I have enjoyed a fine meal of roast chicken countless times but never Murgh Musallam in the true sense, as referred to by the royals of centuries past.
In my observation the hosts serving a whole chicken at lavish or intimate dinners always call it roast chicken and never Murgh Musallam, and now I understand why: Because it was never the royal Murgh Musallam, the spices were a tad western, the boiled eggs were never an accompaniment, and it was never stuffed with lamb keema (lamb mincemeat), as it was in its original shahi (royal) recipe.
Murgh Musallam literally means whole chicken; it is a rich dish in which a whole chicken is marinated, stuffed with eggs, prepared with spices like saffron, cinnamon, cloves, poppy seeds, cardamom and chilli, and decorated with almonds and silver leaves. It is considered a gourmet dish in the book of Moghul cuisine Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh, where it is described as lending a certain majesty to the dastarkhwan (tablecloth upon which the dishes of a meal are places).
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Ibn Battuta describes it as one of the favoured dishes at the court of Sultan Muhammad Ibn Tughlaq (1325 AD), in the book Tracing The Boundaries Between Hindi And Urdu.
The Murgh Musallam in Ain-e-Akbaris is referred to as Musamman, which probablye later evolved into Murgh Musallam. Therefore the claim that the Murgh Mussallam is one of the thirty dishes mentioned in the Akbarnama written by the famous Navratan (one of the nine gems in Akbar’s court) Abul Fazl is correct. The book says that 'they take out all the bones out of the fowl through the neck, the fowl remaining whole.'
Interestingly, the spices,method of cooking, meat and boiled egg stuffing of the Musammanin Abul Fazl’s Ain-e-Akbari, is almost similar to the roast fowl recipe used in Europe in the middle ages as mentioned in the 14th century Latin book Tractatus.
Despite its widespread usage, cinnamon was the best kept secret of the Arab traders, and since Arabs transported the spice through the cumbersome land route, the supply was limited and the usage of the spice became a status symbol. Hence the use of cinnamon in the European fowl roast of the middle ages, as mentioned in Tractatus, and our very own Musammanas described in the Ain-e-Akbari is not only similar, but it’s usage in the making of this chicken recipe by both cultures tells the truth about the whole chicken being a rich mans food in the centuries past.
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In the fabulous book Curry: A tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham unveils that many of the Mughlai dishes and other delectable regional cuisines in the subcontinent may very well have resulted from many invasions and are an incorporation of world cuisines. History tells the tale of Portuguese explorers and the arrival of Babur, to the sub-continent and hence the cooking methods and ingredients of central Asia, Persia and Europe came to the exotic east.
Therefore it is safe to say that it may have been the British who contributed their passion for roast chicken; and the sub-continental cooks mixed it with native spices such as cardamom and black pepper to give us the Murgh Massallam.
The recipe I share with you today is without the mince and egg stuffing, but it truly is finger-licking good. The masala is deep and rich; and the spice just about perfectly suited to desi taste buds. It comes from the kitchen of Shazli Auntie. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours:
1 whole chicken (approx. 3lbs)
2 green chillies
10 to 15 cloves of garlic
½ inch piece of ginger
1 tsp garam masala powder
Pinch of turmeric powder
8 onz. yogurt
1 tsp. red chilli powder
4 to 6 brown cardamom
8 to 10 cloves
8 to10 peppercorns
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2 tsps.coriander seeds
2 to 4 oz. oil (or to taste)
2 large onions
salt to taste
2 to 4 oz. water
freshly chopped coriander for garnish
Blend ginger, garlic, yogurt, green chillies, salt, ½tsp red chilli powder, turmeric and garam masala into a thick marinade for the chicken. Marinate whole chicken, spreading masala inside the cavity and let rest in the fridge for 4 to 5 hrs.
Roast whole garam masala, cumin, coriander seeds and almonds and set aside. In a large heavy pan, or pot, heat oil and fry thinly sliced onions; once golden brown blend the strained onions with roasted spices, adding a little water if required.
In the same pan as used for frying onions, braise marinated whole chicken for a few minutes, (saving the marinade for later use) and then removing and setting aside. Using the same pan heat a little oil and fry the onion paste on high heat, adding the rest of chillie powder, marinade, and salt if required.
Fry on high for a few minutes adding the whole chicken and water, sealing with lid entirely and setting the heat to medium. Let cook for 15 to 20 minutes on one side and 10 to 15 on the other.
Once the meat is tender, set in a platter pouring the masala on the top or side and garnish with greens. Serve with a side of your favourite vegetables and boiled eggs, (both optional), hot naan and raita. I served it with a side of shallow fried peas, tomatoes, potatoes and bell pepper. Truly a delectable meal.
Photos by Fawad Ahmed