The 'Eggceptional' Story

Boil it, bake it, skillet it, put chicken over it, douse it in a curry or simply gorge on Dimer Chop, the finest incidence of Kolkata's brio culinaire – few can deny the extraordinary role of eggs and their prime spot in our food today.

By Madhulika Dash

Eggs or as Pliny the elder once called it, nature's globe of complete goodness, are such an ingrained part of our daily diet that thinking of a pantry without these white ovals is near to impossible. Even those who follow an otherwise strict plant diet often have a soft side for eggs – and make an exception for them. Having boiled eggs or eggs in a cake to state a few. 

Yet, when it comes to the powerhouse of White Revolution, eggs' entry into the Indian cuisine landscape was not only late, but sporadically too. This from a country that often holds the credit of introducing the world not only to chickens (albeit in the form of rooster fights) but eggs too. Interestingly, in the same breath, thus solving the quandary of what came first on our table – the chicken or the egg. 

The Late Entrant 

In fact, by the time India got used to the idea of eggs in food, which incidentally was with quail and duck eggs rather than those of chicken – for the world it had become an ingredient, most vital. Even the dynasties that ruled Delhi much through the mediaeval times and are often credited for creating the base for Mughlai food to develop by blending local ingredients into their legacy Persian fare preferred to have eggs from the meat selection. In other words, quails, patridges, pigeons, peacocks and ducks.

It wasn't till India had their first Dak Bunglows that Chicken eggs became a part of the culinary lexicon, and eventually entered our food through the British ways of loving and promoting it much like potatoes and tomatoes. Interestingly, once it entered our lives there was little stopping this invincible globe. 

Which, says  culinary revivalist and egg-aficionado Chef Sabyasachi Gorai. " is thanks also to the fact that eggs were always a part of our diet – even if of quail, duck, and others. Old books and foodlore mention a recipe of smoked egg where these little oblongs were thrown into the dying embers to be ready by morning. These almost blackened eggs were carried to be had later as a quick bite. Likewise, was with the duck egg that was occasionally used as a supplement when meat wasn't available.

From Rituals To Relish

For a large part of ancient and Middle India , eggs' use  here was the same as in Egypt: religious. In fact, eggs that were seen as a symbol of rebirth were often kept for offering to certain gods, especially that of fertility, and were used mostly as part of a portion that would help them regain/enhance virility. Though it is hard to pin down exactly when the egg became a part of regular meal, their usage is often credited, says Chef Gorai, "to two communities: In the South, the Arab merchants who knew the wonders of eggs and would eventually introduce it to the places they would inhabit, essentially the coastal areas. This is how the Malabari Muttamala and Pinjanathappam – the former a thread like dessert made of eggs, while the latter is a pudding – became a part of our culinary ledger. And in the north, it was the Persian invaders who along with war brought their love for eggs as well. 

Concurs Chef Sharad Dewan, Director, Gourmet Design Company, who finds the rise of egg as an acceptable ingredient to be served on the table only around the end of the Awadh when Nawabs and Emperors were exiled with limited resources. Eggs till then, he says, "may have had the role of a binder, flavourant or filler than an ingredient that needed a dedicated dish."

A case in point is that of Wajid Ali Shah whose later years' gourmet treat included both eggs and potatoes – partly because they were cheap and hence allowed as part of their ration, and two, the uncompromising rich, filling taste that appealed to their palates. Of course, the lending nature of egg to flavours and techniques was one of the aces too at popularising this "colonial gift". 

Antidote Before Aphrodisiac 

Another reason for eggs not taking centre stage earlier, adds Chef Dewan, "was the cornucopia of meat, dairy, lentil, vegetable, fruits and grains present in our ledger. This meant both chicken and egg were reserved for growing children, elders, new/soon-to-be mothers and mostly had by the general populi as an antidote rather than food. The famous Kadaknath, Kali Maasi and Aseel were, as a matter of fact, varieties that were reared mostly for a specific purpose of nursing one back to health till the late 17th century."

In the royal courts however, the ostrich, duck or quail egg still hold more importance than of a chicken that was thought to be a mode of sustenance for those on the move or living inside a jungle where wild fowls often were an indulgence. 

The Nawab's Egg

By all accounts, it wouldn't be till Awadh came to power that the chicken and her egg would make its debut in the royal table. While chicken earned its stripes with tavern food that was 'gourmetised' for the royal table, the eggs' moment in limelight came with Nargisi Kofta, where the hidden gem encased within the meat shell was a soft-boiled egg. Cleverly spiced and shallow fried, the meat covered egg dish was a masterpiece of the khansama's culinary ingenuity – and was soon one of the popular dishes on the Nawab table. 

Although little is known under whose patronage was the masterpiece created, thanks to the theatrics, the stunning appearance, Nargisi kofta soon became a signature offering from the Royal House Of Oudh that soon became one of three centres of culinary and culture excellence, and remained so for the rest of the Golden years of Lucknow.

