Food Stories: The cutlet

April 28, 2015

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I was a chubby kid, and the culprit for my excess weight was the delicious potato cutlet, partially.

It was the early '80s. The sandwich-maker had just been introduced to Pakistan and I became a professional fridge thief; sneaking potato cutlets, frying them, whipping up sandwiches and devouring them.

My mother's cutlets were always fried golden brown, crisp and crunchy on the outside and flavourful, soft and delicious on the inside.

But how did the subcontinental vegetarian and non-vegetarian cutlet come to be; obviously it came to be after the arrival of the potato in the subcontinent.

Lizzie Collingham, the English food historian, in her chronicles about the foods of the subcontinent writes:

"How the potato came to India is unclear. The Portuguese or the Dutch may have brought the first specimens to the subcontinent, but they were unusual enough in 1780 for the governor general Warren Hastings to invite his fellow council members to join him for dinner when he was given a basket of potatoes by the Dutch.

"Even in Britain, at the time, potatoes were a novelty. Grown by wealthy farmers and professionals in their kitchen gardens, but not yet a part of the staple diet, one of the first things Lord Amherst did as governor general in 1823 was to order that potatoes should be planted in the park at Barrack Pore. The Bengalis took to potatoes with enthusiasm. Their starchy softness contrasted perfectly with the sharp flavours of mustard seed and cumin seeds that were common in Bengali cooking.

"By the 1860s, they had become an essential ingredient in the subcontinental diet. From Bengal, potatoes spread inland. In the South, potatoes took longer to become popular and James Kirkpatrick, resident at the Indian court of Hyderabad, missed them so much that he had a supply of them brought from Bombay with an armed guard through the war raging in the Deccan."

So, it is safe to assume that the modern day desi aloo (potato) cutlet may have been the brainchild of an Anglo-Indian cook looking to conjoin the western meat-breaded cutlet with the vegetarian aloo tikki.

What is a cutlet?

Historically, a cutlet is a slice of meat or vegetable dipped in egg and then coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. The desi potato and meat cutlet, however, is shallow fried.

The word cutlet has originated from the French word côtelette, and was first known to be used in the year 1682. Since then, it has found its place in almost all cuisines of the world, be it French, Italian, American, Indian or Russian.

In the cuisine of the sub-continent, a cutlet specifically refers to cooked meat (mutton, beef, fish or chicken). Mashed with potatoes, the patty is then dipped and fried for a golden finish. The meat is cooked with spices – onion, cumin, black pepper, garam masala, cilantro, green chillies and red pepper powder. Needless to say, the vegetarian cutlet is sans meat, and when made with potatoes, is referred to as aloo tikki.

I followed my mother’s recipe for the potato cutlet. It took me down memory lane to the sweet times of the past. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.

Ingredients

2 lbs. Potatoes
½ lbs. mincemeat of your preference
½ tsp. red chillie powder
Salt to taste
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. ginger garlic
1 small onion, sliced
½ tsp. garam masala powder

Method

Brown onions in a tablespoon oil, adding ginger garlic, red chillie powder, salt, cumin and meat, cook until meat is done and stir on high heat adding garam masala.

Boil potatoes and peel, adding cooked meat, 2 to 3 chopped green chillie, 3 tbsp. fresh cilantro and half a diced onions; red chillie, salt and black pepper to taste. Mix well, form patty, dip in egg and roll in breadcrumbs. Fry on medium to high heat until golden brown on both sides.

Serve with chutney and ketchup, and enjoy with a cup of chai.

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—Photos by author