If you ask a Bengali, what his favourite dish is, he’d more than likely answer “Mutton Biryani aar Chicken Chaap”; the combo in fact, is such a famous one, that you’ll be seeing it as part of menus all across Kolkata; in weddings, birthdays, anniversary parties and almost every other event with foooood!
It was the Nawabs of Bengal, who brought with them to Bengal, their plethora of dishes; known for their distinct flavours. When they shifted their capital from Dhaka (the present-day capital of Bangladesh), to Murshidabad (in present-day West Bengal), the cuisine began to take on a life of its own. The ChaaNp, (though originally made from mutton), is one such dish, and gets its name from the cut of meat used in the dish. Now-a-days, chicken is more often than not used for this dish, which is a perfect accompaniment for the lightly flavoured Biryani.
Funnily enough, growing up in Mumbai, my encounter with the decadent Chaap has been so rare that it is almost non-existent. Even during my regular trips to Kolkata during my school vacations, the chance to eat ‘Biryani and Chaap’ never actually came up, and it wasn’t until my recent years here that I got to taste this iconic dish. I’ve also never had the opportunity to engage in the various stalwart establishments serving this delight, viz., ‘Arsalan’, ‘Royal Hotel’, ‘Shiraz’, ‘Bedouin’ and many, many more. So frankly, my tryst with Chaap has been solely based very limited, and yet, that didn’t stop me from plunging ahead and make it for myself.
As quoted from Wikipedia:
“The partition of India in 1947 resulted in a large migration of people to and from present-day Bangladesh, resulting in a much stronger divide along religious lines. Bangladesh today shows a much greater Muslim influence than West Bengal. The influence on the food was from the top down, and more gradual than in many other parts of India. This led to a unique cuisine where even commoners ate the dishes of the royal court, such as biryani, korma and bhuna. The influence was reinforced in the Raj era, when Kolkata became the place of refuge for many prominent exiled Nawabs, especially the family of Tipu Sultan from Mysore and Wajid Ali Shah, the ousted Nawab of Awadh. The exiles brought with them hundreds of cooks and masalchis (spice mixers), and as their royal patronage and wealth diminished, they became interspersed into the local population. These cooks came with the knowledge of a very wide range of spices (most notably jafran (saffron) and mace), the extensive use of ghee as a method of cooking, and special ways of marinating meats.”
The beauty of Chicken Chaap comes from its gravy, and the marination process used to cook the meat. The gravy is rich, full of flavours and just thick enough to cling to the meat, without being gluggy or heavy. The richness comes from the ghee (clarified butter) and the poppy seed-cashew nut paste, while the saffron (zaffran) lends a beautiful colour and aroma. Lastly, the addition of kewra water (screw pine essence) finishes off the dish perfectly. I’ve also read that originally, ‘meetha attar’ was used in the dish, and these days, that is substituted with rose water.
Unlike what many people believe, it is actually very easy to cook Chicken chaap. The trick is to prepare the marinade, and then slow-cook the chicken until the fat is beautifully rendered and the meat is charred on the outside and tender and moist inside. It’s not as elaborate as it sounds either. This dish is mostly paired with Biryani, ideally mutton biryani, but can also be enjoyed with naan, roti or parathas.
I don’t enjoy having Mutton Biryani with Chaap, since I find them to be too heavy a combo, so I wanted a light rice…yet not plain rice. I found a wonderful recipe of a light, flavourful rice called ‘Khuska Biryani‘, from a friend in a food group. Sharmistha di (who made the Khuska Biryani) had a very simple recipe which I liked a lot. This biryani, is said to be made in Hyderabadi Muslim households, and is served with a wet curry. I also made a Burhani Raita to go with the Chaap and Biryani 🙂
The recipe for this Chaap has been adapted from 2-3 different sources, but in essence, remains the same, except that I skipped the rose water. I hear that ‘sattu’ (chaatu or roasted gram flour) is a key ingredient in this dish. But if you cannot find sattu, just dry roast some besan or plain gram flour, and you’re all set.
Chicken Chaap or ChaaNp
- Chicken Maryland/Chaap pieces (leg & thigh) – 1 kg (I used 4 pieces)
- For the marinade:
- Natural thick yogurt (whey strained) – 1 cup
- Onion paste – 1 cup, approx 3 to 4 medium onions
- Ginger paste – 1 and 1/2 tbsp
- Garlic paste – 3 tbsp
- Sattu – 2 tbsp
- Cashew nuts – 10 to 12, soaked in warm water
- Poppy seeds – 2 tbsp, soaked in warm water
- Saffron – 9 to 10 strands, soaked in warm milk or water for 10 to 15 mins
- Ghee – 1 tbsp
- Kewra water – 4 to 5drops
- Homemade Garam masala powder – 1 tsp
- Salt – 2 tsp
- Red chili powder – 2 tsp
- Dry spices for Chaap Masala (Dry roasted and ground to fine powder) – 1 tbsp (Black peppercorns – 5 to 6, Green cardamom – 7 to 8, Cloves – 4 to 5, Cinnamon – 1 inch stickMace – 3 to 4 blades, crushed, Star anise – 1, Nutmeg – 1/2 tsp powdered, Black cardamom – 1 )
- Ghee for cooking – 3 to 4 tbsp (you may add oil or skip ghee entirely)
- Salt – for gravy, as needed
- Sugar – 1 tsp
- Clean, wash and drain chicken of water. Place in large bowl for marination.
- Make 3 or 4 slits on the chicken with a sharp knife.
- Make a smooth paste of the ingredients listed until ‘marinade’, adding the yogurt to get a nice creamy mixture.
- Pour onto chicken, and spread all over, using your fingers to push marinade between the slits.
- Add the Kewra water, and give a final mix.
- Cover with cling film or foil and rest chicken for 3 to 4 hours (avoid overnight marination).
- 30 mins before cooking, remove chicken from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temp.
- Heat a large skillet, preferably flat bottomed and large enough to fit 4 chaap pieces comfortably.
- Add ghee and let it melt.
- Keeping heat on low, gently pick up each piece of chicken, shaking off excess marinade, and place in the pan.
- Once the chicken starts to brown on one side, carefully flip each piece over (you may use kitchen tongs for this).
- Don’t overcook the chicken; once they start browning, make a well in the center, and pour the marinade in. (If you choose, you can remove the chicken pieces and keep aside. I didn’t).
- Add sugar, and now bhuno (slow cook) the marinade, using a spatula to scrape the sides of the pan at regular intervals.
- The marinade will soon start to change colour, darken and release its own oil.
- Since I didn’t remove the chicken, I kept turning the pieces to ensure even browning.
- Use the spatula to baste the chicken with the masala, ensuring it remains moist.
- Season with salt, and then turning heat on low, cover and let chicken cook for 15 to 20 mins, or until tender.
- Check in between, at intervals of 10 mins, to ensure that the marinade does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
- The chicken will release its own fat too; check if chicken is done, and just before removing from pan, season with chaap masala, and a few drops of kewra water.
- Check seasonings, if you thick gravy is too thick, add a tbsp of water and give the pan a swirl. Simmer for 2 to 4 mins, and turn off the heat.
- Remove Chicken Chaap on to a serving plate, and serve with Biryani, Naan, Parathas or plain rice/roti.