Minced Manna- Financial Chronicle

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The kebab by any other name tastes just as great. As chef Monish Gujral finds out on a spicy trail around the world that springs several succulent surprises
Minced Manna
All men by nature desire knowledge, as Aristotle had once opined. And when that knowledge is related to one of man’s ruling passions-—food, he will travel the world to get it. Of course, depending on how much he craves it. The knowledge and the food, both. A few years ago, while lecturing on Indian cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, chef and restaurateur Monish Gujral’s curiosity was stirred when he was enlightened by one of the students that kebabs were also cooked in his native country Bosnia. Surprised, right? Kebabs in Bosnia? So was Gujral, who as a scion of the Moti Mahal chain, thought he knew everything there was to know about carnivorous cuisine. Fired by his student’s statement, he decided to dig further and set out to travel the world in search of great regional kebabs.

Two years of intermittent travel across 18 countries has resulted in his latest book, On The Kebab Trail. It includes recipes based on his experiences the world over, his own experiments in the kitchen as well as rare recipes from the family kitty. “I found that each of the countries I visited had its own unique kebabs. Some even had similarities to ours. For instance, beyti kebab native to Turkey, is a minced mutton kebab wrapped with lavash flatbread and topped with tomato sauce and yoghurt, so the basic kebab keenly resembles our seekh kebab,” says Gujral.

Many countries specialise in skewered kebabs as well, he found. “Suya or tsire kebab is a meat kebab that uses peanuts and paprika for its spicy marinade. Also known as chichinga in Ghana, it is a popular barbeque street food in west African countries.” Then there’s the shish touk, a Lebanese chicken kebab that uses meat threaded on a skewer along with cubes of fruits or vegetables such as aubergine, bell pepper, mushroom, onion and tomato. Quite like our shashlik, right? Other global versions of the kebab include the sheftalia, that is a traditional Greek-Cypriot sausage made of pork or mutton, while satay, flavour of the season for most Indian foodies these days, is a south Asian barbeque dish. As for the Bosnian kebab called cevapi, it is made from two types of minced beef meat, which is hand mixed and grilled and served with chopped onions, red pepper, sour cream and cottage cheese.

The word kebab has been derived from the Arabic word kab, which means to turn and cabob, meaning a piece of meat or vegetable. Gujral explains that, “essentially, a kebab is anything (meat or vegetable) that is marinated, put on a skewer and grilled till it has a nice char.” Tracing the global history of the kebab, he found they had been a part of the cuisine of the 13th century Ottoman Empire besides being a staple in Arabia, Iran and central Asia. And it was from central Asia that the popular Chinese version, yangrouchan, was inspired. In this, chunks of mutton marinated with cumin and chilli paste are threaded on bamboo skewers and grilled over coal. From the Chinese, the kebab travelled to the rest of south Asia with each region adding its own taste and flavour.

Kebabs came to India with the Mughals, goes the general perception. Gujral, clears the air on that one. “Long before the Mughal invasion, the Rajputs were making sule or smoked kebabs. Hunting was popular among the Maharajas there and game meat was regularly eaten. They had some wonderful kebab variations in those times,” he says.

Gujral, however, agrees that credit must go to the Mughals for popularising it — and polishing it. “It was only after it arrived in India that the kebab got its real personality,” he says. “It was here that the grilled meat was combined with a plethora of spices that eventually turned the basic chunks of meat into a delectable dish.”

If the Mughals made the kebab a household name, the Nawabs of Awadh in later years, took it to a different level altogether. From a mere dish, they transformed it into a delicacy. Legend has it that the galouti kebab, a hallmark of Awadhi cuisine, was created in the 19th century for an aging nawab of Lucknow, who lost his teeth, but not his passion for meat. Galouti means “melt in your mouth” and was perfect for the toothless nawab who continued savouring it until his last days. The galouti is made of minced goat meat and green papaya, traditionally used to tenderise the meat. After mixing herbs and spices, the very finely ground meat is shaped into patties and fried in pure ghee. The original recipe is supposed to have had more than 100 aromatic spices, while today it’s been reduced to just eight or 10.

The famous kakori kebab attributed to the village of Kakori in Uttar Pradesh, also has much folklore. One story says it was created by the then Nawab of Kakori, who, stung by the remark of a British officer about the coarse texture of the kebabs served at dinner, ordered his rakabdars (gourmet chefs) to evolve a more refined seekh kebab. After ten days of trial and error, they came up with a kebab so soft and so juicy that it won praise all around, including from the British officer who admitted it was the tastiest kebab he had ever eaten.

Kebabs can be found in Europe too. Only they were a much later addition. Doner kebab, literally “rotating kebab” is sliced lamb, beef or chicken, slowly roasted on a vertical rotating spit. The west Asian shawarma, Mexican tacos al pastor and Greek gyros are all derived from the Turkish doner kebab, which was invented in Bursa in the 19th century by a cook named Haci Iskender. Take-out doner kebabs are common in many parts of Europe as well as in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

As Gujral talks animatedly about the succulence, the flavours and the aromas of various kebabs, your jaw nearly drops when he lets on that’s he’s actually a vegetarian. And that’s when he breaks another kebab-myth that they can only be made from meat, poultry or fish. There can be great vegetarian versions as well, he points out. “People often underestimate the ability of vegetables to be made into kebabs. So I decided to experiment with asparagus, yam, jackfruit, colocasia or lotus stem by fusing them with a mix of marinades that turned out to be real crowd-pleasers,” he says.

Vegetarian options also cater to an increasing health-conscious segment. So which is the one kebab that a diet-bound eater would most relish? “Minted tandoori broccoli or cauliflower or even bottle gourd kebabs are most suited for someone who wants a nutritious yet tasty bite. You could add any of these with a cous cous salad and a Moroccan flatbread, and it becomes a wholesome healthy meal.”

And what are kebabs without something to be wrapped or dipped in? Instead of the regular mint chutney, Gujral suggests a range of sauces such as the mango chutney, sesame tomato chutney and the teriyaki sauce. Since kebabs belong to various countries, so do flatbreads that complement their respective succulent mains. Gujral has mixed and matched breads with kebabs and feels such a culinary fusion is what keeps our tastebuds tickling. He also feels the Italian pita bread is so versatile that it can be eaten with almost any and every kebab. Mexican tortillas, too, can be used to make scrumptious rolls when filled with spicy fish kebabs.

So, whether Indian or Bosnian, meaty or veggie, here’s to the kingly kebab…and may it continue to tango with our tastebuds.

By Saloni Madan,New Delhi, Jul 04 2013


First chef from India to be invited to Le cordon Bleu to demonstrate in Paris. Monish is credited with the trailblazing turn-around of Moti Mahal, from being a small but iconic presence in Delhi, to becoming a multi-national corporation that is well on its way to defining how the world eats Indian food. A traditionalist, Monish has remained true to the signature dishes that made Moti Mahal a legend, while reinventing the dining experience into one that is exciting and avant garde to suit modern sensibilities.

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