Mutton Kobiraji
Photo Courtesy: Sumit Surai. Check out his blog at http://www.sumitsurai.com/

Kabiraji cutlet. One of Kolkata’s iconic dishes from the days past. Thousands of people have told me about the delicate balance between the “coverage” cutlet, which was apparently a British dish. I too had thought the same. But then, one day, in a very serious conversation, I suddenly was given an angle which actually shook my belief to the core.

For the uninitiated, the Kabiraji Cutlet is a crumb fried cutlet, preferably filled with chicken, mutton, or fish. The fun thing is, as soon as the cutlet is dropped in the hot oil, an egg is severely beaten and dropped on top of it, covering the cutlet with a lacy framework.

There is no parallel dish in British context which would really correspond to the Kabiraji in Bengal. The closest I could find were the crumb fried chops, but where was the delicate lace network of eggs on top of it? Plus, it was mostly pan-fried. Where was the deep frying element which would actually create that crisp, crunchy layer of egg on top?

However, I came across a wonderful recipe at No Recipes of Chicken Nanban. Now, my typically curious self, while reading, felt a singularly strong connection between the dish described there was so similar to the Chicken Afghani Cutlet I would eat at Mitra Cafe. The writer remarks that the term Nanban was essentially another word for the European traders and missionaries (sort of like we called the foreigners “mlechho”). A small place near where he stayed sort of created the dish by morphing the recipe from the Portuguese who had come to Japan in the mid-17th century. He further commented that the dish had originated from the Portuguese dish “Peixe Frito de Escabeche“, from which Chicken Nanban was influenced, which was essentially a deep fried cutlet, topped with a bit more of the batter while frying, and then drizzled with a sauce and served.

Afghani at Mitra Cafe

This made me think and look up the dish. The original dish was essentially fried fish which was then pickled in a vinegar-pepper sauce. The dish is another version of the Ceviche, which essentially is raw fish marinated in acids before serving.

However, this still did not explain how the batter coating of the fish occurred. Although the Japanese version shows the meat first dunked in a simple batter of egg and flour and then deep fried, with a little extra batter on top, the corresponding Portuguese dishes I looked up had a very normal-looking, fried fish topped with sauce. How was I to connect the two?

Then my eyes fell upon the second dish mentioned in that blog. The Japanese people had picked up this dish, the Peixinhos Da Horta, and converted it to their own liking – the Tempura. Strange but true, there is a little conflict that the Portuguese had apparently picked up the dish from India (this is actually not confirmed, it is a speculation), and it was a version of the Pakora. However, this made me think. What goes around comes around maybe?

But then, I was stumped, and at a spot where I had to look up for references of Portuguese cooking. A lovely article by Colleen Sen was enlightening, but it was still not taking me where I wanted to go. It did add to my knowledge about the addition of Portuguese food to Anglo Indian food, and informed me about the fact that Bengali households would be greatly influenced by the British and the Portuguese, and would involve ingredients like chhana (cottage cheese) and potato, as well as create dishes like the chop and cutlet, which were essentially considered to be ‘foreign’. The Portuguese connection was also considerably with Goan cuisine consisting of Xacuti and Sorpotel, and there were a race of Mowg cooks, who were essentially travelling cooks, going from one place to the other, picking up food hints.

But all this did not answer my one question.

Where was the extra batter coating the fish/meat/chicken concept coming from?

Well, realization slowly dawned. As these dishes was introduced possibly in the late 1700s and early 1800s, what was there to stop it from evolving and modifying? Bengalis have been known to modify dishes to make sure they only retain the original dish’s name, and not much else. For example, take the humble, Bengali “Chop“. Apart from the crumb frying, the recipe is mostly different, and is essentially more like a croquette than a chop.

So it can be easily possible that the person who was cooking the two dishes – one batter fried and one coated in flour and fried – could have easily switched. Indeed, the Kabiraji outer crust is light, minimal, and fluffy – almost like a Tempura batter, so that can be the start of a great tradition.

To be very honest, I am still wondering what could have brought on the change from the Escabeche to the Kabiraji, but the fact that the Portuguese stuck around for a considerable period of time in Bengal, especially in Kolkata and regions around it, as well as in Chittagong, says a lot about their influence. Plus, the fact that they had brought in a huge number of ingredients and dishes says a lot about the culinary fluidity they were also bringing in.

Of course, I am no expert. But I do believe that the evidence I have found here is much more relevant and they have the potential to be further explored. Plus, this has far more evidential background and depth when compared to the throwaway mention of ‘coverage’ on a cutlet making ‘Kabiraji’.

Kabiraji Photo Courtesy: Sumit Surai. Thank you for lending me this picture. I could not locate it on your blog, so had to take it off FB.

Also, thanks to Pritha Sen and Indranil Das Gupta for giving me some idea about the history of Portuguese and Portuguese Cooks and ingredients.

Written by Poorna Banerjee

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