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GUSHING OVER RAILWAY CUTLET

The single most delicious piece of nostalgia that can make on time travel, one layered tasty bite a time.  

By Madhulika Dash, Picture courtesy Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti and stock photos


Circa 1823: Lord William Amherst, the colonial administrator and diplomat, issues an order for potatoes, the saplings of which he brought along, to be planted in the park of Barrack Pore. It wasn’t the first time that the famous Dutch import had arrived in a British court. In 1780, then then governor general Warren Hastings too was presented with a basket of potatoes at his council dining table in 1780 by the Dutch as a peace offering to work together. But unlike Lord Amherst, who knew the charms of potatoes that was still a privy of the wealthy back in England, Hastings took no interest in what would soon transform into a prime ingredient in not only English cuisine but native Indian as well.  

For Hastings potatoes much like the famous cutlet had yet to earn its brownie points. And it did during the Earl of Amherst tenure. The Barrack Pore potato project was a huge success. Buttery textured and the size of a fist, potatoes soon became the new “hero” of not just the Anglo Indian cuisine but of Bengali too, where this easily growing spud was used liberally to give dishes, volume and newness.  

But pairing wasn’t the only thing the great binder gained its culinary stripes with, the beginning of potato journey was to do with much fanciful stuff like mashed potato, shepherds’ pie, and the like. Dishes, which much like potato itself was considered novelty – even superior since it was being introduced by the colonial power. Cutlet, which arrived on English shores somewhere around the early 1700s, was one of them. Referring to a flattened piece of meat that was crumbed and pan fried, cutlet’s origin, explains Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Fabrica By Saby, “was as the German Schnitzel, which used veal or pork, flattened the meat to tenderize it, breaded and fried it to golden crispness. Served with well-seasoned mashed potato, it was a popular meal that soon had its own versions that included marinating the meat with mustard and horseradish paste. There is a good chance that the Schnitzel variety that passported across borders was the Zigeunerschnitzel, which was ritzy and was served along with own special sauce. Made in restaurants only, Zigeunerschnitzel, they say what inspired the French version of the côtelette from which cutlet the name came from.”

CUTLET’S INDIA DEBUT


How côtelette travelled to India? That credit goes to the British, who were fond of French cooks and often employed them in their kitchens and hence would have got their first taste of the cutlet through them, says Chef Gorai, “the other source could also be political (and wedding) alliances that became the platform for cultural and culinary exchanges.”

However, when it came to India, says the culinary anthropologist, “the introducing of cutlet in its original format goes to the British. While it came as a comfort food that remained a privy of the Dak Bangla where the chicken variant became popular than the German veal and pork, and later the well-appointed Fort kitchens and the officer residences that employed Anglo Indian cooks who understood their palate, spices, cooking method and language well.”

While cutlet remained the privy of the British occupied spaces for its initial years, it did spread to other facets commercial places eventually including the railway colonies and the mining town where the flattened meat took on a more hearty makeover. Not so much in terms of ingredients, says Chef Gorai, “as it was in terms of the seasoning and the way the cutlet was prepared and presented. So Instead of purely battering it thin and tender, the meat of the breast was minced, seasoned, spiced, the bone will be placed in the middle before the mixture would be shaped into the iconic croquettes; then basted, breaded and pan fried. The bone was a classic French touch.”

Interestingly, says culinary explorer Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti, “the size of the cutlet back then wasn’t the palm fit we get today but a handful because cutlet that time followed the German tradition of being a full meal with vegetable, mashed potato, and a possible sauce too. And a single portion was made from an entire breast.”  

In fact, adds Chef Gorai and Chef Chakrabarti, “even till the 1910s an order of chicken cutlet – an easy favourite of the British – meant a whole breast part.”

CUTLET VS CHOP


For the uninitiated, a cutlet and a chop today may seem like two peas of the same pod. Curiously they are not, neither, say the chefs, “they are an inspiration of each other. While cutlet has proven its British history – at least the one that walked into the Indian shore- chop, which according to Chef Chakrabarti, “needs batter to tie the ingredients has been a native innovation thanks partly to our tradition of making koftas, partly to the ingenuity of street vendors and home cooks who had to find different ways to present the local ingredients.”

