Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Roll redemption
Over the last two decades, more and more restaurants have switched to wraps over sandwiches. You would think that Indians, with our tradition of rotis, would be perfect for this trend. But it is Central America that has taken the lead. The pattern for most wraps closely follows the Mexican taco in terms of style and construction.
I find this odd. Why shouldn’t India, land of the flatbread, have a place in this wrap boom? A few months ago, Gaggan Anand opened Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh, a Mexican-Indian restaurant in Bangkok. Gaggan recognised the similarity between Mexican tortillas and our breads. So his food plays on the similarities, especially in the wraps he serves.
This is great but it still intrigues me that our rotis have been excluded from this boom. I can think of only one exception: the kathi kebab roll.
I had never heard of the dish, till I moved to Calcutta in 1986. Nobody called it a kathi kebab in Calcutta. Instead, it was called the Nizam’s Roll. I stayed at the Oberoi Grand when I first arrived and I found a place called New Nizam’s, opposite the hotel, that served rolls.
I was alone in Calcutta, so there were many evenings when I would stroll across and watch them make the rolls. From what I remember, the cook heated a massive tawa and then put a half-ready paratha on it. As the paratha heated up, he broke an egg on the paratha and cooked it on both sides. Then he took ready-made kebabs, heated them on an empty portion of the tawa before placing them in the centre of a paratha. He added onions, which had been sliced long, and a little chutney, before rolling up the paratha so that it became a cylinder. He wrapped the cylinder in paper and gave it to you to take away.
I was so hooked on the rolls that I began ordering them for lunch in my office. Except that the ‘bearer’ (the Calcutta term for what we used to call a peon in Mumbai in that era) said he had never heard of New Nizam’s. He insisted on going to what he said was the only real Nizam’s. The rolls were great so I didn’t really care where he got them from.
But I was intrigued enough to go to what was called “the real Nizam’s”. The first thing I saw was a sign that read “We have no branches”. So okay, “New Nizam’s” may have had nothing to do with the original.
The ‘real Nizam’s’ guy told me that they had invented the dish and that their version was special because a) it used charcoal-grilled kebabs, which others did not and b) it was made on an ancient tawa. (I was never able to establish how old the tawa actually was.)
I did some digging. As far as anyone in Calcutta could tell, the dish had really been invented at Nizam’s. That’s why it was called a Nizam’s Roll. Most non-Bengali meat dishes in Calcutta are always attributed to Wajid Ali Shah (the man who put the potato in biryani if Bengalis are to be believed) but this one, everyone agreed, had been created by Nizam’s around 50 years ago. (That would have made it the 1930s or so.)
As time went on and the dish began to spread out of Calcutta, I discovered that it was called a Kathi Kebab Roll. Ah, I said to myself, the fact that it has a name means that it exists elsewhere in India. But nobody would claim ownership of the Kathi Kebab Roll. No Delhi chef. No Lucknow chef. No Hyderabad chef.
But kathi kebab? Where did that name come from? The guys at Nizam’s had an explanation. They said that kathi referred to the sticks on which they would skewer the kebabs before cooking. Jealous people who did not want to give Nizam’s the credit, they said darkly, called Nizam’s Rolls, Kathi Kebab Rolls.
I have no idea if the kathi-wallahs had such evil motives but it is true that fewer and fewer people call them Nizam’s Rolls now – even in Calcutta. I was there a few months ago and everyone just called them ‘rolls’ and directed me to various newer restaurants and outlets.
At the same time, there are restaurants that serve rolls and call themselves ‘Nizam’s’ all over India. Are they related to the Calcutta original or are they, like “New Nizam’s”, not quite the real thing? I have no idea.
But in my view, and I said so in one of the very first Rude Food columns I ever wrote, the roll is the great Calcutta dish. The puchka comes close (but there are other contenders in Lucknow, Mumbai and Benaras). Otherwise, if you want to search for Calcutta’s unique contribution to Indian cuisine, you’ll be reduced to discussing rasgullas and ras malai.
When I first wrote about the roll, I complained that it was not widely available outside of Calcutta. In the 15 years or so since that article appeared, that has changed. You get rolls everywhere from Delhi to Dubai to Nagpur to New York. The roll has finally been given its rightful status as a great Indian dish.
But the questions that started me off on this chain of thought remain. Why is the roll the one famous Indian wrap? Why don’t we have more wraps in any of our cuisines? We have all the ingredients – from the breads (rotis, parathas, makki rotis etc.) and delicious fillings. And yet, even as the world has embraced wraps, India never gets a look in.
I asked chef Manjit Gill, my guru in matters relating to the history of Indian food, if he could think of any other Indian wraps. He couldn’t. I asked then if he had heard of kathi kebabs outside of Calcutta. Manjit said he hadn’t. As far as he knew the kathi kebab was a Calcutta dish.
I then asked Manjit the big question. Why doesn’t Indian cuisine have more wraps?
I liked Manjit’s answer. Wraps are meant to be eaten on the go. In India, we rarely ever eat standing up, let alone on the go. We are not a fast food culture. We like to sit down and eat our meals. Many of us would prefer to eat the kebabs and the parathas separately, rather than combine them and wrap them in paper. For most of our existence, we have been the ultimate slow food nation.
I reckon that till the 20th century, India was a country where nothing in the kitchen was done fast; all food was slow food. Even chaat, which is eaten standing, is serious food. You can’t really walk around while eating a golgappa as you can while eating a sandwich or a wrap.
The Nizam’s Roll is usually dated to the mid-1930s, which, I suspect, is when things began to change.
Pav-bhaji was invented in the 1960s for traders at the old Cotton Exchange who would stay up till early in the morning to see the New York cotton prices. It is not a cold dish. It has to be cooked on the spot. But they did eat it standing up and for many of the Gujarati bania traders, it was the only time they ate bread.
Indian sandwiches only became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The Bombay sandwich (freshly made but cold), which you could eat on the run is really a ’70s phenomenon.
So is vada-pav. Both seized upon the industrialisation of baking and the availability of cheap (and fairly disgusting) bread to create new dishes. Both have Western antecedents. The sandwich is not Indian, by definition, and the vada-pav is essentially a Maharashtrian hamburger.
So, what happens in the 21st century? Now that we have lost out in the global wrap movement, will India just follow the rest of the world and make fast food based on hamburgers, pizzas and sandwiches (all suitably Indianised)?
Sadly, I think that we are headed in that direction. So, value the roll. It is a great dish.
And one that’s truly Indian.
From HT Brunch, July 12, 2020
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