GOURMET FILES There are various recipes for the shammi kabab. But here's how it was made in the heyday of Awadh.
Almost three hundred years ago a Lucknawi nobleman is said to have had such a valuable cook that he paid him Rs. 1,200 a month, “an amount greater than the salary of any cook in the highest courts in the history of India”. In Curry: A Biography, Lizzie Collingham, referring to “Oude accounts etc. 1777-83”, Warren Hastings Papers , says that in the 1770s the Nawab spent four times more on his cook than on his poor house.
One reason for pampering cooks was possibly that though the power of the Mughal emperors and dominance of their culture and cuisine prevailed all over the North, there was deep rivalry between Awadh-Lucknow, and Delhi. The last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, is said to have invited a prince from Delhi, Mirza Asman Qadar, to dine with him. A complicated story is told of how the Nawab and then the Prince outdid each other in cleverness, all in an effort to impress the other. First the Nawab offered a huge selection, the Prince picked a vegetable curry, chewed it and discovered that it was actually meat.
He was embarrassed, not offended — because vegetarianism was not at stake — and in turn invited the Nawab. The repast: pulao, biryani, meat curry, kababs, even the breads were all made of caramelised sugar. As Collingam says, “The nawab was defeated.” The mind boggles at the inventiveness of the cooks who fashioned rice grains and vegetables out of sugar, although I wonder whether the food tasted like what it was disguised as or whether it was sweet. And whether it was followed by dessert.
Those days produced excesses of every kind, but also iconic dishes. Unlike the Mughal emperors, who ate sparingly, the nawabs of Awadh are said to have been gluttons. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah apparently ate so much and became so fat that he could not ride a horse. And this despite the fact that he had lost his teeth and could not chew. But the adversity bore fruit: he is said to have invented the shammi kabab — to accommodate his toothless greed — and we are the richer for it.
The name “Shammi” or “Shami” is said to be derived from Sham, Syria and the kababs were said to have been introduced to South Asia during the Mughal era by Muslim emigrants from West Asia. Another, probably homespun, view is that the name derives from “sham”, evening, when the kababs are usually eaten. Like all of us I've been making shammi kababs for years, according to my own and various friends' mothers' recipes; but Collingham's Curry has what seem like The Real Thing.
The ingredients are almost the same but the method is a little different. Though the recipe appears laborious at first glance it has just one additional step. I boil the minced mutton with chana dal and a particular combination of aromatics and spices, whereas this recipe calls for the same ingredients to be fried, and the lentils - in this case split red ones, masoor dal - to be boiled separately before then grinding everything together with raw mince. As we know, most North Indian meat dishes have the same ingredients, it's how you cut them and when you add them that alters the flavour. I find that fried onions add an “authentic” flavour to a meat dish. These kababs were cooked by threading the mince balls on to a skewer and grilling or barbecuing them, until the meat was cooked all the way through, crisp outside and soft inside. Since stove-top cooking is much easier in most of our homes, frying is a good substitute. Collingham explains that Persian cooks introduced us to the idea of marinating meat in yoghurt, Mughal court cooks added spices and Lucknow chefs cream. Marathas introduced chillies to the North and, by 18th century, both Delhi and Lucknawi cuisine incorporated them.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, sliced
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 inch cinnamon stick
4 green cardamoms
2 whole dried red chillies
3 tbsp red split lentils, masoor dal
500g finely ground minced meat
1/2 tsp ginger, chopped
2 green chillies
1/2 cup mint leaves
1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped
3 tbsp yoghurt
1 tbsp raisins
1 tbsp sliced almonds
Method: Heat oil and sauté onions till transparent. Add cumin seeds, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom and chillies and fry for 3-4 minutes. Keep aside. Cook lentils in a cup of water until soft. In a blender, purée onion and spice mixture, lentils, minced meat, ginger, green chillies, fresh mint and coriander. Add yoghurt and salt and process again. Shape mixture into balls, press a few raisins and almonds into each. Flatten into patties. Shallow fry and serve.