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From murgh ka soola to chicken tikka

"There are many variations of this particular dish. The one here happens to be the simplest. I have adapted it so the cooking can be done without skewers over a charcoal grill or indoors in an oven." Madhur Jaffrey

I'm actually too ashamed to put up my version as the lead photograph because, honestly it doesn't look that great - but here it is. The dish in question was in response to guru week. It was Madhur Jaffrey's turn and as I told you I think, I eventually settled on her Rajasthani grilled or baked chicken - Murgh ka soola. I also made one of her cauliflower dishes as a side, but that's maybe for another day.

Today I am talking about ka soola. I wasn't going to because I didn't think there was much to say, but nevertheless here I go. We'll see where the ramble leads.

Ka soola, as one writer said, literally means barbecued meat. It's from Rajasthan, a desert state in the north of India, where there were not many vegetables and so people depended on their men hunting down the wild game:

"India being traditionally a vegetarian country, was not the birthplace of kebabs. Only the territories that depended on wild game, like Rajputana have a meat eating history. No wonder the first evidence of meat, which has a remote similarity with kebab is Soola (Maans Ka Soola) which was made with game meat, mostly wild boar or deer." Marut Sikka (Chef)/India Times

Maans means lamb or mutton I believe, sometimes spelt maas, but there is also paneer ka soola. Madhur Jaffrey however, in her book A Taste of India went for chicken. I wonder if they kept chickens back then.

Anwyway, first the Afghans and then the Moghlai rulers brought their traditions of grilling meat over a fire and thus was born the ka soola cooking technique.

It was all very primitive really, and the more polite word of simple, can still be applied to Madhur Jaffrey's (and others) versions. However, when I started looking for recipes, and bits and pieces about ka soola, I often found writers saying things like 'ka soola, otherwise known as tikka'. But I could not find anything that told me about this particular bit of evolution other than this rather nice bit of legend:

"Back in the 13th century, when Kebabs made inroads into the royal kitchen, they were quite chewy. Maans Ka Soola (a celebrated Rajasthani barbecued lamb dish made with a spicy marination of herbs and yoghurt) is a typical example of this variety. But this changed in the 16th century when the toothless king, Nawab Asa-ud-Daula (the heir of Siraj-ud-Daula) demanded for an incredibly soft variation. This culinary rendition led to the invention of a new variety of kebabs – Galouti Kebabs – which simply melts in the mouth." Lemon Tree Hotels

Maybe I'll look at Galouti kebabs some other time, but I'm assuming that tikka means a similar dish. And we all know that this has evolved yet further in Britain, to what some call its national dish - chicken tikka masala. Which I definitely know I have written about before.

Having now looked at a few recipes for various ka soola dishes, I think I can say that the only thing they have in common is that there are two marinades - one very simple - salt, pepper and lemon juice for yesterday's dish, but this is a common mix. Then while your meat (or paneer) is resting in that, you cook up some onions with ginger and garlic and then blitz and mix with spices and a bit of yoghurt. And, of course, those spices vary from cook to cook. Although they tended to be a fairly simple mix - most often just garam masala, and chillies with a bit of yoghurt for moisture. Marinade overnight and cook the next day - simple. Madhur Jaffrey added some flaked almonds to her onions, of which she says:

"You cannot actually taste these seasonings, but their presence adds a haunting richness typical of Mughlai foods."

In fact the quote above is from a slightly different Madhur Jaffrey version of the dish that you can find in her Ultimate Curry Bible, under a different name - Moghlai chicken kebab (Mughlai murgh kabab). The seasonings are much the same but the almonds are not fried with the onions, and she uses cream rather than yoghurt - which is interesting.

I have no pictures of Madhur Jaffrey's versions - this one is from a restaurant somewhere. And indeed looks much like tandoori chicken, which is, I suppose yet another variation on a theme. For, in fact, Madhur Jaffrey did not skewer her chicken, she merely cut into pieces of a reasonable size - a breast cut in four I seem to remember. Which is a similar concept to tandoori chicken, although that is a lot spicier. She did not add much chilli, and neither did I. I also used Kashmiri chilli - which you can get in some Coles stores - and which is much milder. It's my go to chilli now. David barely notices it. Indeed one chef said:

"its bright red colour is achieved because of Mathania chilli,”

I'm pretty sure you won't find that because it comes from just one village in Rajasthan, but it also is milder.

There are actually more recipes on the net for paneer and lamb ka soola dishes than for chicken. I found two more pictures from restaurants and one pretty nice, but different looking recipe for Soola Chicken kebabs from The Curry Guy, which, interestingly, the url describes as tandoori chicken. Go figure.

