Stick ’em up: The best treats on skewers, with Kunal Vijayakar
I was at a party just the other day and as the starters started rolling in, I noticed that most of the little munchies had toothpicks stuck in them, so that the small shammi kebab, stuffed mushrooms, aloo tikkis and paneer chilli could all be deftly lifted off the salvers and popped into the mouth.
That’s when I realised that hors d’oeuvres are nowadays served with the toothpicks in a little glass alongside, but not pre-pierced. This was a bit pleasantly old-fashioned. It was almost like the small bites were meant to be on a stick, and that set me thinking: When was the stick first used for food? I mean, how far back does food on a stick go?
I started digging for information and it appears that by about 4000 BC, around the time we began farming and domesticating animals, and took to crafts such as pottery and weaving, the Chinese had already started eating and cooking with a single stick. A sort of precursor to chopsticks.
The first recorded instance of food, namely grilled meat, on a stick is from Turkey, in 1377 — the early use of skewers. I don’t know whether you can perceive what I can see, but can you imagine the enormity and magnitude of that breakthrough? A quantum leap in culinary history! It was literally the beginning of the sheesh kebab. Or what we call the seekh kabab.
In Turkish, ‘shees’ means sword and ‘kebab’ is lamb or mutton. The word kebab, though, is older than the Ottomans, and possibly originated in Persia. Kebab there meaning small pieces of meat. It helped having these pieces of meat on a stick. It meant that you could cook smaller pieces of meat quicker, and also turn the meat around easily as it cooked.
As the world started trading and the Silk Route grew into a network of connections between Europe, Africa and Asia, the kebab found its way into several cuisines. The Russians created their own meat on a stick and called it the shashlik. The Japanese marinated their meat in a sauce called tare — made from a mixture of mirin, sake, soy sauce and sugar — and used little sticks of bamboo called kushi to create a whole cooking style, called yakitori.
Across South-East Asia, pierced meat on small pieces of wood were called satay and served with a sauce made of peanut and chillies. The Chinese rubbed cumin, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper and sesame oil onto meat and barbecued it on skewers and called it chuan.
Thailand, along with satay, does a great street barbecue breakfast called mu ping, which is pork marinated in pounded coriander root, peppers and garlic and grilled on skewers. In Hong Kong, they go a step further — instead of just sticks, they spear minced prawn balls on sugarcane sticks and deep-fry them, and they are just yum.
And of course in India and across the subcontinent, meat was minced, mixed with spices, loaded on skewers and cooked on an open flame or on coal to make the seekh kabab.
Europe and America too were soon cooking stuff on sticks. The Portuguese skewered meat or fish alongside peppers, onion and chorizo and created espetadas. The Greek created souvlaki; once again, meat and veggies on a stick. Versions of these spread to Italy as well and were locally called arrosticini. In Peru, meat on a skewer marinated in vinegar and spices is anticucho.
The big initiation of food on a stick for the Americans was in 1905, and it was neither a version of the kebab nor was it barbecued. An 11-year-old boy, Frank Epperson, left a glass of flavoured soda with a mixing stick in it on a windowsill on a cold winter night. He woke up the next morning to find his drink frozen in its glass, and created the world’s first popsicle.
The popsicle was finally patented in 1924. A few years later, in 1929, a smart American food entrepreneur took a corn dog (a sausage coated in a thick layer of cornmeal batter and deep-fried, originally introduced by German immigrants to Texas), put in on a stick and patented it. The idea was to copyright a “combined dipping, cooking, and article holding apparatus” — basically, food on a stick.
Back home in India, we grew up with all kinds of stuff on a stick, starting with simple cocktail snacks like cheese and pineapple or cheese balls on a toothpick and extending to street hawkers selling cones of kulfi on a stick. In Mumbai, the baraf ka gola wobbles on a stick. Grilled chicken liver, cocktail sausages, Bohri kirim tikkas, prawn tempura, button mushrooms, khandvi, mini idlis, lollipops, marshmallows, even strawberries covered in chocolate, all come on a stick.
If you really want to celebrate food on a stick, the day is coming soon — March 28 is, wait for it, American ‘National Something on a Stick Day’.