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On a roll

The kathi roll is so popular that you will find it (or its variations) in much of India. Yet, we know little about it. Vir Sanghvi tells you more about it.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2010 18:25 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Ask most people to give an example of an Indian sandwich and they will point you in the direction of the chicken tikka sandwich so beloved of English sandwich shops. But a sandwich made with bread isn’t really Indian, no matter what the filling is.

In fact, an authentically Indian sandwich does exist, is widely available all over the country and deserves its popularity. The only problem is that we don’t think of it as a sandwich.

I refer, of course, to the kathi roll. If you define a sandwich as being a bit of meat (or cheese or vegetables etc) encased in bread, then the kathi roll conforms to the definition. At its most basic, it consists of a kabab of some description (the meat) wrapped inside a roti of some sort (the bread).

The roll is so popular that you will find it – or variations thereof – in much of India. In Delhi, Khan Market sophisticates swear by Khan Chacha. In Bombay, they prefer the Frankie which is essentially a kathi roll after a weekend in Dubai. And in Calcutta, they worship the Nizam’s roll. I’m not as familiar with the south but I’m sure you can find kathis in Hyderabad and Bangalore.

Kathi RollAnd yet, we know little about the roll. While researching this piece I spoke to a variety of chefs and food historians. Not one could tell me, with any degree of certainty, which part of India the original kathi came from or how it became so popular all over the country.

So, what follows is largely guess work based on my conversations with people and my own memories of rolls that I have eaten all over the country – after all, the very first Rude Food centuries ago (all right, eight years ago) was about the Nizam’s roll.

As far as I can tell, what we call the kathi kabab roll is actually not one roll at all – it is at least two. The first roll seems to have originated at Nizam’s in Calcutta.

I have many memories of eating at the original Nizam’s. A large tawa which I was assured was a hundred years old (the next time I went, they said 60 years old, so let’s just agree it was very old) was put on an open fire. The cook had already rolled a maida paratha on the tawa. Then, he broke an egg on the paratha and cooked it on both sides so that the result was part paratha and part omelette. Then he shiftily took a few pieces of pre-cooked ‘mutton’ kabab, looked nervously at a sign that said “no beef is served here” (but we thought we knew better) and put them in the centre of the paratha. He rolled the paratha, added raw onions and chutney and put the finished roll inside a wrap of shiny paper.

You could have the roll without the egg but I always thought this was a waste of time. You could have it with chicken (rubbish). And no doubt there was a vegetarian version which the chefs made while they held their sides and laughed.
When I moved to Calcutta nearly 25 years ago, Nizam was one of a whole bunch of Muslim restaurants (with such names as Aminiya, Sabir and Shiraz) which specialised in curries, chops and biryanis. But only Nizam’s had the roll and they guarded its ownership zealously with signs that read “we have no branches.”

This may or may not have been true but the roll was found everywhere in Calcutta, often at restaurants with such names as New Nizam’s. Unlike most imitations, the average quality of the rolls at these other restaurants was nearly always high. And so while many people preferred the Nizam’s originals (or not – Arvind Saraswat came to Calcutta to open the Taj Bengal’s restaurants, went to Nizam’s kitchen and swore never to eat there) there were lots of options in every area of Calcutta.

Ask most people now about the kathi kabab roll and you will be told that it was invented by Nizam’s and travelled eastwards from Calcutta. There are two problems with this view. The first is the name. Nizam’s never called its roll a kathi roll. It was simply a mutton roll or a chicken roll or, in moments of hubris, a Nizam’s roll. Nor did anybody else in Calcutta (at least in that era) use the term ‘kathi kabab.’ It was just called a roll.

Secondly, the rolls that people in Delhi enjoy, have nothing to do with the Nizam’s roll. For instance, I went to Khan Chacha in Khan Market last week. The street stall was legendary and when the chefs fought with their landlord (who, they say, stole their name and offered it to franchisees) in court, the story made all the newspapers with half the population of Delhi rooting for the chefs against the landlord. (The other half of the population is vegetarian.)

Now the Khan Chacha chefs have new partners, the Kalras, the owners of Dayal Opticals. This seems a happier arrangement because the Kalras have set them up in a restaurant of sorts (you buy a coupon and queue up for your food but you get a table) which does a roaring business. Apparently M S Dhoni and various other celebrities are regulars.

