Fortune Cookie

Gorging on Kadak Nath: Gastronome Ashish Chopra Serves the Least Known of the World’s Three Black Chicken Species

Posted: April 21, 2016 at 3:51 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

I HAVE always been fascinated by the story of Kadak Nath, India’s only black chicken species and one of just three in the world. Its cousins — China’s Silkie and Indonesia’s Ayam Cemani — command astronomical prices and are hailed as “superbirds” in America, but our Kadak Nath is barely known outside Madhya Pradesh, where the Bhils and Bhilalas of Jhabua district have been nurturing the chicken for centuries, and savouring its high-protein, low-fat black meat said to be packed with healing properties.

The bird is fortunate though to have an ardent champion in Ashish Chopra, who started life as the Youth Congress general secretary overseeing the north-east in 1986-89, but is now without doubt one of the country’s handful of serious culinary historians well-known for his passion to explore the cuisines of communities that ‘Mainstream India’ gets to know about only when there’s an insurgency or Maoist ‘trouble’.

Chopra’s NE Belly (2006) was the first book to document from a historical perspective little-known recipes from the north-east, a region he got to know closely during his stints with the Governor of Mizoram and then Assam Rifles, and in the course of a research project at Majuli Island on the Brahmaputra. (His partner and wife-to-be Priscilla is a civil engineer-turned-food photographer from Nagaland.) He has just completed (for the first time ever in the country) documenting the cuisines of the tribal communities and also a soon-to-be-aired series titled Biki’s Gastronomy for the TLC channel.

In his famous library, you’ll find gems such as the first Marwari cookbook ever written and it spills over with game meat recipes because ‘Marwari’ in this context doesn’t refer to the name that attached itself to the vegetarian mercantile community from Shekhawati when it left Rajasthan, and the 300-year-old recipe book of the Diggi Palace family now famous because of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

An afternoon spent with Chopra therefore can run into the evening, for his gold mine of stories extends from the pyaaz ki kheer cooked with goat’s milk by the musical Manganiyar community of Rajasthan to the grand old lady of McCluskieganj in Jharkhand, a once-prosperous Anglo-Indian community now reduced to a ghost town, who’s part Welsh, part Portuguese, and now makes a living selling fruits in the local railway station. Chopra can never forget her because of the litti she served him stuffed with mashed potatoes. A delicious example of fusion food.

You can imagine my excitement when Chopra invited me to sample the Kadak Nath he was getting cooked in the Mangalorean gassi style at the newly opened Sana-di-ge restaurant at the Malcha Marg Market. How did Chopra become Kadak Nath’s brand ambassador? A long time back, he was going to meet his childhood friend Pushpraj Singh Judeo, wildlife conservationist and head of the royal family of Rewa, when he stopped by to say ‘hello’ to the late Maharaja of Panna, who introduced him to Kadak Nath. The jungle fowl taste of the meat stuck to this palate and he was mesmerised by the aromas released by the bird as it was being cooked, with skin on, for two hours — “just the thought of it makes me salivate,” he says.

It would have remained just a delicious memory had the cameraman with whom Chopra shot the TLC series not invited him to Bareilly, where the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) is breeding Kadak Nath, which is a challenge because the chickens are very poor breeders (the hens refuse to sit on the eggs they hatch!) and they have a high mortality rate.

His interest piqued, Chopra launched his search for the real Kadak Nath. He met people who claimed to be breeding Kadak Nath but the birds turned out to be cross-bred with country chicken. At long last, he met Satish Kumar, a young engineer-turned-chicken breeder, who’s as passionate about Kadak Nath as Chopra and breeds them at his farm, Rudra’s Breeders, at Jolarpettai in the shadow of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.

It was a bird from Rudra’s that we dug at Sana-di-ge. The bird’s skin, meat and bones looked like they’d been injected with squid ink. The gassi had been cooked — by a Garhwali named Uday Rawat (formerly with Made in Punjab)! — on the previous night so that its juices could go deep into the meat and bones. The elaborate cooking process involved repeated roasting, boiling and then cooking the bird in its own stock. It was a treat that will be hard for me to forget — the juiciness of the meat and the meatiness of the gravy, which I mopped up with a sannas and a neer dosai, complemented each other like two pieces of a symphony. India needs to discover Kadak Nath and joy of eating it.

This article first appeared in Fortune Cookie in Mail Today on April 21, 2016. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.