Murg Musallam

(This text is by Pushpesh Pant) – There are many who think that the ‘whole’ tandoori chicken is the king of all edible birds but there are many old-timers who disagree violently. For them (and for me for that matter) the undisputed sovereign is the now all but extinct species of murgh musallam. The word derives from salim, literally translating as intact. Wrinkled bawarchis never tired of regaling diners with apocryphal stories of an unt musallam in Arabia that contained a musallam bakra which in turn provided shelter to the chicken. Closer to home, the humongous raan alishaan-akbari, sikandari , patialashahi or bokhara is essentially a raan musallam! Sure beats the pot roast or leg of lamb.

The vegetarian gourmet not to be left behind in Awadh of yore encouraged their maharaj to create similar-looking musallam delicacies from vegetables. The lauki musallam and karamkalla are two such gems that can outshine much on the carnivore’s platter. The gourd is hollowed — carefully so as to not pierce or puncture it — then stuffed with mouth-watering morsels of cottage cheese, hung yogurt, mélange of seasonal vegetables, saffron tinged milk fudge and minced morel mushrooms. The Western chefs who take extraordinary pride in their suckling pig can still learn a thing of two from their peers in Awadh in the centuries past. But we digress from the delicious subject at hand. The murgh musallam doesn’t only have more stunning eye appeal it also tastes delicious. The chicken marinated for hours and then slow cooked on dum came in two different avatars: either dry or with a thick sauce-like gravy. In both cases the flesh was succulent and aromatised sublimely. As you ate your way in you encountered a seductive bed of biryani or pulav on which sat a whole hard-boiled egg. Surprise of surprises: when you bit into the egg, a flavourful mince of pistachios and pine nuts raisins and almond sliver exploded in ecstasy, showering bliss on the jaded palate. The last time I had murgh musallam, mother was still alive – and, bless her soul, though a vegetarian herself, she loved to cook endangered recipes of all kinds. The only other time I have come across the dish was about half-a-century back when Salim Miyan, the Dak Bungalow Chowkidar at Mukteshwar, a small colonial outpost in the Himalayan wilderness, cooked it to show off his prowess on a dare! The murgh musallam takes a long time to prepare and serve and provided master chefs with a legitimately inflated bill for exotic ingredients. Restaurants who are still brave enough to put it on their menu require many hours of notice to serve, We have, however, never known anyone to order it under such discouraging conditions. I think that it was greed that killed the musallam with the goose that laid the proverbial golden egg. The recipe, though simple enough in its original incarnation, was deliberately obfuscated and rendered expensive beyond reach.

Ingredients for the marinade…

6 cloves of garlic
½ inch piece ginger
2 green chillies
½ tsp red pepper
½ tsp garam masala
1 whole chicken (whole)
7g raw papaya (optional)
1 tsp salt or to taste
½ tsp turmeric
150 ml yogurt

Ingredients for roasting…

175 g Ghee
350 g onions
6 cloves garlic
15 g ginger
6 cloves
6 peppercorns
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 small blade mace
3-4 drops kewra (screw pine) essence or 1 tsp kewra water
½ tsp saffron
1 dessert spoon hot water
1’ piece cinnamon
4 black cardamoms
15 g desiccated coconut
15 g almonds
1 tsp salt
½ tsp red pepper
Pinch of of nutmeg
15 g coriander seeds
300 ml water
¼ tsp garam masala

Method :

For the marinade:

  • Clean the chicken thoroughly, and prick all over with a fork; make cuts over the breast and legs if it is a little tough.
  • Grind the above mentioned ingredients (for the marinade as above) into a fine paste and mix with 150 ml of yogurt.
  • Then rub the ground paste on to the chicken thoroughly with hands, all over the surface and the cavity.

Leave chicken in this marinade for at least 2 hours.

In the meantime prepare another masala(2)….

  • Heat the ghee and fry the onions and garlic. Remove these when browned. Roast the coriander seeds, crush and sift the skin. Also lightly roast the almonds, coconut, and the remaining spices except the ginger.
  • Grind all the roasted spices, browned onions, garlic, and ginger into a fine paste.
  • Keep aside, to be used later.
  • Heat ghee again in a deep large pan (preferably a stew pan), add ½ tsp red pepper and brown the marinated chicken lightly, to seal its juices.
  • After it is done, rub the ground masala(2) paste all over the chicken. Now place the chicken in the same pan and add 300 ml of water and simmer over medium heat till it becomes tender.
  • Sprinkle a little hot water over the chicken if the water dried while cooking.
  • Heat and dissolve saffron in 1 dessertspoon full of hot water, mix it with the kewra and sprinkle over the chicken when it is nearly cooked.
  • Cook for another 5 minutes or till the chicken is tender and chicken is dry without too much of liquid residue. Check its tenderness, by piercing a fork.

Serve hot in an oval dish, sprinkle with finely chopped coriander leaves and powdered garam masala, decorate the sides with salad and sliced hard boiled eggs.