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Steamed and grilled chicken. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Steamed and grilled chicken. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

Life with the broiler and other dubious adventures

Fearless improvised cooking with a new recipe offers the broiler chicken a new lease of life

Like many people I know, I have grown to abhor Gallus gallus domesticus. In other words, the broiler chicken, beloved of the Indian middle class.

Antibiotic laden and bereft of taste when cooked, the broiler is, like India’s dust and traffic, ubiquitous. There is no escaping the sorry bird. Its cooked version is found in shimmering five-star hotel and grungy dhaba, raking in steady profits for everyone involved, satiating the hunger of millions—and driving your columnist to despair.

I regret to report that despite my frequent—and often satisfying—experiments in the kitchen, my daily cooking often features the broiler. Since I have never referred to the vexed bird in about a decade of writing this column, I thought it was time to confess.

Yes, dear reader, the broiler is often my go-to choice for easy dinners. When I cannot really focus on dinner, I take the easy way out and defrost a few pieces. Marinate it with whatever you like, cook it however you wish, and it will still come out fine and filling.

The broiler is humankind’s bane and boon. It is raised in the billions, doubling in size from the medieval period. Its body mass has increased five times since the mid-20th century, and its combined mass as a species exceeds that of all other birds on earth. This isn’t something off the top of my head. These scientific facts were reported in a December 2018 study in the journal Royal Society Open Science. “(The broiler) is likely to be the largest standing population of a single bird species in Earth’s history," said the study.

It is also clear that the broiler, descended from a red jungle fowl, cannot survive without human intervention. Our fates are intertwined. The bird is almost a human addiction, consumed relentlessly with no obvious benefit, except, perhaps, a temporary satiation of hunger, if well made, and some protein benefit.

I got thinking about my broiler compulsion when I went to Madurai last month and saw a street filled with black native chicken, being sold by inhabitants of neighbouring villages. As in other smaller towns—and discerning eaters in cities—Madurai prizes its country chicken. Although more expensive than the broiler, it is widely available in Madurai restaurants. Its flesh is stringier, and it is considerably leaner, but there is little comparison in taste.

Compared to free-ranging native chicken, raised on natural grain, plants and worms, the broiler, raised on commercial chicken feed, tastes like spiced cardboard. There is little that is natural in the plain, white bird, raised under lights and confined to overcrowded pens.

But native chicken—nati koli, as we say in Karnataka—is not easy to find in Bengaluru and takes longer to cook. So, the broiler will continue its reign in my kitchen for the foreseeable future. The only saving grace is that my chicken comes from the neighbourhood Karnataka Ham Shop, which raises its own birds, with the claim that they are antibiotic free.

After Madurai, I got thinking: Could I infuse some—well, not literally—life into the broiler? I remembered something that a cook called Mary had told me. She had worked in Malaysia and said she often used a technique from there—steaming the chicken and then grilling it. This, she explained, made the chicken soft from the inside, while it charred outside.

Last weekend was the perfect time to try Mary’s method. The wife was travelling and the nine-year old was at a friend’s place for the day. Sometimes, I find comfort in being alone. I leapt out of bed and left it unmade the entire day. I left a trail of newspapers around the house. I lorded over my kitchen, leaving drawers open and haphazardly pulling out whatever I needed.

My kitchen style is to muddle through. I have a general idea of what I am doing, but there is a lot of seat-of-the-pants action. I may change a spice at the last minute or otherwise modify ingredients. This approach unsettles the wife, so when she is around, I am more organized—or give the impression that I am.

The first spice box my eyes fell on was panch phoran, a mix of five spices favoured most by Bengalis. I roasted the combination of cumin, black mustard, fenugreek, nigella and fennel seeds on my iron griddle and inhaled the aromas they released. I added American chipotle powder and mused, soy sauce or rum? Rum is better for heavier meats, such as pork.

I am given to adding all manner of alcohol to the meats I cook, but usually the wife forbids me from raiding her bar. Since she was not around to object, I pulled out a bottle of precious Doublewood Scotch from The Balvenie brewery for the marinade.

I cannot say that the broiler was transformed, but life with the bird became somewhat more palatable.

STEAMED AND GRILLED CHICKEN

Serves 1

Ingredients

1 chicken leg, 1 thigh

2 tsp panch phoran, roasted until seeds pop and hand-pounded into a powder

1 tsp chipotle, Kashmiri mirch or any other dried chilli powder

1 tsp olive oil

2 tsp Scotch

Salt to taste

Method

Marinate the chicken pieces in spices, olive oil, Scotch and salt. Steam on medium heat for about 10 minutes. Remove and grill until blackened, either in an oven at 220 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes or in an air fryer at 180 degrees for 13 minutes.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

@samar11

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