large known for his butter chicken.
This butter chicken has a basic recipe, but is full of cream and butter — and is simply delicious. Aslam – or one of his many men – takes a chicken, which has been kept in a marinade mix prepared with red chillies, yellow chillies, salt and yoghurt. He grills the chicken in a barbecue in front of you. Then once the chicken is done, he chops it up, puts the pieces in a bowl, sprinkles some masalas over them – mostly garam masala and red chillies – and then adds some cream. In a saucepan, he adds a slab of butter. And when it starts to bubble, he pours the melted butter over the chicken pieces. The dish is done – and is now served as it is, or with roomali rotis, and some onion rings.
If you are worried about your cholesterol levels or calories, he serves the chicken without the butter. But it is really the butter that makes all the difference to the dish. It softens the chicken and gives it a runny sauce that is truly finger-licking good. And there is nothing like it when you eat it just off the grill, with all the add-ons.
I have often rued the fact that Delhi’s food is becoming standardised – everywhere you get the same gravy, prepared with tomatoes, onions, garlic and ginger, whether you are eating chicken or lamb, or cottage cheese or vegetables. These masalas together often mask the actual taste of the main ingredient. But at Aslam’s, the butter and the cream enhance the taste of the chicken. The butter seeps into the meat, giving it a juicy twist.
This is a dish that has to be eaten hot. If the butter sets, it just won’t be the same. But eaten off the skewer, it’s heaven.
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