Chicken chilli with butter naan
This is one dish that is truly Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai. And clearly, it isn't just me. From the pavement-side dhaba to the Punjabi family restaurant to the plush fine-dining pan-Asian bistros, everyone has their version of the chicken chilli.
Think my favourite Indian dish is Chinese chicken chilli. A Mohammed Ali Road mutton biryani, a Martin's Corner's Goan chorizo pao and a Matunga vada pao come close. But, in the balance, for that heady mix of ingredients - adrak plus ajinomoto - it is the Mughlai-Chinese chicken chilli that wins out. And when you combine it with a freshly-tossed egg fried rice or a naan, my plate runneth over.
This is one dish that is truly Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai. And clearly, it isn't just me. From the pavement-side dhaba to the Punjabi family restaurant to the plush fine-dining pan-Asian bistros, everyone has their version of the chicken chilli. Give or take a few capsicums, this dish has a variation in most cuisines.
But, it's the chicken chilli, made in the original Chinese eateries, that really hits the spot. So, I feel some sense of nostalgic loss now that the Churchgate-based Kamling will soon be closing its doors.
"Uh, no, not closing down, just upgrading. In fact, it will be a spanking new pan-Asian bistro," a socialite wisely told me. "It will be fine-dining." (I'm convinced 'fine-dining' refers to the quantity of food served: the khana is so 'fine', you can barely see it.)
Think what I will miss the most are the waiters. In the days of the beef ban, one of the waiters, in his faded maroon suit, tailored perhaps during the 1962 Indo-Chinese skirmish, told me when I asked him for hakka beef: 'Haan, yes sir, it is beef, but it is buffalo meat, you know, not, um, cow meat." (His voice lowered, his eyes darting around the room in case there was a gau rakshak hiding behind the Chinese beads.)
'So, what did you serve earlier?" I enquired. His voice going even lower, only this time his eyes twinkling guiltily. "Buffalo only, sir, but that time we never told anybody." (See, there's nothing controversial about the chicken chilli. It's made of chicken, which is not a sacred bird in this country.)
You order a hakka beef in a fine-dining setup, you don't want your waiter to be a shiny annoying dude, freshly worked out, who wants to serve you a bean curd instead because he wants you to be healthy.
You want your waiter to be rotund and endomorphic. So that when you order a chicken lollipop, you know he's not looking at you with judgment, as you crunch into that artery-busting delicacy; his expression should be as joyful as yours.
Or, when you tell him, "Can you lessen the fat in the pork spare ribs?" you want him to say, "Uh, sir, the taste in the pork belly is in the fat, sir. Maybe you would like our chicken chilli." (Subtext: order something else.)
So I'm off, dear reader, to order my chicken chilli from my neighbouring Vishal Lunch Home. The dude on the phone will ask, "Aapka chicken chilli kaise banao: dry, gravy, semi-gravy, spicy, medium spicy ya no chilly?" Yeah, it's a versatile food.
Rahul da Cunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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