Edible History: Atta Chicken

If convenience was the key to greater good, than this north frontier dish was easily at the foundation of clever cooking. Here’s how a homemaker’s hack not only fed warring soldiers but also has become the pièce de resistance of formal tables. 

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy HopsHaus

Two years ago, when Chef Vikas Seth decided to recreate the famous atta chicken for one of his experiential tables called “Sense & Sensibility”, it wasn’t the first time that this once farmer’s special was being revived by a chef. There were many before including the atta chicken makers of Kotkapura, who are credited for reviving and popularising this iconic farmers’ special. However, for Chef Seth, the making of atta chicken was an ode to one of the oldest functional culinary techniques that was developed and mastered by the farmers of erstwhile Punjab. Folklore has it that atta chicken was a clever innovation by the homemakers who wanted clever ways of cooking a food without constantly labouring on the stove. A “need” that historian believe led to the formation of another equally popular dish called dal baati churma. The beauty of the dish, says the Culinary Director of HopsHaus, “is that it is cooked simultaneously in one sitting where the dal slow cooks in a pot steaming the assortment of green chillies and garlic whereas the baatis are getting baked snugged to the inner walls of the chulah. Such is the formation that all three are ready to eat at the same time, neither one being overcooked, steamed or overbaked.”

It was, continues Chef Seth, “on the same vein that the atta chicken too was designed and was a popular meal shared by the famer and his family post a hard day at work on the field. The idea of the dish was simple – to create a composite meal that would satiate and nourish the hard-working hands in the field. Hence the composition of a medium size chicken marinated and wrapped in chapatis and then wheat dough. The creation while allows the chicken to slowly bake inside the dough womb thus keeping it moist, also transfers enough heat for the roti to get cooked properly, this creating a full meal that could be served with onions and fresh greens from the farm.”

The ingenuity of the idea finds credence with north frontier cuisine specialist Chef Nimish Bhatia too, who while researching on the traditional eating habits found many examples of such clever, time saving techniques that were popular back in the day. What makes these bake techniques very effective is that not only are they were sustainable practices but also were effective in creating such delicious meals that in spite of the long cooking time had much of the nourishing properties intact. One of the many reasons that such cooking methods were popular pan India: be it in form of Parsi Umbadiyo that used a peacock-necked clay pot covered with hay and dry mango leaves to cook their concoction; or the bamboo cooking from North East; the leave wrapped cooking in Eastern India, especially poda of Odisha, or the generous use of banana leaf package that were wrapped in wed mud in the South. The core idea was to find ways to cook food that were well balanced and yet saved time.

Such was the effectiveness of this rather easy yet high on technique cooking method, says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “that in the early half of the medieval period, army cooks were asked to master this homemaker’s innovation as it allowed for substantial food presence with little time spent. In fact, military food history of India is replete with dishes that were made for functionality rather than indulgence. However, with atta chicken – a dish that literally spread like wild fire in terms of popularity – the deal became much more than an easiness of affording tasty food to soldiers on the move, the sheer unravelling of a well made atta chicken was a treat to the senses as well.”

The breaking of the mould - which often had to be done with a hammer – to reveal that nicely wrapped chicken first in a leaf followed by chapatis that masqueraded as plate on which the carved pieces were served became a talking point – soon elevated the dish into the category of meals with theatrics like Parinde Main Parina, albeit with one major difference – atta chicken was delicious and filling.  Result, adds Chef Seth, “for a large part of our agrarian history atta chicken that had gained over both the Mughal kingdom and erstwhile Punjab remained a popular farmers’ meal. What changed perhaps was the marination and the layers. What remained constant was the founding idea.”

Like its peers, atta chicken too didn’t survive the march of time and was soon relegated to one of the many dishes made during occasion in a grandmother’s kitchen (or a farmhouse) that had the essential tools – basically a chulah and the wood to slowly cook it over few hours. So when Chef Seth decided to revive it for his table and later as part of his special menu in HopsHaus, it was a research in what made this humble dish such a masterpiece. The first thing I realised is that a good atta chicken while can be made with a broiler version as well somehow yields better to a desi kukad, which has to be marinated overnight so that it loses some of its tightness and meat pull. The other defining is the wrapping. Back then, the thick hand shaped chapatis had enough girth that could not just take the juices but also the heat as they took long to cook. These days something that thick would become too chewy for taste. And last not the least was masala.”

The dish, he says, “is unforgiving towards too much of spice use. Hence, whatever is chosen must enhance the meat taste rather than add to it. In HopsHaus version, we keep the marination simple with turmeric, yogurt and a bit of chilli for heat and then rub our spice mix made of warm spices like clove, cinnamon and cardamom to give it that boost. The rest is done by the way it is wrapped with leaves, muslin cloth and then the dough – the whole thing is baked in an oven for an hour or so depending on the size of the bird.”

But the tastemaking really happens when, concludes Chef Seth, “is while the bird is resting. It is here that while the entire dough bubble cools down and the juices percolate to every nook and cranny of the whole bird that the atta chicken gains its unforgettable taste.”