Takeaway

Bottoms up!

Brinda Suri | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 22, 2017
Rice to the occasion: The perfect tahdig, a Persian dish with a crust on the top, is the acid test for a good chef.

Rice to the occasion: The perfect tahdig, a Persian dish with a crust on the top, is the acid test for a good chef.   -  Shutterstock

Spot on the mark: The bottom-of-the-pan crunch of a paellera or the paella pan.

Spot on the mark: The bottom-of-the-pan crunch of a paellera or the paella pan.   -  Shutterstock

Wipe out: The traditional khurchan — meat fried with masala — is best eaten with tandoori rotis.

Wipe out: The traditional khurchan — meat fried with masala — is best eaten with tandoori rotis.   -  Shutterstock

The love for khurchan — the scraping from the bottom of the pan when a dish is cooked on slow fire — unites connoisseurs across continents and cultures

Get-togethers in my large Punjabi family have meant spending a lot of time around the dining table. Almost always food stories dominate conversation, culinary tips are discussed and secret recipes relished as much as the meal served. What’s never easily shared, though, is the khurchan. Everyone wants the lion’s share of this most vied for serving.

Khurchan, literally the scraping from the bottom of the pan, is what you get when the dish is cooked on slow fire for a considerable time and the bits of it in direct contact with the vessel, particularly at the base, get mildly roasted and imbued with menacingly rich flavours. After the main serving has been almost removed, the parts clinging to the pan are worked on and scraped out. What you get is heart-warming plateful with intense taste and texture. Delicious!

Melt-in-the-mouth rahra meat, braised and simmered for hours in its marinade with negligible onion and strictly no tomatoes, is a family favourite. For its khurchan my grandmother would deglaze the pan with meat stock, a dash of ghee and a pinch of khada masala (roughly crushed whole spices). She continued scraping the pan till the khurchan reached a lovely golden brown colour and oil bubbled on its sides. It would arrive on the table garnished with crisp fried onions. Need I describe the bliss in a bowl she lovingly served. Cousins from overseas who observed the process would whine at its zero nutritional value but were the first to lick the platter clean. Calories are comforting, aren’t they?

I have seen khurchan being prepared on the streets of Lucknow and Kolkata, and they do it quite like grandma. As it’s commercially done, the meat dish is prepared in advance and as per order a portion is taken and spread on to a tawa or iron griddle. A handful of extra onions and tomatoes are thrown in. The cook quickly mixes it all up and as it releases oil he scrapes the bottom with a small spatula and puts it back on top till the khurchan becomes concentrated with flavours. It’s usually served with naan or roomali roti.

This restaurant version of chicken/mutton/duck/paneer khurchan is typically associated with the Awadhi tradition of slow-fire cooking on large flat pans or on the tawa. Some food historians, however, date it back to the Partition when displaced Punjabi migrants dug deep into their entrepreneurial spirit and set up tandoors. The charcoal fires of these ovens would bake crisp rotis as well as roast kebabs and whole chicken to succulent perfection. Some of this skewered meat would be shredded and tossed on to a pan where it was fried with masala till it formed a thickish gravy. It would be roasted and served as khurchan to be devoured with fresh-off-the tandoor rotis. It was limited in supply, more expensive but always in demand.

A favourite family story is about my paternal grandfather, who migrated from Rawalpindi and relocated to Delhi, queuing up at a booth in Daryaganj, Purani Dilli, for murgh khurchan. The owner was another displaced Punjabi from Peshawar and known for his culinary magic. Many years later he was recognised as Moti Mahal’s Kundan Lal Gujral. The rest, as they say, is history.

Long before I read the word khurchan on restaurant menus I had seen its reference in family recipes passed down the generations. The khurchan, I imagine, started off as a prized treat of simple home cooking before graduating to becoming a dish in its own right. This is evident particularly in Punjab where robust spices, marinades and masalas are indispensable in a dish, usually a meat-based one. Slow cooking, heavy-bottomed flat pans and patience are essential for a great khurchan, apart from the balance of ingredients.

The word, however, has different connotations across north India. Usually khurchan by itself means milk reduced to thin, sweet, flaky yet moist sheets that are collected in a pile and sold by weight, or as a topping on rabri — the much-relished sweetened and condensed milk; lassi or a glass of boiled milk. This is especially popular in old cities renowned for their food culture such as Amritsar, Delhi, Mathura and Varanasi.

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The other much fought-over khurchan is the crispy, golden layer at the bottom of a pulao or biryani. The lack of liquid and high heat may be responsible for the ‘imperfection’, as purists say, but the sugar and starch of the rice meld to produce a crunchy goodness considered the best part for its toasted flavour.

In fact rice-eating cultures the world over relish the bottom-of-the-pan crunch and have specific names for it. During a trip to Valencia, the city of paella, I was dining at the acclaimed La Marcelina and had just witnessed a typically-dramatic presentation in which the paellera is held up vertically by the steward to show how classically perfect the rice has been cooked, when I heard boisterous sounds from a neighbouring table. My host smiled and said they called it the ‘ socarrat scream’. Socarrat, the golden crust underneath the paella, is a sign of excellence and considered a delicacy. The scream, well, is quite what you hear when the khurchan of the biryani or pulao is being served: everyone wants the larger share.

On the global table, Vietnam offers com chay; Laos drools over nam khao; in Indonesia you can savour intip; the nurungji is a favourite in the Koreas, and in China you can order the guo ba. Moving west, in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan the kazmag is cooked almost every day and in Iraq it’s the hkaka that’s seen on tables. Across the Atlantic, you get pegao in Colombia and concon in the Dominican Republic.

Though each dish has its uniqueness, the star has to be tahdig from Persian cuisine. The name is self-explanatory: tah (bottom) and dig or degh (pot). There are quite a few versions of the tahdig now, but traditionally it’s a lavash crust that adorns the chello or pearly white steamed rice. So celebrated is this khurchan that it’s always flipped over and served bottoms up.

The khurchan certainly is a scraping that powers its way to the top.

Brinda Suri is an independent journalist

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Published on September 22, 2017
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