Such was the popularity of the Nargisi Kofta among the diners of Oudh court and elsewhere that often khansamas were called from Lucknow to create the kofta for a special occasion. The idea, says restaurateur Sandeep Singh (owner, Ministry of Beer), "to create Nargisi Kofta stemmed from two factors: The first was the Nawab's zeal to have his own culinary legacy that was different from that of the Mughals; and two, because egg at that time was slowly gaining popularity in diplomatic tables, especially one where the king hosted expats, merchants and others visiting the shore.

Fascinatingly, this wouldn't be the only time that the Khansamas would be looked upon to work their magic to create impressive culinary masterpieces, soon with the British taking over the power, the egg would again take centerstage. This time as means to sustain the king who was in exile. The dish that emerged gave Kolkata (then Calcutta) its signature Biryani that is characterised by the presence of a single boiled egg. 

The Rise of Dimer Excellence

Circa 1857. While the year spelled an end to most of the old rulers and their dynasty; for the egg however, it saw an unprecedented rise from obscurity to a staple on tables – diplomatic and otherwise. Egg in fact was an integral part of the Dak Bungalow living as well, and had turned quite a few caretakers and out of job khansamas, into an eggspert. It was the time of history when suddenly the new generation and the newer dynasty had to adapt to the new eating habits of the powerful rulers, and that included having eggs as part of the meal.

One variety adds Chef Gorai, "that seemed to have made the transition smooth was the Scotch Egg. The sausage meat wrapped egg treat while seemed plain jane in comparison to the Nargisi Kofta, the almost similar experience took it from the Britishers table to that of the royalty where a khansamas was promptly tasked to create a dish that was better than the Scotch Egg."

Thus, Dimer Chop or My Devil's Egg came into existence. A chaah-time special today in Kolkata, especially during Durga Puja and monsoon, the beauty of Dimer Chop was that it was a far cry from the bland, pepper-salt seasoned, sausage meat covered English version. The dimer chop where half a soft-boiled egg was wrapped in minced meat, crumbed and deep fried was generously seasoned with the spices that were easily available. 

The sheer number of spices used in the making of dimer chop soon earned it the moniker, "Devil's Egg" and then the subsequent popularity among people. And while the old school style English Scotch Egg continued to be a popular treat in the clubs and tables hosted by the English, for affluent natives and most Anglo-Indian cooks, the British style Scotch egg was quickly tweaked and turned into a picnic favourite, albeit with a few seasoning twists.

Soon it was the Khansama's version that ruled the palates, including the British who found the dimer chop better than the original. Interestingly, it wasn't just the taste that did the magic, it was also the cleverness in the composition of dimer chop, which, says Chef Dewan, "was the construction of the Scotch Egg and the vibrant taste profile of Nargisi Kofta."

Dime'r To The Devil 

Thanks to its extremely addictive flavour profile, dimer chop, also called  Dime'r Chop or Devil's Egg because of the sheer spices used, rose to fame when it became a high point of not only the new Zamindar's table but a quintessential snack during monsoon, especially on Durga Puja. Such was the popularity of the egg-treat that by the time the British left India, Kolkata had several variations of Dimer Chop including an evolved, but close to scotch egg picnic egg. Story has it that a crackling dimer chop was among the few things that Subhash Chandra Bose loved to have whenever he would visit Kolkata. Satyajit Ray too was fond of Dimer Chop and has used it time and again along with kachori in his Feluda series.

The Evolution of Egg Masterpiece

It was of no wonder that when Chef Gorai opened the now shut Lavaash By Saby, Delhi's first Armenian food restaurant, the golden-hued Devil's Egg was a part of the menu, the first thing he specialised in. "Having grown up in the bylanes of Kolkata and Asansol, I have spent most of my childhood and years later sampling the different forms of egg treat that was served in the name of Dimer Chop or Devil's Egg. Each of them had its unique twist, taste, and texture," says the culinary researcher, whose modern take on the beloved snack comes with an interesting twist. 

In his version it is a whole egg wrapped in a generous layer of spiced mincemeat, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep fried to perfection. There was one difference though: Unlike the original, which uses partly cooked mince as the quilt, Chef Gorai's version uses raw chicken mince that has been finely grounded with spices to be able to cook, just in time as the egg. Knowing the ratio is crucial. In my version, I use 90 grams of mince for a 45 gram egg, which is soft boiled."

The idea, says Chef Gorai, "behind keeping the egg soft and runny to give that textural foreplay to the dish – so you have the crunch, the bite of the meat, the softness of the egg white and the gooeyness of the yolk, akin to the three layers of earth."

What is the mark of a good dimer chop? Says Chef Saby,  "The trademark of a good dimer chop is one that is spicy, cooked through, cracks like an Arancini (the other Arab innovation that could have also inspired the Bengali snack) and the mouth feel is that of an biting into an edible globe (the thin crust, the textured mantle, the soft outer core and the soft melting inner core)."

If you need a chutney with it, "it ain't made right".