Of course, there is also the homemakers who contributed in creating a series of bold flavoured bada/bara that became inspiration to many of the chops that are eaten today including the vegetable chop that saw a melange of ingredients paired up with beetroot to create the famous Calcutta chop. Another iconic dish is the mochar chop that uses banana flower to create a vegetarian peer to the popular mangsho chop or Behrampur Chicken Pakora.”

A common thread between the two of course, says Chef Chakrabarti, “was the potato that by 1860 had endeared itself into the culinary fabric of Bengal and had ably widen the chop platter by at least a dozen more variants each using the spud to add more bite, texture, and contrast.”

Despite that however, the twain didn’t meet as each had their own set of patrons, who helped draw the line between the two. While, says Chef Gorai, “chop like bara enjoyed the freedom of being griddle fried, shallow fried and deep fried, cutlet was strictly pan fried and had egg and breadcrumb as its two binding options.”

THE RISE OF THE VEGETARIAN CUTLET  


So when and how did the famous Vegetarian Cutlet or Alu Cutlet came to the fore? That was the work of the natives who found an easy way to replace the chicken for something that is equally delicious and filling – potatoes. In fact, says Gorai, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a creation of the Mess cooks much like the chicken curry and ball curry. However, there is little info on how the cutlet that features prominently in the regimental cookbook and that of the refreshment room and pantry car menu gained prominence.”

According to one food lore, says Chef Chakrabarti, “the cutlet was the brainchild of a Anglo cook who was asked to prepare a vegetarian version for one of the guests of the Englishmen in Kolkata. It is said that the first cutlet resembled the Northern Aloo Tikki, albeit with a few additions. Since it was coming out of the English kitchen it had the vylati gajjar (orange carrot) and tinned corn in it with pepper, salt and butter as the seasoning. How was the cutlet put together is still a mystery, but to identify the vegetarian cutlet, a distinct diamond shape was created, which eventually became the trade design of a cutlet. Although there are those who vouch that the cutlet was shaped as a heart to give it its own unique presentation style and identity.”

Going by the fact that the heart shape is still in use for most railway cutlet it may have been a possibility, although, says Chef Gorai, “chances are that it was inspired by the deck of cards and could have been a spade that eventually became a heart.”

Anyway, the cutlet that made it into the train thanks to Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) that did their own catering and popular caterers Messrs. G.F. Kellner and Company’s, who looked after the East India Railway was most likely an evolved version of the Anglo-Indian cook’s version and was served as part of their non-English menu that eventually also had the Railway Mutton Curry, Country Chicken Curry among others.  

The subtle flavouring and the crunchiness ensured that the aloo cutlet soon earned the moniker Railway Cutlet and was eventually introduced across all other lines that had a pantry car, and refreshment room. The cutlet rise-to-fame came as a breakfast staple and with pantry cars. Back in the day menu card were filled prior to the journey and wired to the respective caterers who would deliver the meal at the next station, with the clearance done a few stations later. A cumbersome but effective process that though ensured good meals, did little for the vegetarian cutlet that would get soggy often. This was sorted with the pantry car where most cutlet were finished and served.

The sheer pleasure of enjoying buttery potatoes, cleverly spiced and crumb-fried was a delight not just to the Maharajas who often would enjoy a diplomatic meal or two during their journey – their coupes were often tagged to the engine – but also was a pleasurable change for the meat-loving British palate.  

By the second world war, with a large part of the British administration with the Indians and the messes and clubs being the privy of the colonial rulers, the vegetarian cutlet experienced its golden moments – though the offering changed to suit the glamour of the English Bastian. The real queen still was the Railway Cutlet that, say the chefs, “has since 1930 remained true to its original recipe.”

What makes it such a classic? Nostalgia, our love for potatoes, the balmy flavours, but, say Chef Gorai, “it is that happy taste that is like a timeline of all the good old days in a bite.”

No wonder even when the Swadeshi movement made ministers change the original Railway menu, of the few things that didn’t have the heart to change was the RAILWAY CUTLET.