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​There’s only one way to eat the murgh musallam

A royal delicacy with roots in Awadhi cuisine, the murgh musallam is robust, lesser-known, and inextricably tied to my identity

Curry-cut meat for murgh musallam suits a fast-paced city life.
Curry-cut meat for murgh musallam suits a fast-paced city life. (Image used for representational purpose only, Istockphoto)

The delicious irony of murgh musallam lies in a simple, irrevocable fact: fork-tender as the meat might be, you still have to go in with your hands. Right from the minute that it would be laid on the table, my mother’s spindly, porcelain-like fingers would reach in, deftly untying the knots holding the bird together. Often, the least-used spool—like a ghastly orange or a muddy brown—would be used to arrest the cleaned, skinned whole chicken, before draping it in a robust marinade of yoghurt and spices, like red chilli powder, ginger, garlic, and garam masala.

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A huge heap of thinly sliced onions blanketed the kitchen in a pungent, but weirdly inviting smell. My mother’s fortitude should have been apparent then as she chopped, stirred, and manoeuvred her way through a small kitchen, unscathed by the SPSO (syn-propanethial-S-oxide, the volatile gas in onions that triggers a tear response) in the air. Or, for that matter, the chaos of cooking a grand meal for a family of five. Needless to say, the dish holds a dear place in my heart, despite enjoying less street cred than say, biryani, nihari, kebab, or qorma. A royal delicacy of Awadhi descent, murgh musallam derives its name from its wholeness—musallam in Urdu translates to preserved, entire or complete. And its flavour, from its wholesomeness. A marinated bird in its entirety is roasted in a pool of fat and simmered in an onion-and-spice gravy base that’s as unctuous as they come.

Mentions of the celebratory meat recipe in literature date as far back as 1355 in the 14th-century traveller, explorer and scholar, Ibn Batutta’s travelogue, The Rihla, where it is listed as one of the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq’s favourites. It crops up again, in the 16th century Ain-i-Akbari, the third volume of the Akbarnama, recounting the tales of the mughal emperor Akbar’s reign, penned by his court historian and prime minister, Abu’l Fazl. In her expansive book, Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, author, Colleen Taylor Sen revisits some of these tasty anecdotes from the royal kitchen, which was a department of state reporting directly to the prime minister i.e. Fazl. “Abu’l-Fazl does not give cooking directions for any of these dishes… The dish murgh musallam, for example, was made by removing the bones of a chicken so that it remained whole, marinating it in yoghurt and spices; stuffing it with rice, nuts, minced meat and boiled eggs; and baking it coated with clarified butter and more spices,” she writes.

Much of what Sen describes of the dish still holds true except that it has evolved over the years; in many cases, becoming a pared down version of itself. From an iteration popular during the Delhi Sultanate, as Batutta remembers, and a more refined version prevalent among the Mughals, to a panoply of recipes immortalised in cookbooks, such as Madhur Jaffrey’s Classic Indian Cooking; Anuja Devi’s The Essential Indian Instant Pot Cookbook that has a pressure-cooker version similar to my mother’s; Jiggs Kalra, Pushpesh Pant and Raminder Malhotra’s Classic Cooking of Avadh, which swaps out the chicken with bater or, quail; and Maharaja of Sailana Digvijay Singh’s Cooking Delights Of The Maharajas, where the Sailana murgh musallam calls for a luscious stuffing made of poppy seeds, chopped nuts, spices, ghee and an unusual suspect: dry coconut.

Much like these cookbooks, in homes, too, the murgh musallam has found different expressions. In our family, my grandmother, a staunch homemaker and culinary puritan’s robust, slow-cooked version came with all the trimmings of an elaborate stuffing—eggs, saffron and all. While my aunt’s recipe skips the stuffing, it preserves the technique of slow-roasting the onions over many hours, coaxing out a deep, piquant and caramelised flavour. My mother, the youngest of her generation, on the other hand, relies on the pressure cooker to soften the onions—a faster process—while taking the help of oodles of ghee, dalda and a homemade garam masala to add body to the dish.

The few times that I have cooked murgh musallam, I have skipped the whole chicken entirely, opting instead for curry-cut meat that’s more suited to my serves-two pan and fast-city lifestyle. I’ll admit: I lack the patience, instinct or dedication of the women that precede me. As such, my version is decidedly nonchalant of tradition imbued a little bit with my spirit. Just as well as my grandmother’s recipe became a totem of her straight-and-narrow personality, or my mother’s version grew to become representative of her nimble nature. That’s the thing about identity and food—they intersect in imperceptible ways, becoming one with the people it’s cooked by and for. But what do you do when an identity—and everything it encompasses—falls prey to the vagaries of time and politics, teetering on the brink of erasure? Buy a whole chicken and thank your stars that murgh musallam isn’t made of bricks. There’s only one way to demolish this delicacy: with both of your hands.

My Mother’s Express Murgh Musallam Recipe


1 whole chicken (1 kg)
1 cup yoghurt
3 tbsp mustard oil
1 cup ghee
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tbsp garlic paste
3-4 onions, medium-sized, halved
2 tbsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp garam masala
2 cups water
Salt to taste
Kitchen twine or sewing thread


Before you start, truss your chicken using kitchen or sewing thread.

Marinade the whole chicken in yoghurt and 1 tbsp each of ginger paste, garlic paste, red chilli powder, salt and garam masala for 5-6 hours or overnight.

In a shallow-bottomed pan, pour ½ cup ghee and fry the trussed chicken until golden brown on high flame. Set aside. At this stage, reserve the marinade leftover in your vessel for later.

In a pressure cooker, add the mustard oil. Once the oil is hot, add onions, salt and fry for about 2-3 minutes. Add 1 cup of water, cover with the lid and cook up to 5-6 whistles or till the onions soften.

In the same pan used for roasting the chicken, pour the remaining ghee. Add the cooked onions, remaining ginger and garlic paste, and cook for about 2-3 minutes.

Then, add the remaining spices and cook on high flame scraping off the sides, until the fat separates from the gravy.

Bring the flame down to a simmer, and add the chicken and leftover marinade. Use a spatula to coat the bird in the gravy. Cover the pan and slow-cook, adding water intermittently for 15 mins.

Once your meat is nearly cooked, increase the flame to high and cook for 8-10 mins until the gravy thickens and drapes the chicken. Serve hot and enjoy.

Suman Mahfuz Quazi is a food writer and the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.

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