Chicken Khirmich Pilaf: Recreating A Lost Bengali Dish, And My Memories Of My Kitchen
By Manjari Chowdhury
(with inputs from Somrita Urni Ganguly
Murgir Khirmich Pulao/ Chicken Khirmich Pilaf, prepared by the author
If one asks me about the exact moment when I got interested in the kitchen, I might not be able to give a concrete answer. I entered our kitchen partly because of my mother who usually always stayed away from the kitchen, but took up cooking Chinese food when I was about 11 years old. It was all the more delightful for me because until that point I often felt ostracised when my friends bragged about how good their mothers were in the kitchen. But soon that was to change for me. What amazed me was the fact that my mother’s Chinese dishes were very similar in taste to the food that we got from old Chinatown in Calcutta. My friends often brought greasy Chinese noodles to school for lunch, doused in soya sauce, or lacking in subtle flavours. However, my mother’s food was balanced and had the mild flavours that Chinese cuisine is known for. Later, I learnt that she had picked up her skills from one of her friends who had studied hotel management. Then came a period when like many other teenagers I too had a dramatic relationship with my Ma and she stopped cooking, focusing instead on her love for the mountains, going out on holidays and trails. So, I guess I started cooking Chinese food, especially the ones that Ma made, to recreate what she would bring to the table when I was young. She had shared many of the recipes but about that I shall write another day.
If I close my eyes, I see myself salivating while reading Enid Blyton and her descriptions of picnic baskets, and wanting to taste all of them. But the truth is that I spent a lot of my childhood with my maternal grandmother and my aunt (my mother’s brother’s wife), who left a deep impact on me, especially when it comes to cooking. While my mother was the fiery, no-nonsense woman, tough and outgoing, I grew up in a household with two women who took turns to dry lentil-dumplings on the terrace, and making lip-smacking Bengali dishes. My aunt’s influence, and an urge to imitate her, filled me with an intense desire to learn cooking, so as to be able to recreate her magic in the dishes that I made. She is like a mother to me, and has taught me all that she knew about Bengali cooking, encouraging me and appreciating my efforts. What I learnt from her was mostly what had been passed down to her by her mother some forty years ago; hence I have the greatest regard for tradition when it comes to cooking.
Much later, I realized that if I do really want to know about my Bengali culinary roots I must do what I believe the only way to gather knowledge, that is read books. What I discovered has left me brimming with pride: in Bengal women were publishing their own cookbooks at a time when women’s rights and women’s emancipation were unheard of in most parts of the world.
I bought a number of cookbooks by a number of inspiring women. However, the books use a language and measurements which are from an era gone by, and therefore, I am ever grateful to have my mother and paternal grandmother around to help me with the measurements in our modern times.
Before I share the recipe of Chicken Khirmich Pilaf you must know that Bengal’s cuisine is a cuisine that keeps evolving. We see in it influences from various cultures and that is what makes it so unique. I am referring, in particular, to the era after the Bengal Renaissance, and the food from that period, to the best of my knowledge, shows influences which include the Muslim influence from the North of the country, and the European (especially British and Portuguese) influence; and there might be other influences which I am not aware of.
This dish – Murgir Khirmich Pulao or Chicken Khirmich Pilaf – is a rice-based dish, which includes a whole chicken that is stuffed with minced lamb or minced goat meat, and has meatballs as well as fried eggs and boiled eggs. The end result is meaty, and fragrant (especially because of the spices used, and the clarified butter/ghee, and the quality of the rice grains). I learnt about this dish from a cookbook called Amish o’ Niramish Ahar: Dwitiyo Khando (Non vegetarian and Vegetarian Food: Volume II) by Progyasundori Debi. The edition I have was published by Ananda Publishers in Bengali in 2015. Progyasundari Debi was Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, and in an article for The Indian Express, Devapriya Roy describes her as:
… a unique Renaissance woman who emerged from the glorious Tagore household in Jorasanko which, as everyone knows, offered a liberal arts college atmosphere to its residents. In addition to reading widely, writing verse and editing magazines — basically the garden variety stuff that all the Thakurbari girls did — Pragyasundari also ventured into virgin territory. Following the example of her father who loved cooking, she collected and perfected recipes throughout her life, with the precision of a chemist (her father was one) and the flair of an artist (her mother was a painter), writing copious notes and instructions about each recipe in her diaries.
