The complex technique, the theatrics and the deliciousness of Atta Chicken, a North Indian speciality, often belies its humble origin as a farmer’s meal — and one that was created more for its functionality than for indulgence.
Consider Atta Chicken. By legacy, it doesn’t have the warrior lineage of Khad Khargosh (or any red meat for that matter); by description, it sounds acutely rustic — a traditional recipe calls for the chicken marinated in turmeric, chilli, salt, wrapped in muslin cloth or leaf and then encased within a thick layer of freshly kneaded dough, and then thrown into the dying embers of the tandoor to cook slowly as the farmers (and their kin) went about their daily chores.
Yet, fascinatingly, when the charred, hard-like-a-rock ball is brought out, let to cool and the outer shell is hammered open, it has all the trappings of its royal kin — and we are not talking just the theatrics of the reveal where the shell cracks open to showcase layers encasing a fragrant kukad (colloquial for chicken), but also the unparalleled deliciousness that, says culinary anthropologist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Founder, Fabrica By Saby, “can be matched by no modern culinary method. Such is the brilliance of Atta Chicken that for a few moments even the most astute culinary mind is in disbelief that all that flavour is the result of slow cooking and basic seasoning (turmeric, salt and in a few cases chilli powder).”
Concurs Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, HopsHaus, who first tasted this once-popular dish — courtesy the changing lifestyle, says Chef Seth, the dish is rarely cooked except for in old-time restaurants — quite by chance during one of his many expeditions to explore the food of erstwhile Punjab.
Pleasantly surprised by the meat’s succulence and flavour profile, Chef Seth was stunned at the simplicity of the dish, not only in terms of its use of local ingredients but also the way it was put together.
He recalls, “The chicken is marinated and kept aside for a while before it is wrapped in a muslin cloth and then dough which is shaped as this big chapati. A thin sheath of water is applied before it is dropped into a tandoor where it would cook over the next hour or so depending on the size of the bird over the dying embers, minus any supervision.”
“It looked easy and helped by experts, incidentally all homemakers, I thought to myself this can be adopted with ease,” says the chef, whose first challenge came when he tried creating the same effect in a commercial kitchen. What followed was weeks of trial and tweaking before he could hit the bull’s eye, in this case that perfect timing and temperature that would result in a juicy chicken.
That, he adds, “is when I realised what makes Atta Chicken isn’t just the tandoor or the desi chicken variety or its optimum weight, but also the ingredients. To begin with the meat used for making the dish is fresh, and hence stays warm for quite a long time. This ensures that the seasoning is well absorbed and the meat cooks faster and evenly. Next, of course, is the local wheat that is high in gluten and needs a lot of water. This ensures there is enough moisture inside the atta envelope to cook the meat, and even prevent any over-charring or dryness.”
After a few much-needed tweaks — Chef Seth uses the farm-fed broiler instead of the country variety, adds yogurt to the marination and has introduced an extra layer of leaf to the wrapping for more moisture and fragrance — the inspired dish was first presented at a Chefs’ Retreat special table called Sense and Sensibility, and was a huge success. That was 2018, a year after Chef Seth had first tasted the dish in a small diner in Kotkapura, a place where the tradition of Atta Chicken is still flourishing. Since then, Atta Chicken, at least his variant, insists Chef Seth, “has made it to many a fine-dine table and is the most demanded dish at HopsHaus.”
Interestingly, Chef Seth isn’t the only one to have been smitten by Atta Chicken’s brilliance as a dish, and its relevance today as a sustainable method of cooking. Much like its royal kin, Khad Khargosh, this agrarian community staple too, over the past few years, has garnered its own fan following, muses and a firm place in the world of fine dining. In fact, many like Chef Gorai use this traditional functional cooking technique to introduce diners to the nuances of a good quality meat when slow cooked with minimal spices. The beauty, he says, “of Atta Chicken is that like its other brethren, much of the tastemaking of the dish happens when the spices are used to compliment the meat rather than overpower it. And yet, it leaves enough scope to play around with more subtle flavours that can add to the dish’s charm and oomph. Like the use of herbs to soak the muslin wrapping that lends itself beautifully to the meat in creating that luxuriant aroma.”
