Chicken 65 And Chicken Manchurian: Uniquely Indian Fusion Dishes That Became All-Time Favourite

Chicken 65 And Chicken Manchurian: Uniquely Indian Fusion Dishes That Became All-Time Favourite

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Nearly three decades ago, in 1994, a scientist working out of the Central Food Technology Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysuru, wrote the encyclopaedic Indian Food: The Historical Companion, which became the go-to reference book for students, teachers and anyone in love with our food culture. It has remained one since then, but he could not update it, for he passed away in 2002.

India’s food landscape, meanwhile, has undergone a dramatic transformation in terms of not only the variety of ingredients and dishes available in our kitchens and on public tables, but also the prodigious quantities of information coming out almost daily on the food traditions of our states, heritage cities, religious communities and castes. There is not a district of India that has not been mapped for its food history and culture.

The Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine, co-edited by Colleen Taylor Sen, Sourish Bhattacharyyaa and Helen Saberi, trawls through this preponderance of information, pulls out the most delicious parts and tosses them together in a 500-page, 200,000-word volume enriched by the contributions of the three editors and 26 guest writers, covering ground that Achaya did not, in 266 information-laden entries.

The subjects range from Alcohol to Yams, Assam to Uttarakhand, dhabas to khau gallis, bottle masala to the xacuti spice blend, coffee to cold drinks, Emperor Ashoka to Wyvern, Camellia Panjabi to Raja Digvijaya Singh, Bengaluru to Varanasi. The editors and contributors assure you 200,000 words of food coma. Excerpts from the book:

India Pale Ale, General Dyer, United Breweries – and GNT

The British had been bringing their beer which was often found to get stale by the time theyreached the Indian shores after a four-to-five-month journey. The Hodgson’s Bow breweries found a solution by using higher alcohol content which was aged to make the colour mellow. The first batch arrived in India in 1837 to a lot of fanfare.

Aged on the journey with the ship’smotion contributing to it, the beer became popular as India Pale Ale (IPA). And like wineearlier, it was found that the barrels which remained in the ship and were taken back toEngland also tasted well due to the action of the sea which matured the beer.

While IPA became popular, the Indian breweries were opening up. Beer was transported in big barrels known as ‘Hogsheads’. The first brewery and distillery, owned by General Edward Abraham Dyer, the father of the infamous Colonel Reginald Dyer of the Jallianwala Baghmassacre, opened production in Kasauli in 1830 to provide cheap beer to the Britishgarrisons.

The first beer in India was brewed here under the name ‘Lion Beer’ and the distillery was shifted to Solan in 1835 to take advantage of the water there which was good for the beer. M.G. Meakin bought the Solan brewery and the company was now called Dyer Meakin & Company. By 1882, Dwyer had twelve breweries, including one in Rangoon. After the separation of Burma, the company was renamed Dyer Meakin Breweries. In 1949, N.N. Mohan acquired all the properties and in 1967 the name changed to Mohan Meakin breweries, which now also produces Old Monk rum.

In South India, the Scotsman Thomas Leishman brought together five older breweries in 1915 to form the United Breweries Company, headquartered in Bangalore. It was the biggest firm in post-Independence India. This conglomerate of several breweries in the much older British-Indian brewing tradition, including Astle Brewery and Nilgiris Breweries (1857), Bangalore Brewing Co. (1885), British Brewing Corp (1903) and BBB Brewery Co. Ltd. (1913), is a reminder of the existence of breweries in the region for more than 150 years now.

