is usually associated with milk products. It can mean different things but one common usage is that when you reduce milk, the
is the stuff you scrape off from the bottom. And indeed, the term
or to scrape and therefore suggests the scrapings from the bottom of the pot.
also has another meaning in the Indian kitchen. It is the name given to a north Indian dish of meat or chicken (or these days, alas, paneer) with a thickish but scanty gravy. In many ways, it is almost a lost dish because you hardly ever find it on restaurant menus these days and even those places that used to serve it (Delhi’s Bukhara, for instance) have often removed it from their menus.
My interest in
is part greed and part history. I had an excellent chicken
at the Peshawari at the Mughal in Agra (Peshawari is what ITC calls Bukhara-type restaurants located outside of Delhi) and wondered how this wonderful dish was made.
The historical part consists of my continuing effort to track down dishes made with tandoori chicken from which the chicken tikka masala emerged. It is now clear that butter chicken – at least as we know it in India – had very little to do with chicken tikka masala but the khurchan is one possible candidate for the inspiration of the dish.
These days, the
is made by combining vegetables (peppers, onions, tomatoes etc) with strips of tandoori chicken. The dish is cooked on the tawa and unlike butter chicken (also made with tandoori chicken) actually tastes of the chicken and not of cream, butter and tomato puree. It is – in my opinion at least – a far superior dish.
But where did it originate? And how did it get its name? As is common with most great Indian dishes, nobody really knows. And everybody has a theory.
I asked Marut Sikka, the cookery writer and restaurateur about the origins of the dish. Marut believes that it has its origins in the tawa cooking of Awadh. On the other hand, Manjit Gill, ITC’s corporate chef, believes that the vegetables and spices used suggest a Punjabi origin. He relates it to kadhai cooking (which uses similar flavours) in Pakistani Punjab and talks about the takatin tradition of tawa cooking in the Punjab where meat (usually the nasty parts and offal) is cooked with vegetables on an open griddle.
I tried Camellia Panjabi, author of 50 Great Curries of India and hotel industry legend. Camellia has often identified the khurchan as one possible prototype for chicken tikka masala. She said that while she’d seen Bangladeshi restaurateurs make the dish in the UK, she had never got a fix on its origins and that in all the years she was with the Taj group, the dish rarely made it to Taj menus.
Camellia’s theory is that the dish may have been invented by restaurateurs. Many tandoori restaurants hang cooked tandoori chickens in their kitchens for display purposes. By the next day, these chickens are too dry to serve to guests. So restaurateurs cut them up and cook them on the tawa to produce a khurchan.
ITC’s Gautam Anand inclines to a similar explanation. When chefs cut up a tandoori chicken for butter chicken, there are many parts of the bird left over. The great advantage of a khurchan is that all these bits of chicken can go on the tawa and become part of the dish.
All these explanations make a certain amount of sense. And Habib Rahman who recently stepped down as big boss of ITC put it in perspective for me. According to Rahman, when a dish was cooked on a tawa or a pan (say, a bhuna ghosht) the best part often consisted of the masalas and the meat juices that clung to the bottom of the pan. Many people loved the flavour and chefs began to deglaze the pan with a little water to create a delicious gravy.
Rahman reckons that the khurchan had its origins in this tradition of scraping the juices off the pan. Chefs tried to recreate that flavour by cooking masalas slowly on a tawa so that they clung to the bottom and absorbed the juices as they dripped from the meat. The khurchan had its origins in this simple tradition and therefore, has no real ethnic origins. It is not part of any great Hyderabadi or Awadhi tradition. It is just the sort of dish that any cook with a tawa knew that he could turn out quite easily.
The modern khurchan however, is a different bird – in more senses than one. Very few cooks who specialised in tawa cooking had access to bits of pre-cooked tandoori chicken. The original khurchans were probably made with non-tandoori chicken and meat. But today’s version has its origins in the tandoori restaurants that mushroomed all over south Asia in the Fifties and Sixties.
And here, the explanations offered by Camellia and Gautam Anand seem to fit. As cooks looked for gravy dishes to add to tandoori menus, the khurchan was the obvious way out. They used bits of tandoori chicken, slow cooked them with masalas (though curiously, garlic is rarely present in a khurchan) and vegetables and produced a dish that had enough gravy to be soaked up by a naan or a tandoori roti but was not a curry in the sense that butter chicken or murgh makhani were.
So why has the dish fallen from favour?
