Culinary history: A journey called Daulat Ki Chaat

By: Madhulika Dash

Imagine a bite made of a layer of light foam covered with sweet, fresh mawa and snow-like sugar, sprinkled with a generous layer of slivers of pistachio and almonds, awashed with the fragrant juice of saffron. Now imagine that bite hit the warmth of your tongue and suddenly disappears leaving behind a trail of sweet creaminess, crunch of nuts with a hint of savoury scent from the saffron. What would you call such an experience? A brilliant flavourplay of tastes?!

Let me correct you, you will perhaps say Ummm'. Of all the dishes - and desserts - that make the Indian culinary ledger one of the most extraordinary in the world, the Daulat Ki Chaat truly rules the roost - not only for its interesting flavor and textural foreplay, but also its technique. Come to think of it; how many desserts in the cookery world with such ancestry can boast of sabnam (dew drop)  and winter as their key cooking techniques. Of course an argument can be made for Doodh Na Puff, a Parsi delicacy that is made in a similar fashion, or the original Shahi Tukda and Double Ka Meetha (neither of which had the use of bread), but none had the delicateness of the Daulat Ki Chaat – a dish that can be best describe with sounds of pleasure not words.  

Says Chef Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent, "Daulat Ki Chaat is all about the technique, given that its milk that you play with, or more specifically the foam. The rest like the mawa, nuts and saffron, or the use of varq are garnishes. Not that they are not important, but the onus of how good or bad is your Chaat depends wholly and squarely on capturing the foam, and how well it sets.”

Because that, adds the culinary wizard, "will determine how well you can play with the dessert when it comes to giving it a finish." Chef Mehrotra, who is credited of turning this Winter Specialty to an all-season dessert with the clever use of nitrogen and a milk and cream balance that gives the desired result every time, confesses that his adaption though popular is still only a close imitation of the real wonder.  "You cannot create the same magic as nature does no matter how advance the modern-day technique are," says the Chef who still prefers the traditionally prepared Daulat Ki Chaat. "There is that richness about the foam and the interesting sweet-savoury balance that is magical."

Could it be this richness that eventually got the chaat its name, and its entry into the royal corridors? Given the little there is written about this fantastic dish, it could be a mere conjecture. Of course, of the old wives tale often heard in the bylanes of Lucknow and Delhi are to be believed, than the name Daulat (which is wealth) came from the fact that it is a dessert made of the foam, which is technically is just half a step before the malai (cream) the component that is considered to be the rich side of milk.

And Chaat, is for the sweet-savoury-nutty taste that this dessert has, which if you look carefully is the innate nature of most chaats across India – be it dahi puri, puchka or even bhel!

But where, how and when did this wonder happen? One of the credible stories is that the trick of making such unique milk-froth-based dessert came to India with the Afghans and was first practiced by the Botai tribe. Not with the cow's milk but the mare's. Yes, horse milk! With an ancient drink called Kumis.

Back in the time, horse milk was considered a gourmet delicacy much as caviar or good quality truffle is today. But it wasn't because mare's milk was rare or found with great difficulty (employing mountain dogs and such), it was available in abundance at every trader house. It was exotic because of its rich smooth texture and nuances that no other diary product can match. It is said that if the horse is bred well, you can even have fruity taste notes to it. Anyway, the use of the mare's milk was to create kumis – a fermented milk drink much like Yakult for men to take along with during their expeditions. And to do this, the mare milk, which had 40 per cent more lactose, had to be skimmed off its creamy goodness. According to 13th-century traveller William of Rubruck, the making of Kumis, a prized drink, was as follows: first gallons of milk was collected and kept in a cool place. Once enough was collected they were filled into a big skin (leather bags) and then beaten. Once enough heat was generated and passed through the skin, the milk inside would boil up like new wine. The boil milk would be churned regularly to collect all the butter, which was put on the side. It was this butter that was served to the slaves and workers with a little honey and dry fruits. The rest of the milk was for Kumis, which over a few days developed the pungency of a wine with that an aftertaste of almond milk with a much thinner consistency. In fact Kumis was used as an antidote to cure a number of chest and other infection till the mid of 19th century.

There is a good possibility that the technique reached the Indian shores of Andhra and Surat through them. After all, the iconic Silk Route began as a rumour by the Arabs who were the first traders to roam the world. The fact that they had these little settlements across the coastal line only strengthens the belief that the art of making Kumis would have been shared with their Indian peers. Now if that is true, then here is a likely possibility that kumis could have been attempted with cows, buffalos and goats as well, which were animals of the farm here. So it wouldn't be wrong to assume that the harvesting of cream/forth began sometime during the early trade.

This perhaps explains how Parsee heavenly drink called Doodh Na Puff, which is a glass half filled with foam created by the dew drop and milk-flavoured with cardamom, could have been created. The technique was already there, much in practice.  Now to the question of how it reached the Northern side of India is either by war or inter-kingdom trade.

Incidentally, the first fable mention of Daulat Ki Chaat is around the same time Shahi Tukda made its appearance in the Mughal court. It is said that the original Shahi Tukda was made of layers of cream that skimmed off boiling milk and placed on a flattened brass tray. Once enough was collected this tray was allowed to set in a corner that was kept chilled with block of ice covered with jute. Once set, these layers transformed into a cheese slab, albeit more fragile, that could be cut into wedges and bite size pieces. It is said that the creation of the Shahi Tukda was done in this chill room, where a hot knife was used to create thin layers of the slab that were sprinkled with burra (palm sugar powder/jiggery dust) and slivers of nuts and dates. These layers were carefully placed on top of each other and garnished with a golden varq thus epitomizing the name Shahi Tukda (piece for royalty). It would take a khansama of extraordinary caliber to fry these pieces to give it that golden hint.  This dessert would then be carried to the royal dining hall, and before serving scented milk with more slivers of nuts and fruits would be poured on top it to give it that 'melt in your mouth' texture, says Jiggs Kalra.

So could Daulat Ki Chaat be inspired from the Shahi Tukda or vice versa? As much as one would want to know this, adds Kalra, "it will be a wrong assumption to make, given that Daulat Ki Chaat has had an ancestry as the tukda itself if not more." But tell tales give it a filmy twist. One story says that the Daulat Ki Chaat came with the Gujarati traders who created it as a treat to enjoy during winters; others believe it came from Kanpur during the making of Shahajahanabad, when the emperor used to order food from nearby areas to feed the workers. This is where the royal family too could have got the taste of it, before Princess Jahanara, who designed the first resort at Chandni Chowk and the pleasure gardens made it a must-have during winters. The saffron touch, the addition of mawa and nuts very well could be a Mughal kitchen touch to this rustic butter dish, which was called Makhan Malai in UP even back then. The other story of course is that the Daulat Ki Chaat originated in the kitchens of Kanpur – Oudh back then – under Sadaat Ali Khan, who asked his Khansamas to create something spectacular for Prince Murad Baksh, and they created the Daulat Ki Chaat. Yet another legend is that the first iteration of the chaat actually existed in Muradabad, a city re-named after Emperor Akbar presented it to Prince Murad Baksh in 1625AD, thanks to the Afghani population there. It was under Prince Murad that the city began developing a cuisine that had the same taste and culinary brilliance but minus the richness of the Mughal court when Daulat ki Chaat was invented. It was a dessert where less was more, and yet appealed to the masses and classes. ‘

A gift of the Mughals, the Nawabs or the Afghans, what remains undeniable is how brilliant is the Daulat Ki Chaat – in its creation, taste and appeal! Truly a culinary magic.