It may not earn brownie points on the nutritional barometer but that does not dent the fascinating aspect of Andhra Fried Chicken – a dish with two distinctively delicious recipes.
Let’s accept the unfortunate truth: fried chicken will never be healthy. Whatever little virtues that make chicken a healthy meat is happily squandered away by the very act of batter dipping and then frying. For those not in the know, some of the reasons that made chicken a more suitable meat to have is that it is lean and a rich source of protein and amino acids that help build muscle and improve bone density. And then there is tryptophan, a format of amino acid that is linked to releasing higher levels of serotonin or the “feel good” hormone in our brains; not the yahoo kind, but the satiated one. “Add to the list,” says Chef Praveen Shetty (Director of Culinary, Conrad Bengaluru), “desi varieties of chicken such as Kali Masi, Aseel, Swarnadhara and Giriraja, among others, and the perks stack up: a desi chicken packs one-third less cholesterol, a quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamins, twice as much omega-3 fatty acids, thrice as much Vitamin E, four to six times more vitamin D and seven times as much beta carotene.”
While that explains how chicken in the mid-quarter of medieval history became such a popular food, it also started this global fascination for fried chicken including the Indian versions that ranged from the Parsi Chicken Farcha, Behrampur Chicken Pakoda, Chennai’s Chicken 65 ( Kozhi Varuval) and Karnataka Chicken Kebab to the Kerala Chicken Roast, Manipuri Yen Ataoba and the iconic Andhra Fried Chicken. According to reputed experimental psychologist Charles Spence, the cause behind fried chicken’s addictiveness is that crunch sound. In a 2015 paper published in Flavour, Spence explains “the forgotten flavour sense”, as that crunch one hears while biting into a piece of fried chicken leads to a multisensory perception of flavour. It is the sound that plays a crucial role in determining how much we like the experience and how well it is etched into our memory, but also the fact that the food is fresh.
“Same is the case with Andhra Fried chicken,” adds Chef Shetty, “where the magic is in the batter that gives the Andhra Fried Chicken its unique taste, character and popularity.” In fact, he continues, “much like fried chicken in the West, a lot has gone into the making of the batter of the Andhra Fried Chicken or Kodi Vepudu that, unlike its brethren, has two versions: the deep-fried dry version that is popular across eateries and bears a resemblance to its cousin the Behrampur Chicken Pakoda, and the old style pan-fried one that is served with dosais and rice.”
While the pan-fried one uses marination while cooking, the Vepudu version is where most experimentation has taken place, especially with the batter. For Chef Shetty, while the trick is the use of the parboiled rice powder to get that crunch, for Muthu Krishnan C Nadar (Head Chef, Thangabali), the trick comes with the use of podi powder (Chettinad podi) in the batter and then double frying before being dusted with a spice mix made with Sanam chilli for the trademark red hue.
Acing the batter is only part of the story of what makes this 19th century treat immensely popular. The other reason is that amazing crispness that is followed with this warm spice explosion which despite its fiery red hue, has this layer of taste that goes well with curry leaves and onion mix that the fried tenders are traditionally tossed into. Explains Chef Shetty, “When raw, marinated chicken drops in the oil bath, immediately, the convection mode gets the oil molecules racing, resulting in hot oil sinking to the bottom while colder oil rises up. This whirlpool formation is marked by bubbles that start forming around the chicken pieces. Inside the bubble, there is a tiff going on when boiled water of the batter is trying to race out from the meat in the form of steam globes while oil is trying to get in. This results in the creation of the crisp outer layer – and the little oil that manages to reach the chicken cooks the meat while lending flavour to the marination. It is this part of the process that determines the taste of the Andhra Fried Chicken. Fish it out too early and you may dry the meat, wait longer and it could be a burnt, soggy mess.”
Timing is where the expertise of a chef comes in and is the secret to some great tasting Andhra Fried Chicken. This perhaps also explains why the pieces of chicken for Andhra Fried Chicken are often cut smaller than the ones that are used in KFC or Chicken Farcha. Another reason for this is also that the initial iteration of Andhra Fried Chicken that began as a street food treat was with desi varieties that took more time to cook and could dry easily. That explains the curation of the pan-fried version that pares down the pressure point of the former. Andhra Fried Chicken, that many believe led to the creation of Chicken 65 and Karnataka Chicken Kebab in the latter days of Colonial India as part of eateries catering to soldiers and travellers, not only marked chicken’s entry into our food culture as a meat but also revived and evolved the art of batter frying in India. Despite the Arab influence, chicken in southern India was for rituals rather than egg and meat. The few that were domesticated for their eggs had darker meats as they were rich in nutrients and often used as part of a medicinal treatment.
But its rise as a popular eatery classic was because of the psychological affect that such a calorie-dense, high-on-fat food has on the mind. The crispiness, as per functional nutritionists, make the food tastier, which activates digestive juices and thus, the food is broken down faster than any other chicken dish, resulting in glycogen recovery (replenishment to optimise muscle repair and growth after workouts) which is akin to what a protein bar would do. This has been proven by a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism and gets its stamp of approval from fitness expert Vinata Shetty, who uses it as a sparse alternative to instant energy boost, much like runners use coffee and advises “supervised moderation”. In addition, the fat content works as brain food. The effect of the crispness is such that it ensures the palate takes note of every flavour, thus enabling you to zoom out from one continuing thought or activity and refocus on another.
This facet of fried chicken, in fact, has been used in nutritional therapy to wean people off certain habits using food as bait, and in small measures, works to alleviate stress levels and mental exhaustion that develops over longer hours of work. Interestingly, it is a rule that works for Andhra Fried Chicken and its brethren as well, especially when it comes to the psychological side of tasty food.