What stake is for the West, Murg Burra was for the Grand Trunk Road. Here’s how one of the iconic highway grubs led to the art of kebab making – and more, says seasoned Chef Nimish Bhatia about one of the oldest street treats.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture Courtesy St Regis, Mumbai
From Karims’ to Delhi Darbar, ask any restauranteur who owns a place that celebrates the food of the North Frontier about its most prized recipe (and dish), and there is a good chance that it would be the Burra Kebab that would score the top spot, and for all the right reasons, says seasoned chef Nimish Bhatia, who has travelled a good part of what was once the Grand Trunk Road – the highway that joined the two culinary cities and much more – in search of the dish, which isn’t just the granddad of today’s kebab but also one of the few old versions that needed both the understanding of the meat, spices and the art of heat cooking. In fact, he continues, “in many ways the burra is true test of a kababchi skills and understanding of the meat because burra which is made straight on the angethi left little to no scope for error. So right from choosing the meat to the spice mixed that was used to give the kebab its unique taste and the coal and wood mix that would give the kebab its trademark char – everything needed not just a good amount of practice to master but also a good understanding of the meat, weather, spices, and other factors that could play a key role on how the kebab eventually tasted. Thus, making burra one of the most difficult kebabs to handle. Such was the mastery needed for this version of the kebab that, continues Chef Bhatia, “often it would be the ustaad who would make the murg burra that originated most likely as a gosht burra – and would pass on the baton only to the most deserving as a legacy. So much so that often the passing on of the burra making would bring the kababchi on to the limelight – and make him the most sought-after hand on the Silk Route and latter on the Grand Trunk Road that not only connected the two great culinary cities of erstwhile Punjab – Amritsar and Lahore – but also play a key role in shaping the way the food evolved on this highway and areas it would connect.”
But was the technique driven kebab the only reason burra was a popular grub on the culinary highway that reached the bylanes of Delhi – and gained more fame? Not really, says Chef Bhatia, “the real reason for burra wide appeal during its early years that dates to the time when Arab traders monopolised the trade highway was its taste profile. Unlike the meat kebab that was grilled by soldiers that was spiced only with roasted cumin and later years with salt, burra even in its earlier iteration had the spice charm of a Casanova partly because it was a meat treat that originated in and around the trade post that brimmed with the best spices from across the world and were frequented by tradesmen who knew a thing or two about good food.”
And while, he continues, “there is little known about how, who and when did the burra was created most anthropologist believe that it was an obvious graduation from the earlier meat version that was popular on the many roads frequented by traders, soldiers and travellers alike. Each of them would have over the time contributed a bit either in the form of spices, butchery technique or even creating the angithi – the original BBQ set on the highway – that till date not only remains a preferred form of BBQ-ing in India, but also brought a certain amount of control in the hands of the kababchi who could finally manipulate the fire to get a desired result with his kebab. Fascinatingly, it was the evolution of the angithi that was instrumental in not only curating the Burra Kebab – which became a staple around the 17th century when desi murga turned to be a more profitable, affordable, and loved meat on the highway – but also giving it that unique taste and flavour that it is most identified today.
Unlike other kebabs that followed this granddad of meat treats, the burra was all about the spices, says Chef Bhatia, “and not too many of them, but a clever blend that tenderised the meat, aid in cooking it, give it that aroma and even elevated that meat taste one looks for when they bite into a leg piece. Since burra doesn’t go into a process of tenderising – at least the traditional version did not – given that they relied on getting fresh, warm meat, the cut and spice rub played an important role. In fact, unlike its peers, the burra is the only grilled meat that is vigorously seasoned including the amount of salt, which often is a combination of sea and rock salt. This, explains the culinary expert, gives the meat cuts which much like the raan are bone-y pieces the necessary armoury to withstand the kind of heat burst it would face once thrown over the grill of an angithi.
The secret thereon to make a succulent murg burra or mutton burra is how well you can grill the meat so that it is tenderised enough to take on the flavours of the spices that usually take on a secondary role of aiding to the taste of the meat. The benchmark of a good burra – mutton or murg – says Chef Bhatia, “has the same parameters of that of the raan. It should be tender to the touch and yet have that pull that needs a good gnaw and tug before it gives in. Of course, the juicier the better as mostly burra back then were served as these drink treats that had nothing but a wedge of lemon to enhance the flavour. The reason for the lemon was that it helped break that meat protein further for easy digestion and kept the burra from drying up.”
Making a good burra meant that the kababchi had to know meat, spices, and the art of grilling well and fast since anything longer could easily dry the meat and turn it into an inedible leather. Such exacting was the skill set required to make the younger cousin of raan that often a kebabchi would only spend years working on the burra and perfecting a recipe that would be adopted to any weather and place. Despite the odds and the labour involved in making a burra, it remained a beloved dish that travelled across the length and breadth of the highway taking on newer flavours as it went. Such was the love for burra that when Nur Jahan became the empress and introduced the sarai for travellers, burra became a standard fare in most of the places. Story has it that it was one of the favourites of the Empress as well, who first had it as a tweenager traveling to India as her father took up a position in Akbar’s court. While burra remained a soldiers, travellers meal for most of its life, it did reach its glory when years later Princess Jahanara invited some of the finest kababchi to set shop in one of her masterpieces: Chandni Chowk.
And the rest, ends Chef Bhatia, is history.