The Brilliance of Tangadi Kebab

From the Grand Trunk Road famous nosh to the must-have appetiser on every Indian menu, meet the dish that was made by the people and for the people.

By Madhulika Dash

On the surface, Tangadi Kebab, a beloved  treat today, may not  garner the same curosity as perhaps its brethern galouti or matka murg. Probably for a reason. Tangadi Kebab has little by way of definitive history let alone an association with any Nawab who couldn't chew food. And, says legacy chef  Pradeep Tejwani, Founder, Young Turks, “remains a dish that inspite of being  one of the prominent culinary player of the Grant Trunk Road food culture that  mused many a innovation including the matka murga, that fame always eluded. This could be because of two reasons: the first could be chicken itself. As a meat, chicken in India wasn't really a meat worth considering till about the late medieval time when it gained popularity because of its availability and the fact that it cooked faster than any other meat prior to it and took on flavours much like potato. Before that chicken's place in India was mostly as the last alternative, as part of a ritual and significantly as chicken soup. “

In fact, he continues, “if you look at the breeds that were prefered for breeding back in the day including Aseel and Kali Maasi – a peer of the now famous Kadaknath – then their role was as nourishment for the toddlers, the aged  & elderly or the not so well. “ Ancient medicinal treaties like the Sushruta Samhita too have valued chicken for its nutritive value rather than meat.  But that didn't stop the chicken that many accounts suggest was India's gift to the world of gaming and dining, to have its successful run in the West and the trade route where it joined the elite list of mutton to become a favourite of the traders.

And that is where the origin of Tangadi Kebab, which many today believe could have inspired butter chicken , says Chef Tejwani, whose search for the original Tangadi iteration began a few years ago as part of the research for a project.

So where does it all begin?

Curiously, unlike what is commonly believed  about chicken and tandoor that is said to have travelled through the Silk Route from Samarkand along with the Arab traders, says culinary explorer  Chef Nimish Bhatia, founder – Nimisserie Bespoke, “ancient India had its own culture of barbeque. A fact that anthropologist have discovered during the exacavation of the Indus and Harappa Valley civilisation where charred remains of chicken have been found.”

Although, continues Chef Bhatia, “not as popular as the mutton and other game meat, chicken through history has its own space  in the world of wellness, food as well as gaming. In fact, it was for the latter that Indian cocks were most famous for. Old portal documents mention about large consignment of such trained cocks that were in demand globally. “

At home though, much of the breeds were often selected based on the nutritive value and for egg – both of which much like milk was part of the kid's food system or for the elderly who thanks to age developed a delicate stomach. There were however exceptions to this rule that was followed by those in the hills and travelling army and traders, who found chicken a rather easy to forage, cook and satiating meals. And one of the favourite ways was to either barbeque it on fire or use the ancient tandoor where the half skinned chicken was skewed on a stick or sword and let to cook.”

Ancient Chinese traders are known to survive on chicken exclusively during their stay in India.

The changing of roles

Chicken's importance grew during the medieval times in India with invasion and traders setting shop across the country bringing with them not just the know-how of different style of cooking  but new age ingredients like chillies, potatoes, tomatoes and such.

While in the South and East part of India, this new influences meant a re-popularity of chicken now in urban areas as well,  in the north, it  revivd the tandoor culture with country chicken as one of the meat thanks to the popularity of chicken in the rest of the world.

In India, where chicken was had either as part of a curry, barbequed or steamed in leave or cooked inside bamboo took to the new format as chicken being a lean, subtle meat paired well with newer ingredients like chilli, pototoes and tomatoes.  The first chicken iteration to be famous was tandoori chicken that evolved from the simple salt, cumin rub to a tasteful marination that had chillies and turmeric as well.  Based on the ancient technique of eating meat, says Chef Tejwani, “the reason behind chicken taking precedence over meat was the tender meat and the short time it cooked and digested. The few factor that traders loved especially when traveling for long hours. The other was its versatility both in terms of how it adapted to traditional mutton curry and to new innovation that happened in mandis or trading hubs on the Silk Road and epicenters of culture exchanges. Add to that was  the economics, and soon chicken became a staple on the trading road, eventually making its way into cities where it took on different avatars each tuned to the occasion, taste and culinary ingenuity.”

One such innovation to became a standard fare in the serai was Tangadi Kebab, says Chef Bhatia, who finds the creation an ode to not just our fine understanding of butchery and meat but also to the culture of raan. The leg peice, says the culinary explorer, “is one of the most tender, tastier part of an animal followed by thigh and then breast was a known fact back in the day. And hence these parts were considered suitable for all forms of innovation which included interesting marination to stuffing.”

Thus, it is possible, continues Chef Tejwani, “that the idea of turning the Tangadi which is the full leg into a kebab  could have been inspired by this knowledge which was supported by chicken's ability to pair well.  Result, the khansamas back then who were exposed to the new age ingredients  worked on creating the process of double marination and basting to create a dish that could easily traverse between being an accompniment to a drink to being a part of a meal.”

The delicious taste and tenderness soon made Tangadi Kebab a popular treat that travelled well  on the Grant Trunk Road. Thus, reaching to regions that were not familiar with the tandoor.

The other factor that also helped the popularity of Tangadi Kebab, which flourished in the north thanks to the Mughal and later Nawabi patronage, and then the rest of India was the Dak Bungalow and Anglo Indian cooks, who catapulted chicken to a popular meat – on par with where other meat stood once.

Among the legendary patrons of Tangadi kebab according to food lores was Empress Nur Jahan and then  Padishah Begum Jahanara. Nur Jahan who built some of the most luxurious serais of the time was known to have loved the Tangadi Kebab, and turned it into one of the in-house specials that could be made a la mode.”  

This shift from mandis to sarais helped Tangadi Kebab that had gone from the burrah style  to the recognisible Kashmiri red chilli-hued kebab to garner its other versions including the malai, the hara tangadi that has coriander, mint and green chilli and the yellow too, which, says Chef Tejwani, “was because of the use of haldi in north and yellow chilli in the south.”

Such was the rise of Tangadi Kebab during the time thanks to the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese influence  that by the time Chandni Chowk was designed, the first few stalls that festooned the place began serving Tangadi Kebab along with others in season. One of the influence was changing the portioning of Tangadi Kebab, which went from the raan style to a individual portion of a drumstick.

Eventually of course, it was restaurants that gave Tangadi Kebab its final walk of fame when they made it a part of the kebab segment that also featured galouti, shammi and others. A opportunity that was encashed during the Silver Revolution when both chicken and egg were promoted as prime ingredient.

Result, today thinking of an Indian classic menu without Tangadi Kebab is impossible.