Incidentally, Chef Gorai’s fascinating tweak to a dish that dates to the early centuries when wheat had taken over as the main agrarian staple in Northern India was also the way this rustic dish made it first to the barracks of the soldiers and then to the royal tables of not just the royal house of Patiala but also the Mughal dastarkhwan. And remained, says Chef Gorai, “one of the favourite ways to enjoy meat while in the palace during the spring season. After all, compared to game meat, chicken was a much lighter meal, easy to digest and could take a whole lot of flavourings.”
Ancient Vedic texts like Ksemakutuhalam too extol the virtues of meat cooked in this manner, with even mentions of a dish made with minced meat flavoured with vesavara (a blend of warm spices), wrapped in sal or banana leaves, wheat flour, orange peel covered with local mud/clay and cooked in a pit along with dry leaves, wood, and cow dung. Fascinatingly, during the Kushan Empire, while pit cooking was a standard practice for armies on the move, it was this form of chulah cooking that was practiced in the serais (highway Inns) to afford a hearty meal any time of the day to travellers, messengers, and the like.
In fact, says pit cooking expert and culinary custodian Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “what made Atta Chicken popular back in the day were the same reasons that pit cooking was so popular. To begin with, both Atta Chicken and Khadro Pindo (how Khad Khargosh is colloquially called in Rajasthan) were part of functional cooking that needed little supervision. They were made with meat readily available, minimally spiced and had almost similar prep work and that included the use of the dough that was a better conductor of heat. The difference in both came in later, when Khad, at least the Rajasthani styled one, soon developed into a technique that could cook large animals, while Atta stayed acutely true to a homemakers’ ability to churn out meals that were filling, delicious and satiating with the resources she had.”
“An unlikely party to adopt this format of cooking,” says Chef Gorai, “were the monks, who were responsible for not only popularising the cooking technique wherever they travelled but were instrumental in creating the vegetarian alternative to what till date is perceived as a ‘for meat preparation dish only’.”
From the warrior’s meal, Khad, continues Chef Jodha, “graduated to laying the foundation of game cuisine, where that and pit-fire cooking became the way cooks could dole out meat dishes that were known for their brilliant taste as they were known for the intuitive creation. The rise, of course, came with new additions to the simple dish. With the change in diners’ palates, the spices changed too, and the addition of new spices meant more clever wrapping that could provide the necessary moisture since sand heats up quickly. Thus, came the use of aakda (a local cactus) along with the chapatis and the inclusion of a pipe that would be connected to one of the crevices in the animal to pour in the ghee as and when necessary. This also meant that the upscaled dish which once could self-cook needed tending.”
Meanwhile Atta Chicken that was mostly a springtime meal for royalties continued to remain true to its basic nature with perhaps the addition of banana leaf that ensured the meat didn’t dry up. The few changes, says Chef Seth, “that perhaps came in were much later in the day when broiler chicken took the place of country chicken because it cooked faster than the desi version. But by then Atta Chicken had been pushed to the back of the culinary table and would often turn up as a farmhouse special.”
“And for good reasons,” adds Chef Gorai, “First was the change in food habits, which with time deviated towards different formats of tandoor and indulgent (read: elaborate) cooking. The result, the ingenuity needed to make that perfect, juicy, scrumptious one-pot meal in a pit remained privy to those who continued to practice it or with the royal cooks who would often resort to the style for sheer functionality and the stunning after effect.”
But that was till chefs started looking for lost recipes and Atta Chicken became a novelty, much like its kin, Khad, which given its evolutionary avatars was adopted first — some like Undhiyu were, of course, already popular.
Reviving Atta Chicken, however, came with its own little complexity as, points out Chef Seth, “the ingredients had to be vetted again to see if the desired result could be achieved. Plus, the transition to the oven in commercial kitchens meant the smokiness — an integral part of the Atta Chicken experience — had to be worked in, along with the wrapping that could help cook the meat and keep it moist.”
But at the end, say the chefs, “what catapulted Atta Chicken, a dish of humble origin, to the piece de resistance of any fine-dine table was the sheer genius behind its composition. It has the taste, the theatrics and the flavour nuances that would appeal to any gourmand, and versatile enough to be paired with a stir fry or a millet pilaf with ease.”