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Decoding the world’s greatest dish duels

Joining the latest debate on the origin of butter chicken and dal makhani is an entire buffet of the world’s most contentious dishes

Did pavlova originate in Australia or New Zealand?
Did pavlova originate in Australia or New Zealand? (Istockphoto)

The simmering tension existed way before the whole Moti Mahal and Daryaganj restaurants’ butter chicken and dal makhani origin imbroglio reached the Delhi High Court. This, after the latter’s bold claim of being the ‘inventors’ of butter chicken and dal makhani on the restaurant’s website.

Also read | Who invented butter chicken? The answer lies with the court

What was once a mere ego-propelled kerfuffle between the two Delhi-based establishments over claims for the invention of the two aforementioned dishes has now reached epic proportions. And one that has gotten the entire country’s food cognoscenti divvied up into two distinct factions. With sides being taken and polarised opinions bandied about on social media.

But while India might be witnessing this sort of culinary one-upmanship—more so, on this largely protracted scale—for the first time perhaps, the world has seen many more such duelling dishes. On my various food-fronted travels around the world, I’ve often found myself seeking answers to other such “who came first?” questions.

Going deep
On a trip to the US a few years ago, I had my very first huge serving (bite, would be putting it too mildly) of the famous Chicago-style deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, in downtown Chicago. This was the very place that was at the vortex of another “who came first war” a few decades ago. While most believe Malnati’s to be the birthplace of this more-pie-than-pizza-like cheesy overload, a few still agree that the deep dish pizza was invented at Pizzeria Uno, also in Chicago in 1943 by its owner Ike Sewell. Interestingly, Lou Malnati’s father Rudy was a chef at Pizzeria Uno who claimed to have been the one who came up with the idea. Begging us to wonder, is it the place that launches a dish that can claim proprietorship or an employee of said establishment who came up with it?

Still in the US, farther east in the historic city of Philadelphia, another turf war has been playing out for decades in the south of the city at the intersection of 9th and Passyunk. The great South Philly cheesesteak battle royal has as its players Pat’s vs. Geno’s located diagonally opposite each other. While the former was the brainchild of Pat Olivieri in the late 1930s, the latter was named Geno’s by the proprietor Joey Vento in honour of his son around the same time. While it is not clear who came first, many believe (and I concur) that both are equally bad and overhyped. With much better iterations of the sliced rib-eye steak, grilled onions and cheese sauce atop a hoagie roll bread abounding elsewhere in Philadelphia. The only difference between the two being the way the meat is prepared. While Pat’s is sliced thin and then slapped onto the grill, at Geno’s, the meat is cooked in thicker cubes and then chopped atop the grill itself, lending to what many believe is a juicier sandwich.

A cloud of conjecture
Light as a cloud, crumbly to the touch and the taste of pure heaven is how many would describe the mouthfeel of the meringue-based Antipodean fresh fruit and compote dessert called a pavlova. Claimed as their own invention, not by two rival establishment, but by two neighbouring countries, this dessert is something I’ve enjoyed tucking into on my several trips to both Australia and New Zealand.

The Australians are of the belief that the ‘pav’ (given the Aussie penchant for shortening almost every name) was first created in 1935 by pastry chef Bert Sachse at the Esplanade Hotel in Perth. He did this in honour of Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballerina who was to perform in Australia that year. Interestingly, it is the 2010 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary of all places that notes that a published pavlova recipe first appeared in a book from New Zealand as early as 1927. The alleged book with an alliterative title like Davis’ Dainty Dishes was one of those books that the food brand, Davis Gelatine company, made at that time to act as a guide to the use of their products.

Taking such geographical food fights to the opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean is the case of the not-so-humble chicken à la King or chicken à la Keene. What makes this one the most interesting one on my list is that it involves a four-way tussle. All for a dish that’s usually the delicious sum of its cubed chicken bits, sherry-flavoured cream sauce, and button mushroom parts. All served atop a bed of rice or buttered noodles, very much like a beef stroganoff.

In the UK, it is said that the iconic Claridge’s Hotel in London created the dish in 1881 and named it after James Robert Keene (and, thus the similar sounding ‘King’), a stockbroker and racehorse owner. While the Americans insist that it was invented at the Delmonico hotel in New York City in the 1880s and named in honour of Keene’s son, Foxhall Parker Keene. At another New York hotel, the Brighton Beach Hotel, it is said to have been named after Clarke King II. While bringing up the rear is the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia (there we go again) that claims the inventor of the dish is their former employee William “Bill” King.

Now, wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Just make that, taste as yum, too.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

Also read | A recipe for cloud-like meringues

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