Indeed his recipe is different in the number of spices that are included and also in the bunch of coriander which gives it its green colour. So you would have to ask whether it's a soola or a tandoori.

To conclude on the variety thing, this is a very posh 'authentic' version from Vivek Singh on The Great British Chefs website, called Rajasthani soola spiced rack of lamb with corn sauce, sangri and hot garlic chutney. I say 'authentic' because:

"Ker sangri is a Rajasthani dish made with sangri (also known as desert beans), ker berries and kummat seeds; three ingredients from the arid plains of the Indian region. They are hard to source but are available online (we found a seller on eBay of all places) for those who want to try authentic Rajasthani flavours."

Which is currently all a bit precious. But who knows. Maybe one day sangri, etc. will be as common as harissa and sumac. Still rambling around the net I found this Degchi soola murgh by Praveen Kumar on the Awesome Cuisine website, which I don't think any of us will be trying - well actually I guess you could in a Weber - because once you have cooked your chicken you then:

"Heat a piece of coal over the flame till it is red hot. Put it in a cup and place it in the middle of the dish. Add 3 cloves to the coal and ghee. Immediately cover with a lid and smoke for 5 minutes."

This recipe also had an ingredient I did not know kachri powder, so I looked it up and voilà found a whole article on the Condé Nast Traveller website on kachri, used in a dish, that looked very similar to our murgh ka soola, but called Handi bootein from Chef Akshraj Jodha, of the ITC Windsor, Bengaluru.

This is kachri a native of Rajasthan - a kind of small melon:

"Decades ago, when sand dunes dominated the landscape, trees that survived the wild climate—like Khejri (for Sangri), Ker and wildly grown vines that yielded these wild melons—were the only source of greens." Deepika Nandal/Condé Nast Traveller

As well as being used 'fresh' in various ways, it is also dried and made into the kachri powder.

It's a journey this dish. A simple survival dish, turned into a royal delicacy which then became street food I suspect, or an everyday meal, moved around India changing its name and adding differing spices here and there, before being adopted by the British taken back 'home' by them and turned into chicken tikka masala. Along comes Madhur Jaffrey who is simultaneously 'authentic' and adaptive, in that she knows she is preaching for an audience who knows nothing of mixing and matching Indian spices, but who love Indian food. And many, many of her recipes are credited to housewives and cooks whose recipes she has collected on her many trips to the country of her birth.

And now, in the posh restaurants which are supposedly returning to 'authentic' regional Indian cuisine rare vegetables and spices are being added to beautiful and precisely cheffy dishes.

The Indians however don't seem to mind. Maybe it's because they have so many spices to choose from. I suspect that every housewife, and every street food seller in Rajasthan would have their own very particular version of this ubiquitous dish. We have been sticking bits of meat on sticks of some kind for a very long time, and over time have added this and that to change the taste and to make the whole cooking process more interesting.

I would highly recommend Madhur Jaffrey's recipe though. It's one of those very simple things that tastes - well special. Here is an abbreviated version. You need to start this the day before or at least 5 hours before you are going to cook. Once you've done the marinading bit though you have virtually finished the job.

For 1kg chicken pieces, skinned, prick them, rub in salt, 1 tbsp lemon juice. Turn over and repeat. Leave for an hour or more. Meanwhile heat 5 tbsp oil and fry 1 large sliced onion, and 8 large sliced cloves of garlic. Remove with a slotted spoon when reddish brown and add 3 tbsp slivered almonds to the oil. stir until golden - not long , remove with slotted spoon and add to onion and garlic. Keep the oil. Blend the onion, garlic, almonds and 2x 2 1/2 cm chopped cubes of ginger plus 5tbsp water. Put in a bowl add 1 1/2 tsp garam masala, 4 tbsp yoghurt and 1/2-3.4 tsp chilli powder. Pour over chicken, rub it in and leave overnight or for 4 hours. Pour over half the remaining oil and cook on a grill or barbecue, or in the oven (which I did). She said at 200°C but I think this was a bit hot. 20 minutes, on one side pour over the rest of the oil and another 20 minutes on the other side. I think less than this and baste every now and then. I had to add a bit of water - so watch carefully.

Mine almost looked like this. I was really not expecting much of this dish. It seemed so very simple and yet it was delicious.

I have to say that when I have been doing these guru dishes I have often been surprised at how the truly simple tastes so delicious. Almost a 5 star dish.


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