If there is one dish that stands testimony to our astounding culinary ingenuity and technique supremacy, it is Daulat Ki Chaat — the winter speciality of the North.
Back in the day, when Chef Manish Mehrotra, Corporate Chef, Indian Accent, decided to introduce Daulat Ki Chaat in his menu, few were convinced of the choice. Daulat Ki Chaat, a winters-only treat then, though immensely popular was shrouded with mystery. While the making was no secret, the legend around it — like it needed the dew drops of a clear, full moon winter night among others — and the fact that few could come close to the real deal added to this 17th-century dessert’s mystique. The fact that a wood paddle or a whisk and warm milk could create something so delicious, not to mention on par with any modern culinary innovation was simply beyond belief. Until 2009, when Indian Accent opened. The exceptional team led by Chef Manish Mehrotra finally broke the proverbial Da Vinci Code on Nimish’s cousin when they turned Daulat Ki Chaat into an all-season treat with the clever use of nitrogen, milk and cream, a creation that Chef Mehrotra calls “his ode to the original.”
What helped the seasoned chef crack the math on the dessert was not just a deeper understanding of milk, and how it changes seasonally, but also the most crucial element that makes the dessert one of the top culinary wonders of the world — the milk foam. Everything, says Chef Mehrotra, “is about the quality and consistency of foam. You get that right and then it is all about balancing it with the right amount of mawa and dry fruits.” Made a la mode, the dessert, much like the original, has an extremely short life and needs that extra love to sustain the experience. This is the reason why, at Indian Accent, Daulat Ki Chaat is served with dry ice — a takeaway from the traditional makers who use slabs of ice to maintain the temperature around the milk foam that from afar resembles a mound of pristine white chenna.
Chef Mehrotra’s adaptation of Princess Jahanara’s beloved dessert not only put it on the world stage, but literally opened the flood gates on the recipe that once graced royal tables as well as food streets and was the main attraction at Chandni Chowk. Story has it that when Jahanara was designing Chandni Chowk as a pleasure hub, she decided to call the Makhan Malai makers from Muradabad to be a part of the culinary extravaganza during winters. Thanks to her initiative, Shahjahanabad soon became the hub of Makhan Malai makers who came from as far as Afghanistan, where the dessert — or the concept — is said to have first germinated with the Botai tribes who would prepare a similar delicacy called kumis, made of horse’s milk.
It seems unbelievable today, but back in the day around Kazakhstan, mare’s milk was worth what black truffle is today. Loved for its rich smooth texture and nuances that no other dairy product could match, it was used to create a drink that was somewhere between a nice Doodh Na Puff and Yakult. In fact, selected mares were fed fruits to get that desired fruitiness in the milk — and in kumis. To achieve that, the mare’s milk, which had 40 percent more lactose, had to be skimmed off its creamy goodness. According to William of Rubruck’s diary, the making of kumis, a prized 13th-century antidote, was as follows: first gallons of milk were collected and kept in a cool place. Once enough was collected they were filled into a big skin (leather bags) and then beaten. Once enough heat was generated and passed through the skin, the milk inside would boil up like new wine. The boiled milk would be churned regularly to collect all the butter, which was put on the side. It was this butter that was served to the slaves and workers with a little honey and dry fruits. The rest of the milk was for kumis, which over a few days developed the pungency of a wine with an aftertaste of almond milk but with a much thinner consistency.
It is believed that this technique of skimming milk is what travelled to India with trade and the various invaders who came to our soil for its riches. This explains how Sadaat Ali Khan, the then governor of Kannauj (later Oudh), asked his khansamas to create something spectacular to impress Prince Murad Baksh, and the cooks created Makhan Malai — a cousin of Daulat Ki Chaat. Yet another food-lore credits the Pathan cooks of Muradabad, a city renamed after Emperor Akbar presented it to Prince Murad Baksh in 1625 AD, as the creator of the earlier iteration of what eventually was named Daulat Ki Chaat with the addition of mawa and dry fruits.
So where did Daulat Ki Chaat become the delicacy we know of today? While an obvious conjecture would be the Mughal kitchen, culinary evangelist Chef Nimish Bhatia believes it was the work of the traditional milkmen who had more knowledge of milk and how its different variations work. How else does one explain that one of the most fascinating innovations of the medieval period came out of a pot of warm milk and a wooden paddle combined with hours of constant churning and collecting of foam?”
“Our milkmen who already knew about kharvas (colostrum milk) and were adept at doling out creations that could give longevity to the milk were the right people to have thought of such an aspect where foam on a winter night could be collected and turned into a sublime experience,” says Chef Bhatia, who during his research at Fatehpur Sikri found that the initial iteration of Shahi Tukda could have been layers of cream piled together, then lightly fried to get that golden hue. Then, the milk foam creation seems to be an obvious progression.
Was it really so is hard to ascertain today, but given that our ancestors knew a lot about humidity, lunar movement and quality of produce, there is a good chance that it would have been created by those best in the know — in case of Daulat Ki Chaat, the community of herders and halwais. Of course, like all creation, Daulat Ki Chaat went through its own cycle of variations, adaptations and muses like Nimish in Lucknow, Makhan Malai in Uttar Pradesh, Doodh Na Puff in Udavada, and Nimaas in Calcutta created by the Oswal Jains. The difference, aside from the milk foam which depends on the quality of milk, is the garnish. The similarity, with each one experiences how it is to taste air — fragrant, rich, creamy air!