Three reasons suggest themselves. The first is that a khurchan is not necessarily an easy dish to make, unlike butter chicken which any fool with a can of tomato puree and a packet of cream, can churn out. The second is that chefs don’t like slow cooking things on a tawa and waiting for the masalas to stick to the pan when they can easily churn out curries. And the third is the Indian love affair with butter chicken. When Indians order gravy dishes at restaurants these days, they want lots of animal fat. Butter chicken, with its heavy doses of dairy fat (in the butter and the cream) delivers that fat-kick. A khurchan which does not have so much dairy fat can seem pheeka by comparison and is unlikely to offer the artery-clogging qualities that Indians demand in curries.
Also, we rarely give the
much respect in the pantheon of Indian dishes. When I spoke to Marut Sikka about the khurchan, he sent me such a romantic explanation of the dish that I wondered why more restaurateurs did not pick up on Marut’s flair for making dishes sound exciting:
“The initial references that I have heard in the context of
have been from the Awadh region. Meat from the sigri was added to the remnants of a musallam or a dum dish, mixed well on the fire with a scraping motion and the result was a khurchan.
“The final touches for a khurchan need to be given on a griddle or tawa. The technique of cooking a khurchan in my opinion is what basically differentiates it from other dishes in the same genre. Instead of continuing to sauté and stir as is the case with most such dishes, the idea is to let the ingredients stay on low heat on the tawa until they concentrate and are almost on the verge of sticking.
This concentrate (which imparts its own unique flavour) is then scraped with a khurpi (a spatula with a very short handle) and mixed back in the main dish. The process is continued until the dish achieves the correct consistency. Timing and attention is of essence else the dish can burn.”
I have never seen it said better! I’ve included Marut’s recipe on these pages even though it has many touches that the ITC chefs would probably disapprove of. If you think it sounds complicated, do not worry. You can quite easily make a facsimile of khurchan at home by using a takeaway tandoori chicken and a good cast iron tawa (if you’re using a non-stick pan, don’t bother). You can adapt Marut’s spicing to your taste, reduce the butter and ghee content and you’ll find that once you get the hang of letting everything cook to the point where it nearly sticks to the pan, the khurchan can easily be the high spot of any dinner party.
Marut Sikka’s Khurchan Recipe
6-8 dried red chilies, one tablespoon coriander seeds, one teaspoon cumin seeds.Gently roast the above in a pan and then grind to a fine powder in a mixer grinder.
1/4 cup desi ghee, 6-8 cloves of garlic (grate finely), one kg ripe tomatoes (chopped), salt to taste, 3-4 green chillies (chopped).
Heat the ghee in a pan, add the garlic and saute until light golden brown.
Add the powdered masala of chillies, cumin and coriander, stir and immediately add the tomatoes. (It is necessary to add the tomatoes immediately, else the powdered masala burns and alters the taste of the dish).
Add salt, increase heat and once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat and continue to cook the tomatoes until they achieve a sauce-like consistency.Now add the green chilies and cook for another 1-2 minutes, check the seasoning and remove from the fire.
Could be paneer or chicken and the same recipe would apply.
1/2 kg chicken/paneer – cut into one inch cubes, 6-8 cloves garlic (grate finely), one piece of ginger (grate finely), juice of one lemon, one teaspoon red chilli powder, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder, salt to taste, two tablespoons refined oil.
Mix all the above ingredients (except the chicken/paneer) together.Add chicken/paneer and marinate for 2-3 hours.
In the case of chicken or any other meat I normally add kaachri powder (two tablespoons). Kaachri acts as a tenderiser for the meat and also gives a gentle sourness.
Skewer the chicken/paneer and cook in a tandoor.
Alternatively cook in an oven (225°C for six minutes). The idea here is only to cook the chicken/paneer half way through, yet impart a smoky flavour to it.
To be done on a griddle or tawa. 50 grams butter, two onions (sliced), one green bell pepper (deseeded, cut into strips) , one red bell pepper (deseeded, cut into strips), one yellow bell pepper (deseeded, cut into strips), one teaspoon garam masala, one tablespoon kasoori methi, one inch piece ginger (julienned), 1/2 cup coriander leaves (chopped).
Add the butter to the tawa, once it melts add the half done chicken/paneer.
Cook on low heat scraping the griddle, just avoiding the chicken/paneer from sticking or burning, for 2-3 minutes.Add the sliced onions and continue to scrape the griddle, cooking until onions are glossy. Add one cup of the tomato sauce. Continue to scrape, cook for 3-4 minutes.
Add garam masala, kasoori methi, cook for 1-2 minutes, add julienned ginger and coriander, stir well and remove from fire. Check the seasoning and serve.