Historically in the Middle East, lamb has been the meat of choice. Evidence shows that it has been consumed since 3000 BC. Indeed, in many ancient literatures of the Middle East, “meat” meant lamb – when other animals were consumed they were specifically named. The most prized meat came from fat-tailed sheep and was the preserve of the rich and wealthy. About the only others could enjoy this luxury were the nomadic pastors, who fried their meat in the delicately flavored tail fat (or less desirably, just in any lamb fat). Such nomads may have been the inventors of some forms of the shallow-fried kabob (for my American friends: these do exist) , as the word kabab in Arabic itself means “to fry” or “to burn” which is almost equivalent to the modern-day technique of either grilling the meat on open flame or shallow frying them.
When talking about kabab, it is impossible not to think of Turkey. Istanbul, the capital of Turkey might also be the capital of kababs. Constantinople, as Istanbul was known before modern times, was a city of the Byzantine Empire and was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was among the largest in the world. Founded by Turkish tribes in Anatolia, it reached its peak during the ruling of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), when its influence was felt from Southeastern Europe to the Middle East. During this imperial expansion, the Ottoman army was treated ruthlessly and was forced to live in camp for months at a stretch. One theory holds that the soldiers hunted local animals as a way of adding to their diet and grilled their meat on open flame using their swords as skewers, giving birth to the modern-day concept of skewered kababs.
Although India was not a part of the Ottoman Empire, we inherited the kabab culture probably from the Afghan invaders of north India in the 13th and 14th centuries. In India, the specialized cooks for kababs are called kababiyas. There are numerous kinds of kababs starting from lightly seasoned to heavy on spice, from chunks of chewy meat grilled to seared perfection to melt-in-the-mouth galauti kababs made with meat paste for a toothless old nawab. Indian kababs have a very distinct taste compared to their Middle Eastern or Central Asian cousins as they are infused with spices native to India and are made following specialized recipes perfected in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire by legendary families of kababiyas.
Murgh malai tikka kabab is one such kabab which is an Indian kabab with a very distinct taste. Murgh is chicken and malai is cream. The name can be interpreted in two different ways, one being that the chicken cubes are marinated with cream along with other ingredients; alternatively, that the kabab itself is soft and creamy when eaten immediately after cooking. I have adapted the recipe from here and made slight changes. These kababs are best eaten by themselves with a dash of chat masala (or black salt and lemon juice) and an onion- cucumber salad on the side. You can also tuck them in pita bread and make a wrap, or just eat them with any green salad too.
Chicken breast: 1 lb.
Cardamom powder: 1 pinch
Grated sharp cheddar cheese: 2-3 tbsp.
Cilantro: loosely a handful copped
Corn flour: 1 tbsp.
Sour cream: 2 tbsp.
Ginger garlic paste: 1 tsp.
Green chilies: 1-2 nos.
Meat tenderizer or raw papaya paste: 1/4 – tsp. (if you do not have ready-made meat tenderizer, use papaya paste as mentioned or mash up half (or even less) a kiwi and add it to the meat. Just like the papain in papaya, actinidin in kiwi acts as a natural enzyme and breaks down the meat tendons/fibers. Do not tempt to use more of any of the meat tenderizer, it will make your meat a mush and the kababs will not hold its shape)
Oil: 1 tbsp.
Black/white pepper powder: 1 pinch
Salt: to taste
- Cut the chicken breast into bite sized pieces and wash them well. Drain them and then pat them very well to get rid of excess moisture.
- Grind the green chilies and cilantro together with little to no water.
- Marinate the chicken with all the ingredients and keep it in the fridge overnight.
- Take them out of the fridge well ahead of their cooking and let them come to room temperature.
- Set the oven to broil or the highest possible setting in your oven. If you can fire a charcoal grill, nothing like it.
- Put the meat in the skewers leaving a little bit of space in between. (If you are using wooden skewers, soak them in water for half-n-hour to an hour. Take them out of the water and let them dry out before putting the meat in. Otherwise the skewers will burn. If using metal skewers, brush oil on the skewers before putting the meat in).
- Brush oil over the meat and arrange the skewers on a cooling rack or a baking tray.
- Place the rack/tray around six inches below the hot wire or six inches above if using a charcoal fire. (I place the skewers on a perforated sheet/cooling rack to allow the marinade to drip)
- Grill the meat for approximately 8-10 minutes each side (I go 8 minutes on one side and then 5-6 minutes the other). The cooking time will greatly vary depending on the size of the meat cubes, oven setting and quality of the meat. So, keep an eye on them, do NOT overcook them. They will become dry.
- Serve them immediately.
If you are using organic free range chicken, you can skip the meat tenderizer or papaya paste.