Last week, The Bombay Canteen (TBC) introduced their new menu with an array of small plates, mains and desserts. One of the standout dishes, from the main cours, is the comforting Bhopali chicken rezala. It is a Mughlai specialty overshadowed by the cremier, richer and popular Bengali chicken rezala. Chef Hussain Shahzad shared, “Our version of the chicken rezala at The Bombay Canteen is inspired by Bhopal, cooked in a light yogurt and whey-based curry with cashew paste and lots of cilantro. The Bengali chicken rezala comes with a heavier yogurt or cream, cashew and poppy seeds paste curry with garam masala; no cilantro is used in the Bengali version of the rezala.”
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It is not unusual to find a lesser known dish on one of Mumbai’s top restaurants, as delving into regional cuisines has been a strong food trend in the past few years. Mughlai food—be it in restaurants, YouTube or Google searches—has been dominated by cities like Lucknow, Delhi and Kolkata. Bhopal is still under the radar, but it is slowly getting noticed.
“Bhopali rezala is said to have originated from the Nawab family of Bhopal. Owing to the green colour of the dish, it used to be one of the main food items of Jashn-e-Hariyali, a festival held in the monsoon season by the begums of Bhopal. It is an integral part of Bhopal’s rich culinary heritage,” notes Anup Gupta, Executive Chef at Taj Lakefront Bhopal. Although coriander is the main ingredient, mint and spinach can be added for a touch of green.
It is rare to find herbs in the saalan (gravy) of Mughlai cuisine. But, the royal kitchens of Bhopal devised their own recipes depending on what was available to them. The herbs make the dishes rustic and robust.
The other aspect is chicken—a meat rarely eaten by Mughals, but integral to rezalas. Chicken was simply not exotic enough to be tabled for guests and the royalty. Game meat was the most popular, followed by goat and lamb which were routinely reared. “Earlier chicken was considered to be an impure meat and hardly used in royal cooking. The use of chicken became common in the last 70-odd years,” explains Aali Kumar, founder of Delhi-based Zaikanama, a niche food history and heritage initiative. Kumar, who is also an assistant professor at the Delhi University, goes on to say, “Rezala is popular in the eastern part of the sub-continent. Bangladesh also has its own version of the rezala. A lot of different recipes exist, but the most famous version is the Bengali chicken rezala—an invention of royal kitchens, harking back to the days of exiled ruler, Wajid Ali Shah. It is predominantly off-white in colour with lots of oil or ghee floating on top. It’s supposed to be slightly sweet in taste because of the use of onions. Also, meetha attar (kewra or rose essence) is used in the dish.”
The rich Bengali chicken rezala is slow-cooked—a signature technique of the Mughals. “It is a front runner when it comes to the heritage of Bengali Mughlai food. Traditionally, it’s known for the abundant use of cashew paste and heavy cream in the saalan (gravy) for an indulgent affair. The use of dry red chillis is an integral part of its preparation,” says Dr Adrita Ray founder of The Kolkata Foodie group on Instagram.
The Bengali rezala will continue to be in the spotlight for it embodies nazakat, an Urdu word loosely translated to mean refined or elegant. But, now it is time for its little known cousin— the vibrant Bhopali rezala—to shine. Food historian Pushpesh Pant says, “I love the Bhopali rezala more. It exudes a regal mystique with a more robust gravy; not necessarily boasting subtle flavours. The Bengali rezala, on the other hand, is a signature dish in many eateries. While the texture is creamier and redolent of a wonderful mix of delicate flavours, the full-bodied nature of the Bhopali rezala combined with the fact that it is rarely available outside of Madhya Pradesh makes it more appealing.”
Bhopali chicken rezala
Recipe by Anup Gupta, Executive Chef at Taj Lakefront Bhopal
50 gm onion, chopped
35 gm fresh coriander, chopped
20 gm green chilli
25 gm poppy seeds
50 gm cashew nut
25 ml refined oil
15 ml ghee
2 gm garam masala powder
2 green cardamoms
1 bay leaf
1 gm coriander powder
Salt to taste
30 ml cream
200 gm chicken pieces
Water as required
Method (Serves 2 people)
2. Drain the water. Place the cashew and poppy seeds in the grinder along with chopped coriander, onions & green chilli.
3. Wash the chicken pieces. Marinate them with garam masala, coriander powder, sweet yoghurt and salt.
4. Heat a pan with some oil, sauté the bay leaf and green cardamom.
5. Now put the cashew paste in the pan and sauté all of them together.
6. After a few minutes, add marinated chicken to the pan, sauté until cooked, add water according to the thickness you need for the gravy.
7. Add cream and salt for taste. Gently stir for a minute.
8. Transfer the chicken rezala to the serving bowl, garnish with boiled green chilli, lots of freshly chopped coriander and some ghee.