Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Seekh and ye shall find
I write today in praise of the humble Seekh Kebab. Yes, the plain old seekh, sold on street corners and cooked by nearly every tandoori restaurant. It rarely gets written about. No chef is called a seekh expert. And among foodies it has long been eclipsed by its rich cousin, the similarly shaped kakori.
Unlike the kakori, however, there are not even any legends associated with the seekh. There are no stories about toothless nawabs who asked for melt-in-the-mouth kebabs.
The seekh is the war-horse of the kebab world; the sort of entry-level kebab that apprentice kebabchis are asked to make. Hence it rarely reaches the levels of taste and flavour that the best versions are capable of. A good seekh consists of minced keema, mixed with spices and stuck on to a skewer. This skewer goes on the heat and by the time the kebab is ready, you should have a juicy, meaty seekh that requires you to press your teeth down on each piece so that the juices fill your mouth.
While researching this piece, I tried to unearth the history of the seekh but the honest answer is that a) nobody really knows and b) nobody really cares. Much nonsense is written about the origins of biryani and there is a vast mythology around the galawati. But the seekh is met only with indifference.
Search online and you will see it confused with the Turkish Shish Kebab, which is a completely different dish. There will also be vague references to unspecified Islamic armies who brought it to India. In fact, our seekh probably has very little to do with Turkey and the seekh kebabs you are likely to eat in most Indian cities are now quite distinctively Indian.
The history of kebabs, in general, all over the world is open to many interpretations. In medieval Arab cookbooks, the word ‘kebab’ does not even appear. The term only gained popularity after the Turks sent their shish kebabs around the world.
And the idea of grilling meat on a skewer is not even exclusively Turkish. “The custom of roasting meat in small chunks on a skewer seems to be very ancient in the Near East”, says the Penguin Companion of Food. But I don’t think people realise quite how ancient it is.
Colleen Taylor Sen writes in Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, that in ancient India, the “most basic way of cooking meat was to grill it directly on a fire, perhaps skewered on sticks.” This practice, Sen suggests, was common in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Indus Valley civilization.
That sounds a lot like a kebab to me.
Early Indian texts, notes Sen, refer to “minced meat shaped into patties that are cooked over charcoal or coated with ghee, threaded on skewers and roasted.” As Sen concedes, this is “similar to modern chapli and seekh kebab.”
The Mānasollāsa, a 12th century text, even includes recipes for what we would undoubtedly call kebabs these days (skewered meat grilled over hot coals), which as Sen says, belies “the notion that elaborate meat dishes appeared only with the arrival of the Muslims.”
None of this is to deny that the seekh kebab has Middle Eastern origins. But the history of kebabs, as we call them now, is more complicated than we may realize. It’s not just a story of invading Turkish armies cooking chunks of meat on their swords.
Certainly, the whole-pieces-of-meat-on-a-skewer thing is found not just in the Middle East but all over Central Asia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, etc.) where it is called shashlik while the French use the term ‘brochette.’
My view is that our seekh kebab did not come from this source. Marryam Reshii, one of the most knowledgeable people I know on this kind of food, makes a distinction between the Turkish style of meat cooking and the Iranian way.
She reckons that the Persians (now Iranians) were much more gastronomically sophisticated. She points to their way with minced meat. When she was last in Iran, she recalls, friends always took her to places where they fed her the Iranian counterpart of a seekh. It had different spicing and was shaped like a flat blade rather than the cylinder we know so well. Our koftas, descended from the Iranian kufte, are another example of the Persian skill with keema.
So, who brought the seekh kebab to India? Honestly, there is no clear answer. Some theories suggest it came in the 17th century from Iran but my guess is that it came even earlier. And bit by bit, we Indianised it. As with everything else, we added our own masalas. Then, I suspect, we played around with the minced meat formula. We don’t use lamb which is a fatty meat but the much leaner goat. So, most chefs add a little fat to the lean meat to make the seekh kebab juicier. This is common now but I suspect it started centuries ago when cooks realised that Middle Eastern lamb recipes did not work in India without a little tinkering.
In recent years, there has been another shift away from the Persian tradition. Traditionally, seekhs were made either over an open fire or on a sigri. This method required constant attention and loving care as the cook moved the kebabs around to make sure the heat was evenly applied. In Marryam’s view (and mine) this is still the best way to make flavourful seekhs.
But something like 95 per cent or more of today’s seekhs are made in the tandoor. This development dates to the 1950s. The first tandoori chicken was cooked in Peshawar in the 1930s or 1940s, but the dish only took off after Moti Mahal opened in Delhi. By the 1950s, restaurants all over North India were installing tandoors and cooking all their kebabs in them.
I asked Manjit Gill, my guru on Indian food, what difference the tandoor-isation of the seekh made to the taste. Well, obviously it tasted different, he said, but the size had also changed. To make a juicy seekh in the tandoor, he explained, you needed to make it fat. Make it too thin and it will dry out. On a sigri or a fire, you don’t have that problem. So today’s seekhs are much larger than they used to be.
Not that too many people order them (at fancier places anyway) these days. It is all murgh-malai-tikka-galouti-kebab-kakori kebab. And my kind of seekh kebab lover is in a growing minority. But I’ll take a seekh over a chicken malai tikka every time. Mostly I’ll eat it on its own. But sometimes I’ll have it with a crisp tandoori roti, those little vinegared onions that restaurants give you and a nice, rich Bukhara-style black dal.
It is not fancy. But it’s real. And it’s delicious.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, November 15, 2020
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