2000s Archive

Up on the Roof

continued (page 2 of 3)

There are cooks who claim to make 300 kebabs. Modern inventions in the three colors of the national flag for hotel food festivals. Chicken kebabs filled with oranges and mint, and mutton kebabs filled with eggs. Kebabs proffered on silver salvers by white-gloved waiters in private clubs. Kebabs beaten to silk, or half beaten to silk and half with a bit of texture you come across in the middle of the wobble. Vegetarian kebabs made of corn and squash, paneer cheese, melon seeds, and raw mango. There’s the tabak maas of Kashmir, made with tender lamb ribs. Hearty chapli kebabs from the North-West Frontier, flat, laden with chiles and sometimes a scrambled egg mixed in. Shammis that they say were made perfectly in the court of Palanpur. Afghan chicken on the bone and minced-chicken reshmi kebabs. The grand shikampuri, made with roasted nuts and sometimes coconut or a sliver of boiled egg in the center. The dahi kebab from Kishengarh, in Rajasthan, made with yogurt, chickpea flour, and saffron. Mythical-sounding kebabs: The nehari kebab, they say, should be eaten after the rains, seasoned with mustard oil buried for nine months in earthenware; the pathar kebab of ground meat cooked on a hot stone, the minerals of which are supposed to impart flavor; a kebab baked and covered with silver leaf.

Food historians search the archives of courts renowned for their cuisine, resurrecting recipes of the dastarkhwans, formal banquets of the royals. They’re tracing the lineage of kebabs that have been nurtured to complexity with a mingling of the Indian with Turkish, Persian, and Afghan influences.

The pathar and shikampuri come from the southern kebab center of Hyderabad—the Hyderabadi royals were famous for their mad idea of luxury. Experts claim to have revived the dorra kebab from the Salar Jang archives in Hyderabad, and the Radisson Hotel in Noida has actually patented the recipe. Thirty-two rare spices render it soft as marrow, perfume it, bind it. The kebab is steamed over low coals in silk that has been smoked with sandalwood. The silk must not burn, the kebab should be revealed by a single pull of a thread, as a nautch girl might have been revealed in a debauched time.

From the legendary northern kebab center of Awadh, the old princely state whose capital is Lucknow, comes the galawati (round) and the kakori (long), infuriating, beckoning kebabs, with a mere shadow of texture that arouses a desire to cling to the ephemeral even as your being is filled with spice so potent you’ll walk all day in glory. The kakori was invented in the village of Kakori when the nawab (provincial governor) lost his teeth. It is made from the meat of the upper portion of the hind leg of the lamb, and is ground anew with each addition of the spices (some say 30 spices while others say 60—all vow secrecy). The kakori is half spice and half meat—almost bitter in flavor, redolent of cardamom, hot with black pepper; the spices are supposed to act as a digestive. The galawati kebab, which is marinated in green papaya to soften it before the meat is ground, is ideally made with no egg to bind it—an indication of skill and purity of flavor.

So the Indian kebab in its extreme—massaged, perfumed, pompous, romantic—a pampered aristocrat, is a different creature from the Greek or the Turkish, from the Middle Eastern kebab that seems, to scornful Indians, not to have progressed since medieval times, when Turkic soldiers skewered meat with their swords and roasted their dinner in the fire.

The chef at Bukhara, the restaurant that showcases North-West Frontier kebabs that are cooked on an open fire or in a tandoor, told me that the Indian kebab is Persian in origin, and comes from “kam aab,” meaning “less water.” Here, for vast sums of money, you can, like Bill Clinton, who inspired the Clinton kebab platter, sample the peshawari kebab of marinated lamb in vinegar, black cumin, and yogurt; or a kastoori kebab of minced chicken in a cozy casing of chickpea flour coated with egg and crisped in the tandoor.

Up on the roof of his home, our dear family friend Akhilesh Mithal, a historian whose expertise is the Hindu-Islamic culture of Delhi, reported that the kebab’s linguistic roots lie in Dari and Pashto, making the kebab Afghan in origin. “Just like Rumi,” said Mr. Mithal of the great Sufi poet. “Now they say ‘uncivilized country, uncivilized country’—they forget what Afghanistan was.”

Talk of kebabs should always go with poetry, for in the havelis of times past, kebab sherab (alcohol) and poetry together moved audiences to tears at mehfils, literary and musical evenings often held outdoors on summer nights.

Mr. Mithal dabbed jasmine perfume on our wrists (the gift of fragrance, an old-fashioned courtesy), wore a grand Kashmiri hat, and recited with zest: “When I am served a browned quail, / What life enters my half dead spirit, / I’m resurrected like the son of Maryam.”

Lovely rooftop life of Delhi. In our own house, we climb up for moments of civility in the marine light of dusk, sniff the different dinners cooking up and down the street. Why is it comforting to know who is eating what? But of course it is.

On the kebab grill, Sanjeeb, our cook, makes chicken and fish tikkas. He makes romali rotis that look like crumpled hankies. Our grill is an endearing metal cart on wheels with a drawer for the coals; clay, straw, and cow dung plastered all around it to make it partly a grill and partly a tandoor. My father invented it himself, consulting Sanjeeb and the family workman.

It is here, on rooftop evenings, that kebabs have their dearest incarnation, the one that refers to home, and proffers a brief antidote to a world that has fissured in many ways for us, with the leaving of so many in the family to America, with things changing so fast and chaotically in a city whose culture was already eroded in my parents’ time.

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