Few dishes epitomise the fascinating journey of egg and its rise to culinary glory like the dimer chop, the colonial innovation that is today the finest specimen of Kolkata’s brio culinaire
Egg, or as Pliny the Elder had said, ‘nature’s globe of goodness’, seemed to have had a rather late entry into the Indian culinary diaspora. Even though Southeast Asia (and in that way India) is often credited for introducing both chicken and egg to the world—in that very sequence according to a culinary anthropologist—the use of egg in Indian cooking has been rather late. By most accounts, by the time we began using egg, in the rest of the world, the oval globe of goodness had not only conquered kitchens but also the literature, turning into one of the essentials of the pantry. A feat that most effectively happened in India courtesy the White Revolution.
But was that really the case with egg and its popularity? Not, according to culinary revivalist and egg-aficionado Chef Sabyasachi Gorai who believes egg was always a part of our diet—not the chicken one, of course, but that of quail, duck, and others. Old books and food lore mention a recipe of smoked egg where these little oblongs were thrown into the dying embers to be ready by morning. These almost blackened eggs were carried, to be had later as a quick bite. Likewise was the case with the duck egg that was occasionally used as a supplement when meat wasn’t available.
But for a large part of the ancient era and the Middle Ages, egg use in India was the same as in Egypt: religious. In fact, eggs that were seen as a symbol of rebirth were often kept for offering to certain gods, especially those of fertility, and were used mostly as part of a potion that would help them regain/enhance virility. Though it is hard to pin down exactly when eggs became a part of the regular meal, their usage is often credited, says Chef Gorai, “to two communities: In the South, the Arab merchants who knew the wonders of eggs and would eventually introduce them to the places they would inhabit. This is how the Malabari Muttamala and Pinjanathappam—the former a sweet garland made of egg, the latter a pudding—became a part of our culinary ledger. And, in the north, it was the Persian invaders who along with war brought their love for egg as well.
Concurs Chef Sharad Dewan, Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Kolkata, who finds the rise of egg as an acceptable ingredient to be served on the table only around the rise of the Awadh and subsequent dynasties. Egg till then, he says, “may have had the role of a binder, flavourant or filler rather than an ingredient that needed a dedicated dish.”
A reason for this, says Chef Dewan, “was perhaps the cornucopia of meat, dairy, lentil, vegetable, fruit and grain that India already had or the fact that about the end of the 15th century, both chicken and egg were reserved for growing children, elders, new/soon-to-be mothers and mostly had by the general populi as an antidote rather than food. The famous Kadaknath, Kali Maasi and Aseel were, as a matter of fact, varieties that were reared mostly for a specific purpose of nursing one back to health.”
In the royal courts, however, the ostrich, duck or quail egg still held more importance than that of a chicken, which was thought to be a mode of sustenance of those on the move or living inside a jungle where wild fowls were a frequent indulgence.
By all accounts, it wouldn’t be till Oudh came to power that the chicken and her egg would make its debut on the royal table. The egg’s moment in the limelight came with Nargisi kofta, where the hidden gem encased within the meat shell was a soft-boiled egg. Cleverly spiced and shallow fried, the meat-cossetted egg dish was a masterpiece of the khansama’s culinary ingenuity—and was soon one of the popular dishes on the Nawabi table.
Although little is known under whose patronage the masterpiece was created, thanks to the theatrics and the stunning appearance, Nargisi kofta soon became a signature offering from the Royal house of Oudh—one of three centres of culinary and cultural excellence—and remained so for the rest of the golden years of Lucknow.
Such was the popularity of the Nargisi kofta among the diners of the Oudh court and elsewhere that often khansamas were called from Lucknow to create the kofta for a special occasion. The reason, says restaurateur Sandeep Singh (owner, Ministry of Beer), “to create Nargisi kofta stemmed from two factors: The first was the Nawab’s zeal to have his own culinary legacy that was different from that of the Mughals; and two, because egg at that time was slowly gaining popularity on diplomatic tables, especially one where the king hosted expats, merchants and others visiting Indian shores.”
