Said to be one of the favourite hangouts of the colonial cricket team, the stew is said to have inspired versions of tea-time treat of office goers – and others alike.
There are many dishes that owe their popularity to two interesting culture – offices and cricket. Be it the famous bun-maska-chai (an office goer’s treat), the keema roll served at the Islam Gymkhana (when cricket was 100 overs match) in Mumbai or the cream puff in Shillong. But few have the distinction of having both as their innovator and marketer – Meet Dacres Lane Chicken Stew of Kolkata or Calcutta.
The popularity of this simple, almost-bland looking stew was such that in a few years Chitto Babu Dukan (famously called Chittoda’s) became an iconic food place, such where people would come just to have a whiff of the stew that launched a thousand dreams. A feat that even Chitto Babu, the founder of this tiny shop at Dacres Lane hadn’t envisioned when he had taken the simple Dutch-Portuguese-English inspired stew, gave it a little twist with desi chicken added the pillow-like, toasted pound bread on the side, and just like that turned it into a soul food for those tired soul.
Chef Bikram Das (Chef de Cuisine, East Room, Raajkutir) who has revived some of the iconic dishes for the East Room says, “despite how the stew looked, the simple use of good quality chicken, clever mix of spices and season fresh vegetable made it such a popular meal. So much so that often diners would be happy standing and relishing this fare in the lane which soon became known for its fried snack variety.”
Even today, adds the Calcutta-boy, “a trip to this lane brings in more than just good old memories, it is a showcase of the culinary ingenuity that earned Calcutta the moniker ‘City of Joy’. It was streets like the Dacres Land that gave Calcutta its unique food culture that eventually was known as the Bengali cuisine.”
Reviving such an iconic dish that had survived well into the fourth generation of the maker wasn’t an easy task, made more difficult with the number of versions of this once Dak Bangla special in existence. Chef Das decided to use memory to his advantage, given that it was almost impossible to replicate the original recipe. “When it comes to Indian dishes, the revision of an iconic dish doesn’t depend on the recipe as it is on the processes and of course the hand that makes it,” says Chef Das, who involved people across generations (at least five) to get the basic tone right.
“It was my only aid to see how a dish evolved over the years with diner’s palate changing with each decade. What I was looking for were simple things like the smoothness of the stew to the doneness of the meat, spice levels and such.”
A revelation when put against the humble stew sounds profound, but as any seasoned chef would confess, it is the only way to recreate an iconic dish that stands as benchmark for the rest. Of course, confesses the culinary researcher, “I did my own little twist that includes working with a certain kind of desi chicken cuts like the thigh and the legs, charring the vegetable to get the right sweetness and using a certain variety of peppercorns to get that hit on the back of the tongue. Everything else had to be traditional. Like the roll boiling followed by slow simmering of the stew to get that buttery smooth mouthfeel,” says Chef Das, who even added more butter and egg yolk to make the in-house pound bread softer.
How far has Chef Das been able to revive a stew that was the proverbial ‘masterstroke’ to many generations? Only a taste at the East Room will be able to tell.
Here’s the recipe to try Dacres's Lane Stew at home as well...