Nicely Mixed Up

by Kaveri Ponnapa

Dipped in lightly beaten egg, coated in dried breadcrumbs just coarse enough to give you a crisp, golden crust, cutlets –or chaaps, as you may wish to call them –are one of the best treats to emerge from the colonial kitchen. Dipped piping hot into a small pool of tomato ketchup, or home-made chutney, with the first bite through the golden crust into the soft heart of potato and spice, kneaded into meat, or fish, there seems no further need to discuss its ancestry.

A favourite on the menus of musty old clubs, military messes, dilapidated guest houses in hill stations, plantation homes, railway caterers and restaurants that have seen better days, in fact, right across the country, the cutlet –or chaap –seemingly straightforward, ordinary, easy to cook, and tasty, has a complex identity. To the British in India, struggling to stamp their cuisine on native cooks, it meant a neck chop of mutton or lamb, neatly cut, dipped in egg, then breadcrumbs, and fried. But it also referred to a patty of chopped meat bound in a velouté sauce, crumbed and fried. And here begins at least some of the confusion. When they asked for a mutton or lamb chop, the cook, invariably, produced a patty of minced meat. Wrestling with the identity of chops and cutlets, Colonel Arthur Robert Kenny-Herbert, writing in 1885, vents his irritation on the mythical cook, Ramaswamy, noting that when he is asked to make chops, he “sends to the table a dish of croquettes with a bone inserted in each of them”!

A couple of years later, a pair of Victorian matrons addressing the young memsahib, newly arrived in India wrote: “They may be made of anything and everything, and may be seasoned with anything and everything. The foundation is minced meat or fish”. What sounds exactly like a description of something we know as cutlets, or chaaps, turns out to be a description of croquettes. The Indian cook, it seems, decided to make his version of a cutlet a happy combination of everything. The patty that we love, made with cooked minced meat or fish, spiced and thoroughly seasoned, bound not in a velouté, but egg mixed in by hand into creamy mashed potatoes seems to have descended from a little tussle between the Raj and the Khansama, a tussle that was won by Khansama.

We suffered no such confusion about cutlets in the Coorg kitchen. They are made in the time-honoured way with cooked minced meat or fish, liberally laced with sharp green chillies, fresh coriander, the juice of native limes and the delicate pop of bright green peas in season, enveloped in a welcoming puff of mashed potatoes. The crust, when well-made, is the perfect, crisp contrast to the soft filling. Usually, these delicious kaima cutlets or meen cutlets turn up on the dinner table, along with a number of other accompaniments including very fresh bread from the local bakery. They are popular with an evening drink, and often as food to carry along on a journey. It is not a very old dish, but it has been around long enough to be taken as part of our cuisine. One of the best things about the cutlet is the way it welcomes the addition of miscellaneous flavourings and leftover titbits, so that you can fry up a scrumptious snack in no time at all. Kaima cutlets and meen cutlets will always be one of those evergreen, ever popular stars of the table.

Curiosity prompted a search across the internet about the existence of similarly named patties in other parts of the world. And the results it threw up were baffling: there were meat-filled potato patties under similar names ranging from Kenyan cuisine to Lebanese, Chaldean, Assyrian and Iraqi. Intriguing enough for me to haul out my copy of Delights for the Garden of Eden, a beautifully researched book on the cuisine of Iraq –and there it was: Puteta Chap, or Kubbat Puteta Chap. Nawal Nasrallah, Iraqi scholar and researcher sheds some fascinating light on what she calls “a very modern Iraqi dish”. The art of stuffing food with food, “kubba”, is a very ancient one, and she links the term to the word “kubbusu”, from the Akkadian, referring to a patty-like cake of meat and fish. But the mystery lies in the word ‘chap’, which she attributes to “a corruption of some sort of English or Indian word that might have filtered into the dialect during the time of British colonization". In a personal correspondence we had, Nawal had this interesting observation to make: "The colonizing British in southern Iraq/Basra fought mainly with Indian soldiers, and it is quite likely that was how this name filtered into the Iraqi culinary lingo". So, there it was, the ‘chop’, reveled in another ancient cuisine used to making stuffed, fried foods, interpreted as a patty by local cooks –or maybe an idea carried across from India. I know I will be spending more time on this particular puzzle.

In colonial India, Victorian matrons tried to keep the British and the Indian separate in their kitchens and their homes, importing menus, recipes and foodstuffs, drawing strict lines between taste, flavours, dishes –and the lives of the rulers and natives. But coriander, mint, green chillies, ginger, onions, spice powders and lime juice crept forward stealthily, and soon, everything was, as Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner instructed the cook sternly in their recipe for making cutlets –mixed intimately.

Photo Credits: A.G.P. Sathyaprakash
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa

Please look out for this recipe in my cookbook.

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