Later, Pragyasundari was to marry a young writer, Lakshminath Bezbaroa, who came to be considered the father of modern Assamese literature. Bezbaroa was also an expansive gourmand. It was his idea that Debi must publish her recipes — a truly novel idea at the time — and after a great deal of hesitation, she mined her notebooks to publish a volume of vegetarian delicacies. It was the first decade of the 20th century, cookbooks were rare, and surprising all expectations, her debut edition sold out quickly.
Over the years, Debi published two volumes of vegetarian and two volumes of non-vegetarian recipes, a book of Assamese recipes, and one final book that collected all manner of pickles and preserves. She passed away in 1950, the year Julia Child enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu …
The Chicken Khirkich Pilaf is a fascinating dish for various reasons. It was never too popular to begin with, other than, perhaps, with the Bramho families because most Hindu families in Bengal did not eat chicken until as recently as the 1950s or ’60s. While Bengali-Hindus consumed a lot of fish, they – for a very long time – considered chicken to ‘Muslim food.’ They sometimes consumed the goatmeat that was cooked after a lamb or goat was sacrificed to the gods at some religious ceremony. It was not until much later that mutton became a regular part of the Bengali household. In fact, I know many women from my grandmother’s generation who would only have fish, but they sometimes cooked ‘niramish mangsho’ (‘vegetarian meat’) and that meant meat cooked without using onion and garlic.
I’ve followed Progyasundori Debi’s recipe of Murgi’r Khirmich Puloa as faithfully as I could the first time that I tried to make it. However, instead of the 750gm of mincemeat, as suggested by the book, I had used 500gm of mincemeat, and I altered the amount of spices required accordingly. I shall share that recipe with you here. The quantities that I mention easily serve four to five people. You must use ghee generously to achieve the desired flavour.
Chicken Khirmich Pilaf: The Recipe
(Cups used hold 210ml of water)
2.5 cups of fine Basmati rice
500gm goat/lamb mincemeat
1 whole skinless chicken, weighing about 800gm
2 large onions and 1 medium onion
2 tsp of smooth ginger paste or 1 tbsp juice from coarse ginger paste
2 tsp milk
Approximately 200gm-250gm of pure desi ghee
2 tsp of whole coriander seeds
1 Cinnamon stick: 1.2 inch (approximate)
Salt as per taste
A fat pinch of saffron
1 tbsp black peppercorn
5 to 6 pods of green cardamom
First marinate the whole chicken. Prick the chicken all over with a fork and use the paste of 1 onion, salt, and 2 tsp ginger-paste to marinate the meat. Please note that the pastes used must be extremely smooth.
Next, wash the mincemeat using a strainer and leave it in the strainer for the meat to dry.
While the chicken is marinating, prepare your dry spice by lightly dry-roasting 6 cloves, 4 pods of green cardamom, and half of the cinnamon. Grind the roasted mixture in a mortar to a fine powder.
Soak the saffron in milk kept at room temperature. Let it soak for 15 minutes.
Mince 1 onion.
Then, heat 2 tbsp ghee, and sauté the whole coriander and grind it using a mortar and pestle. We usually dry-roast spices and then grind them. So, using ghee for this step had initially confused me, but I soon realised that this adds a delightful aroma to the dish.
Next, dry roast 3/4 of the black peppercorn and grind it.
Then, take 1/4 of the dry spice mixture and half of the coriander paste, and mix it with the curd and the saffron which was soaking in milk. The milk will have turned a beautiful yellowish-saffron colour after about 10 minutes of soaking the saffron in it.
Take 100gm of mincemeat and mix it with salt, 1/4 dry spice mix, 1/4 coriander paste, and half of the minced onion.
