Born in a country half-obsessed with Tandoori Chicken, Seekh Kabab and Paneer Tikka; where kilos of laccha pyaaz and the teekhichutney decides the fate of the kababiya; a gastronome experience that leaves the chefs sweating; the guest binging tirelessly; and the cash register ringing; this is no short to be called a cult in its own pride; I simply term this as 'The Kabab Cult'.
It is interesting that we have an age-old culture of eating and cooking, and every time the family dines out, kababs cannot be missed. The love for kababs is perhaps in our DNA structure and does not matter at all if you are a vegetarian or a non vegetarian. If I had to look up at the components of a kabab platter and its accompaniments then invariably one would find the kababs (of course), laccha pyaaz, mint chutney, chaat masala and roti. But for a kabab restaurant to be successful, it has to get the sequence right, which is no small task.
It's the mint chutney that has to be an absolute winner more than the kabab. Funny, isn't it? The reason why it is mightier than the kabab is actually quite simple. If you visit any kabab restaurant, have you noticed what comes first on the table (well, much before the water)? It is the mint chutney and the sliced onions. So the first kick that comes from the chutney goes a long way for the customer to decide what is coming next. In fact, in order to be called a "winner kabab" the chutney has to be perfect. If the kabab is not the best, a good mint chutney covers it up beautifully and may even place the meal experience into the "Exceeds Expectations" bracket. The mint chutney should have the correct balance of tartness and the freshness of mint along with its spicy character and slightly thick consistency.
They say what's in the body without the soul, same goes pretty much with the kabab and onions. Onions offer soul to the kabab. With onions it is not about how you serve it but how much you serve it and how frequently you do so. If the server can match up the speed of service of the onions to the speed at which they are wiped clean, chances are that the customers will be back for more. And remember a nice lemon wedge is a must every time with the onions.
Onions add a crunch to the soft kababs. The sharp taste helps in cleansing the palate, making it ready for another morsel of the kabab. For the same reason, radish (mooli) is also substituted in winters. Sweet carrots, cucumbers or beetroot never work.
Chaat masala plays an integral part of the kabab experience. Though, the chef can exercise the option of sprinkling it on the pyaaz or the kabab or both. Overdoing the chaat masala kills the flavour of the kabab and makes it salty. Also, a handful of restaurants (like mine), prepare the chaat masala in-house. It is a secret recipe that I don't share. Once sprinkled over the onions, I have always had a demand of the extra chaat masala on the side from the customers.
The kabab in my list comes next. Care should be taken that is served hot and on to warm plates. It should have sufficient moisture to make it juicy and succulent. Colours should be avoided and it should be marinated for a sufficient time.
A nice bread such as a roomali helps in mopping up every bit of juice that trickles down from the meat to the plate. Also, nice fresh bread gives a feeling of satiety and satisfaction. Overdone or burnt bread is a complete turn off.
This was a little insight into how hard wired the service of kabab is in our DNA. But again, it is important to know that in the first place, what is a kabab really?
Kabab is probably the oldest and the foremost form of food that men had cooked after the discovery of fire. Throughout the world, the roasting of meats is an important and most savoured part of any cuisine. It is the ease of preparation that has led to its huge evolution.
The kabab is said to have originated in the Middle East, Persia to be a little more precise. And from there, it spread to the rest of the world. Turkey, Africa, Morocco, the entire Middle East, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South America, North America and a lot of countries are part of this 'Kabab Cult'.
The word kabab is made of two words 'Ke' and 'Aab', which translates into 'without water'. It means that a kabab is cooked with dry heat application. In old times, the kabab meant a morsel of meat or mince meat cooked over open fire. However, as the cuisines have evolved, hence has the use of the term. The kabab now signifies a morsel (mince or whole) of meat, vegetable, lentil or dairy products, marinated and cooked on open fire, a grill, griddle, oven, kadahi or lagan.
It is appropriate to roast, grill, shallow fry, deep fry, stew, braise or bake a kabab. Kababs are a part of the world cuisine and have over the years transformed and adapted to the local style of the country they are prepared in. Here in India, we have unofficially classified kababs by the equipment that we cook them in. The equipment provide a distinctive character and taste to the kabab.
Tawa/ Mahi tawa - the tawa is an iron (or steel or copper) plate which is heated from below. On this hot surface kababs are shallow fried. The tawa helps in cooking the kabab slowly giving it a crisp outer texture. A mahi tawa is similar with the difference being that it has higher sides resembling a paraat. This enables the chef or kababiya to hold and rotate the tawa for even cooking and an even distribution of the heat to the kababs. Examples are Shammi Kabab, Navrattan Kabab, etc.
Tandoor - Tandoor is the most cherished and highly famous equipment to be used for cooking kababs. It is the most basic form of an oven and its use for cooking dates back as far as the Indus Valley Civilization. This ancient equipment has not changed much since then. It is a clay oven fired by wood or charcoal. Kababs are marinated, skewered and lowered in a hot tandoor, which cooks it from all sides. Popular kababs are the Tandoori Chicken and Tandoori Gobi.
Sigri - It a bar-be-que grill in which smaller cuts of meats and vegetables are marinated and cooked. Meats or vegetables are marinated and skewered and placed on the open grill and the kababiya keeps rotating the skewers for even cooking. Popular kababs are the Kakori Kabab and Kadi Pasanda.
Lagan - It is usually a brass or a copper vessel that has a broad mouth and very shallow in height. The base is a concave round with high sides. It helps in preparing meats that take longer time to cook especially big joints. Also useful for cuts of meats that have less of fat and require some moisture for cooking. Raan and Murgh Musallam are classical examples of kababs from the lagan.
Kadahi - A kadahi is a concave round metal wok that has two handles on the sides. It is a desi avatar of a Chinese wok. The only difference is that it is very heavy and usually made with a thick metal. Tossing or deep frying the kababs in a kadahi is a common thing in India. Deep-fried Chicken Wings and Bhutte Diyan Tikkiyan are the best examples.
Shikanja - A shikanja is a mesh of flat metal stripes in which marinated kababs are sandwiched in between and grilled over a sigri. It is very prevalent in Hyderabad and famous kabab is the Murg Shikanja.
About the author: Chef Kunal Kapur is a well-recognized Indian celebrity chef, restaurateur, and media personality known for his food-focused television shows, cookbook and most recently hosting High dignitary events in the country.