The Khan Chacha roll has damn all to do with the Nizam’s version. For a start, most Delhi operations use tandoori kababs, while Nizam’s kababs are never tandoori-cooked. The Khan Chacha roll is based on the roomali and on thin rotis. The Nizam’s roll depends on the richness of a crisp, egg-covered paratha.

The Khan Chacha formula is to make three kababs: a chicken tikka, a thin seekh of the kind we used to buy from street vendors when we went out drinking in our youth and a so-called kakori which is probably not a kakori at all but is more like a real seekh kabab than the thing they call a seekh.

You can order the three kababs separately. Or they will wrap them up in rotis and serve them to you. In that sense, the Khan Chacha roll (in any of its three avatars) is a true Indian sandwich. (I can’t be sure but there must be a vegetarian roll somewhere on the menu too.)

Any fool can see that a tandoori chicken tikka wrapped in a roomali roti is entirely different from the Nizam’s roll. But somehow, we tend to lump them together as examples of kathi kabab rolls.

I asked Monish Gujral, whose grandfather Kundan Lal Gujral popularised tandoori cooking in India at his Moti Mahal in the 1950s whether he recognised the Khan Chacha roll. Monish says that this roll does not have its origins in the Nizam’s tradition at all.

According to him, it was his grandfather who invented the chicken tikka roll and the seekh kabab wrap. When these dishes became popular at Moti Mahal, Kundan Lal looked for takeaway versions. He began by putting his kababs into kulchas and rolling them with onion and chutney. Later, Moti Mahal shifted to using lighter rotis. In the Moti Mahal version, the roll was only a means of transporting the kabab. In the Nizam’s version, the roll was the point of the exercise.

The Khan Chacha rolls seem to me to be extensions of the Moti Mahal wraps. They are essentially wrappings for kababs rather than great rolls in themselves. This is not to deny that they’re very good: millions of Punjabis cannot be wrong. But I doubt if they’re descended from the Nizam’s roll.

I asked Manjit Gill, ITC’s corporate chef and one of the most knowledgable people I know, about which version of the roll ITC serves at all its properties.

Manjit says that they discussed the roti options when they were standardising the recipe. Eventually, ITC took the line that it was creating a roll, not providing a wrap for its kababs.

So, the ITC version uses a Mughlai paratha and the chefs pay special attention to the filling. Often ITC uses chopped or ground meat and one version requires lots of fresh vegetables. Manjit’s view is the same as mine. A roll is a dish in itself. It is not an excuse to eat a seekh kabab on the run. In this health conscious era, however, most ITC hotels will offer lighter versions made with thinner rotis should guests be frightened of the Mughlai paratha, but the standard recipe uses the paratha.

I don’t want to play any favourites between the two avatars of the roll. A couple of months ago, at the Four Seasons in Bombay, I got the chef at Café Prato to make me a roll with atta (their standard version uses maida) so I understand that people often want to eat healthily. When I lived in Anand Lok in Delhi, I was a regular at the local Al Kauser where they would wrap a kakori in a roomali roti for me and very nice it was too. Equally, whenever I stay at an ITC hotel I usually order some version of the kathi roll because ITC chefs have been astonishingly creative in tinkering with the filling. So yes, there is room for all kinds of rolls. After all, the damn thing is a sandwich and the whole point of a sandwich is that you can play around with the bread and the filling.

But if you strap me to a lie detector and hold a gun to my head and ask me to choose just one roll, then the truth is that I will go for the Nizam’s roll. I’ll take the so-called mutton (nudge nudge wink wink) version made with an egg paratha, stuffed with crunchy onion and that tangy Nizam’s sauce and rolled tightly in shiny grease-proof paper.

It is not that this is necessarily the best roll in the world. It is just that I can never forget those days in 1986 when I would eat a Nizam’s roll for lunch every day. I had just come from Bombay, had no experience of rolls (a Frankie does not count, I’m afraid, despite the resemblances) and was blown away by the excellence of the Nizam’s version.

Since then, I have tried various establishments that use the Nizam’s name in other cities but none of the rolls has been up to the standard of those I ate in Calcutta. Perhaps the real thing was genuinely better.

Or perhaps everything tastes better when you are young.

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