Boil 2 eggs and then shell them and cut into circles.
Clean and soak the basmati rice in water.
For the koftas aka mincemeat balls: Heat 50gm ghee and fry the remaining half of the minced onion; add the remaining mincemeat and cook on medium heat until it is cooked well. Then make a fine paste of the onion and mincemeat fry, and add the remaining dry spice, black pepper powder, salt and 1 egg white to it. Mix well, and make small balls out of the mixture. Flatten the balls slightly with the palm of your hands. Use more ghee to shallow-fry these flattened balls until they are reddish-brown on both sides. Make sure you fry them on medium to low heat, lest they burn.
Then, stuff the chicken with the remaining mincemeat. Take a heavy-bottomed deep vessel, a dutch-oven, or a pressure cooker (I used a pressure cooker) and heat 75gm of ghee in it. Add the whole chicken after you have trussed the chicken (that is, tied its legs together and tied the wings to the side of the breast). Fry this on medium heat turning it over and over again and basting it with the yogurt mixture for about 10 minutes. Then, close the lid and cook on low flame until you hear one whistle go off from the pressure-cooker; following which allow the steam to escape on its own.
Drain the basmati rice. While the chicken gets cooked as pressure builds up, parboil the rice with the remaining cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorn, and salt.
After that, heat a bit of ghee in a pan. Add half of the medium sized onion (finely chopped) to a whole egg and the egg yolk of the previously used single white egg; whisk well after adding a pinch of salt; make an omelette. Cut it into pieces. I had skipped this part because it’s too hot in Calcutta to add so many eggs and so much meat to my dishes; but this is part of the original recipe.
Once all the steam has released from the pressure cooker, open the lid and cook the chicken uncovered until all the water evaporates. Take the chicken out. Add 40gm of ghee to the cooker, then put a layer of rice on it. Place the chicken on the rice, then add another layer of rice. Put in the mincemeat balls and add another layer of rice. Finally put the boiled egg roundels on the last bed of rice and then cover them with the final layer of rice. Put the fried, chopped up omelette on the top, cover the lid, and cook on dum/low heat with the mouth sealed for about 15 minutes to 20 minutes. Serve this decadent dish by itself. It needs no sides to be paired with it.
Point to be noted:
Progyasundori Debi had not used a pressure-cooker for the chicken but had roasted it over the flame of a gas-oven until the chicken was well cooked. I have used the pressure-cooker before for cooking fats and I like how the pressure cooker can help make tough meat soft easily, but remember to cook it on low flame.
 The Brahmo Samaj was the product of a monotheistic reformist movement within the Hindu tradition. The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on the Brahmo Samaj reads as follows: Brahmo Samaj, (Sanskrit: “Society of Brahma”) Brahmo also spelled Brahma, theistic movement within Hinduism, founded in Calcutta [now Kolkata] in 1828 by Ram Mohun Roy. The Brahmo Samaj does not accept the authority of the Vedas, has no faith in avatars (incarnations), and does not insist on belief in karma (causal effects of past deeds) or samsara (the process of death and rebirth). It discards Hindu rituals and adopts some Christian practices in its worship. Influenced by Islam and Christianity, it denounces polytheism, image worship, and the caste system. The society has had considerable success with its programs of social reform but has never had a significant popular following.”
Photo: Murgir Khirmich Pulao/ Chicken Khirmich Pilaf, prepared by the author
Manjari Chowdhury studied mass communication. She is a food blogger, a home chef, and presently a freelancer working on qualitative market research. She is a dreamer who loves furry creatures, especially meows, and she is trying to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle by avoiding plastic. She makes time for gardening, loves reading, and has a keen interest in knowing about the history of food from different cultures. She believes that food can bring people together and conversations can start over a slice of cake. What Manjari cooks depends on whom she is cooking for, but on any given day Manjari loves baking gateau, cheesecakes and biscuits. Manjari’s recipes can be found at http://fromthekitchenstothetastebuds.blogspot.in/
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.