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Kebabs from Tanjore

By Anoothi Vishal

Stunned to discover a south-Indian repertoire of kebabs

You’d associate it with the Brihadeshwara temple, the magnificent Chola prayer-in-rock to Shiva, with Bharat Natyam, with the opulence of its gold-foiled embellished art work, with even sambhar (believed to have originated here after king Sambhoji substituted the Konkani kokum with tamarind in the daal)… but kebabs? No, Tanjore would hardly be the place for those.

Think of melt-in-mouth kakoris or their cousins– also tenderized with raw papaya till you hardly need to chew on the mince—the galwat ke kebab, and you think of Lucknow. Hyderabad’s charms come through in the shikhampuris, fancier than the plain shammis of old Delhi, and then there are all the others—the seekh, the gilafi, the dorra, all skewered and grilled, versions of the Turkish/Iranian meats that are supposed to have engendered our own kebab tradition in the Subcontinent. But kebabs from Tanjore, it’s a strange proposition alright.

The south may have its many robust biryanis, and it may also have those delicious meat “roasts” flavoured by anything from tamarind to coconut, but a legit kebab tradition in peninsular India has been non-existent. Or so you’d think. Chef Praveen Anand, executive chef at ITC Sheraton Park hotel has just discovered one, unearthing a written kitchen tome no less of the erstwhile Maratha kings of Tanjore. Called the Sarbendra Pakashastra, after the man who recorded it in the reign of the 19th century Bhonsle ruler of Tanjore, Serfoji II, the book is a collection of recipes, dated1812. Amongst other royal delicacies, what it also contains is a repertoire of 10-15 kebabs developed in the Maratha kitchen of the palace.

As we sit down for a meal at Dakshin, 20 years old this year, fabulous with an old world charm (gleaming brass chandeliers, Tanjore paintings, live carnatic music) that the brand has not been able to replicate in its restaurants in other cities, Anand is justifiably proud. His hands were placed firmly on the beautiful wooden dining table and he sat upright, comfortable and sophisticated. He was the king of his own temple but at the same time, carried the vulnerability of an actor in an audition. An absolute perfectionist. The painstaking research that he puts into his food — delving into community kitchens, traveling in trains to visit the smaller towns in Tamil Nadu, patiently watching old matriarchs cook, is finally getting noticed and bearing fruit. But this wasn’t always the case. As a junior chef specialising in Continental cooking, Anand wasn’t quite interested in Indian food. It was only a stray remark from a visiting Chennai matriarch, disdainful of commercial cooking, that riled him enough to take up research into community-based (South) Indian cuisines seriously. “It was only because she laughed at my food that my pride was hurt,” he confesses, as we begin our meal with an appetiser of sweet banana dosa that “crisp, masala dosa”-demanding north Indians wouldn’t dream existed. Today, as one of the foremost researchers of regional cuisines in the country, Anand has been able to crack open many closely-guarded family repertoires. And now, he’s recreated the kebab meals of Tanjore’s Maratha kings.

We have been talking about Andhra’s own “butter chicken”—cooked in a white, creamy sauce– that existed much before the Punjabi BC was concocted, when the Sunkat Shunti arrives at the table. The most delicious of the Tanjore “kebabs”, these are jumbo prawns smeared with a double marinade—first in an onion and tamarind paste that would certainly have been anathema in the north, and then in a recognizably Maharashtrian style dry-roasted masala of copra, seasoned with peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds. Finally, this is cooked in a tandoor; more tikka than kebab but a unique amalgamation of the north and the south certainly. Serfoji II, records show, was an educated man and pushed for several reforms in his kingdom before the British ended the Maratha rule. He was also a trained ophthalmologist and would pay his subjects to get treated by him (!), the chef tells me. The Pakashastra is one of the few culinary records in the country where kitchen knowledge and lore has traditionally never been codified. “There were four different kitchens that catered to the palace,” Anand explains, including the water and the sherbet section, a Maratha kitchen, that catered to the non-vegetarians, a Brahmanical kitchen as well as a western kitchen where English and French recipes were practiced, including, what is noted in the book as a recipe for “Lady Mohammed’s roast”.

The prawn Shunti has a lamb equivalent in the “Daanedar Shunti”, one of the most elaborate kebabs in the repertoire, once again with a double marinade. Amongst the ingredients that go into its making are poppy seeds and copra, cashew paste and onions. The meat is boiled, its fibre taken out before all its tied with a banana thread and fried! There are fish seekh kebabs, kombdichi (chicken) kebabs, and others still that will remind you of the shamis except for some unfamiliar flavours that you don’t really expect from a kebab in the north. At the Saraswati Mahal Library in Tanjore, adjacent to the crumbling palace where the once mighty kings’ descendants have nothing but their surname alone to boast of, the book is in the public domain. Yet you will find few hunched up turning its pages — save a chef someday.

Sample these at: Dakshin, ITC Sheraton-Park, Adyaar gate, Chennai,
Tel: 044-24997904


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