Fascinatingly, this wouldn’t be the only time that the khansamas would be looked upon to work their magic to create impressive culinary masterpieces. Soon, with the British taking over the power, the egg would again take centerstage. This time as a means of sustenance for the king who was in exile. The dish that emerged gave Kolkata (then Calcutta) its signature biryani that is characterised by the presence of a single boiled egg.
Circa 1857. While the year spelled an end to most of the old rulers and their dynasties, for the egg, however, it saw an unprecedented rise from obscurity to a staple on tables—diplomatic and otherwise. Egg, in fact, was an integral part of the Dak Bangalow life as well, and had turned quite a few caretakers and out-of-job khansamas into eggsperts. It was a time of history when suddenly the new generation and the newer dynasties had to adapt to the new eating habits of the powerful rulers, and that included having eggs as part of the meal.
One variety, says Chef Gorai, “that seemed to have made the transition smooth was the Scotch egg. While the sausage meat-wrapped egg treat seemed a Plain Jane in comparison to the Nargisi kofta, the almost similar experience took it from the Britishers’ table to that of royalty where a khansama was promptly tasked to create a dish that was better than the Scotch egg.”
Thus was born dimer chop or Devil’s Egg. A teatime special in Kolkata today, especially during Durga Puja and the monsoons, the beauty of dimer chop was that it was a far cry from the bland, pepper-salt seasoned, sausage meat-covered English version. The dimer chop where half a soft-boiled egg was wrapped in minced meat, crumbed and deep fried was generously seasoned with the spices that were easily available. The sheer number of spices used in the making of dimer chop soon earned it the moniker ‘Devil’s Egg’ and then the subsequent popularity among people. And while the old school-style English Scotch egg continued to be a popular treat in the clubs and tables hosted by the English, for affluent natives and most Anglo-Indian cooks the British-style Scotch egg was quickly tweaked and turned into a picnic favourite, albeit with a few seasoning twists.
Soon it was the khansama’s version that ruled the palates, including the British who found the dimer chop better than the original. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the taste that did the magic, it was also the cleverness in the composition of dimer chop, which, says Chef Dewan, “was the construction of the Scotch egg and the vibrant taste profile of Nargisi kofta.”
Thanks to its extremely addictive flavour profile, dimer chop, also called Devil’s Egg because of the sheer spices used, rose to fame when it became a high point of not only the new zamindar’s table but a quintessential snack during the monsoon and during Durga Puja. Such was the popularity of the egg-treat that by the time the British left India, Kolkata had several variations of dimer chop including an evolved, but close to Scotch egg picnic egg. It is said that a crackling dimer chop was among the few things that Subhas Chandra Bose loved to have whenever he would visit Kolkata. Satyajit Ray too was fond of dimer chop and has used it time and again along with kochuri in his Feluda series.
It is no wonder that when Chef Gorai opened the now shut Lavaash By Saby, Delhi’s first Armenian food restaurant, the golden-hued Devil’s Egg was on the menu. “Having grown up in the bylanes of Kolkata and Asansol, I have spent most of my childhood and later years sampling the different forms of the egg treat that was served in the name of dimer chop or Devil’s Egg. Each had its unique twist, taste, and texture,” says the culinary researcher, whose modern take on the beloved snack comes with an interesting twist. In his version it is a whole egg wrapped in a generous layer of spiced mincemeat, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep fried to perfection. There was one difference though: unlike the original, which uses partly cooked mince as the quilt, Chef Gorai’s version uses raw chicken mince that has been finely ground with spices to be able to cook in the same time as the egg. “Knowing the ratio is crucial. In my version, I use 90 grams of mince for a 45-gram egg, which is soft boiled,” says Chef Gorai.
The idea, he adds, “behind keeping the egg soft and runny is to give that textural foreplay to the dish—so you have the crunch, the bite of the meat, the softness of the egg white and the gooeyness of the yolk, akin to the three layers of the earth.”
What is the mark of a good dimer chop? According to Chef Gorai, “A good dimer chop is one that is spicy, cooked through, cracks like an arancini (the other Arab innovation that could have also inspired the Bengali snack) and the mouth feel is that of biting into an edible globe—the thin crust, the textured mantle, the soft outer core and the soft melting inner core.”
If you need a chutney with it, it isn’t “made right”.
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.