Gin, too, has a history intertwined with that of India and Britain in the global imperial context. The English learnt about it from the Dutch during their war with Holland in the 1580s and its popularity in London during the eighteenth century led to riots and regulations by the British government. When India became a colony of Britain in the 1850s, British soldiers arriving in India needed to take quinine as protection against malaria. In order to douse the bitterness they gulped it down with gin and lime. The combination of gin and tonic in the Indian context flowed back to the English and European drinking habits and played a crucial role in British imperial ambitions. — Prasun Chatterjee

So Uniquely Indian — Chicken 65 And Chicken Manchurian

Chicken 65 is the name given to chicken pieces on the bone deep-fried and doused with generous helpings of red chilli and black pepper powders. A popular offering at the Buhari Hotel, a restaurant that opened its doors on Chennai’s arterial Mount Road (now known as Anna Salai) in 1951, Chicken 65 made headlines in 2000, when it was the subject of a question in the first season of the blockbuster TV quiz show, Kaun Banega Crorepati,  anchored by the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

The quiz show declared the inventor of Chicken 65 to be the restaurant’s stylish owner, A.M. Buhari (1910-96), who grew up in Colombo. It was then that the dish attained iconic status.

All guidebooks recommend Chicken 65 as a must-have for visitors to Chennai, but Buhari was originally famous for its biryanis, notably the mutton or chicken biryani that comes with a whole boiled egg, and the idiyappam biryani where rice is replaced by vermicelli. Equally popular are its mutton samosas.

Buhari Hotel had many firsts to its credit. It is still remembered, for instance, for being the first restaurant in Madras to have a jukebox for its patrons to play their favourite songs. Now its patrons go there to have Chicken 65 before anything else. The restaurant now also offers Chicken 78, Chicken 82 and Chicken 90, but Chicken 65 remains the unchallenged star of its menu.

The dish owes its mystique also to the nationwide guessing game set off by its enigmatic name. Does the name originate because only 65-day-old chickens are used for it? Or, because the recipe calls for sixty-five ingredients? Or, because the item appears on page 65 of the menu card?

The now-accepted story is that Buhari, according to his grandson Nawaz, added this no-fuss dish to the restaurant’s menu after his friends loved it at the New Year’s Eve party he had hosted on the last day of 1965. Chicken 65 owes its name, without doubt, to the year in which it was born. All other variants also carry the last two digits of the years when they were introduced into the menu. Buhari may not have realized it but 65 is his lucky number.

(Equally delicious is the story about the birth of the Chicken Manchurian.)

Born in 1950, Nelson Wang is best known for being the principal protagonist of what is now famous as Chinese Indian (or Chindian) cuisine and is credited with the invention of thehugely popular universal favourite known as Chicken Manchurian, which has spawned equivalent dishes made with paneer (cottage cheese) and cauliflower florets (gobhi).

A flamboyant restaurateur who owns and runs the China Garden restaurants, Wang is a third-generation descendant of Hakka immigrants who settled in the then British Raj metropolis of Calcutta. He arrived in Mumbai in the early 1970s with just Rs 20 and landed a job as a lowly assistant cook in Frederick’s, a popular Chinese restaurant in its heyday. Here, he acquired a following because of his cooking skills and soon was approached by the owner of a hole-in-the-wall establishment called China Town.

The restaurant was an instant success. One of his regular takeaway customers was the then cricket czar and former royal, Raj Singh Dungarpur, who invited Wang to open a restaurant at the prestigious Cricket Club of India (CCI). The new place was named Chinaman In Mumbai, where a CCI member asked Wang to create a dish different from the standard fare.

Wang dipped a few chicken pieces in a thick corn flour batter, deep-fried them and served them in a hot sauce made with soy sauce, vinegar, onions, chillies and garlic. Chicken Manchurian was born and became an instant hit.

It was adopted with amazing alacrity by the entire Indo-Chinese restaurant community. The name is a mystery, for Manchuria is the name of a region situated in China’s northeast that was controlled by the Japanese from 1932 to 1945, and is now very much a part of the People’s Republic of China.

Wang once said to one of the editors of the Handbook that when he was cooking the dish, a radio news broadcast was on and there was ia reference to Manchuria. The name stuck in his head and that was how it became an inextricable part of the most famous and enduring Indo-Chinese dish.

(This excerpt from The Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine has been published with permission from the publishers, Bloomsbury Academic)

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