From ordinary omelette to Nawabi delicacy 'nargisi kofte', here's how eggs evolved on India's platter
The Nawabi delicacy from Lucknow has boiled eggs enclosed in mince.
This theory is supported by how easily the omelette rolls off our collective tongues. Indeed, the “aamlet” today is an aam aadmi snack, sold by vendors at railway and bus stations, near offices and at street joints, by expertly loading it up with onions, chillies and Dalda, browning it at the edges, and flipping it over on to our plates.
However, there could have been another route that the egg dish took to India, and that is via Persia.
A vintage recipe of “khagina”, essentially an omelette, dating back to 1831, from British Indologist Sanford Arnot’s collection, was recently shared on Twitter by journalist and author Rasheed Kidwai. Arnot, a 19th century scholar, is known for having translated Mughal recipes from Persian and Hindustani into English.
He published his collection in 1831. The collection has since been republished by the Cambridge University Press as part of the book, Two Anglo-Indian Cookery Books.
The khagina recipe is elaborate and interesting. It mentions ½ pao (4 oz) butter, 1 masha each of cloves and cardamom (translated as 10.5 drops each), 1 chittank of onion (2 oz) besides coagulated milk and 10 eggs. There is no mention of green chillies or tomatoes — two ingredients that a masala omelette mandates — perhaps because khagina predates the arrival, or at least the popular use, of these two ingredients through colonial trade. To provide heat, 4 masha of pepper is recommended, instead.
Khagina was apparently a Mughal delicacy and may have arrived into the courtly cuisines of Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad through the Persian influence (many aristocrats married Persian women). This is suggested by its very name.
Even today, Iranian food has a version of scrambled eggs called khagina, which is a popular breakfast. Meanwhile, in India, khagina exists as a scrambled egg recipe in Hyderabad, albeit as part of a dying heritage.
While eggs make for some of the most common dishes, the history of Indian cuisine shows up many inventive uses of these in dishes that are dying. Lucknow’s nargisi kofta is hard to come by these days. It requires highly skilful cooking.
A Nawabi delicacy, each kofta comprises a whole boiled egg enclosed in mince. It can be fried, served dry (a dish that gave birth to Scotch eggs), or poached in gravy till the keema cooks. In either case, the kofta is sliced lengthwise before serving, revealing three distinct and clear layers — the yellow yolk, white and brown from the mince — supposedly reminiscent of the beauty of a nargis flower.
To cook the perfect nargisi kofta is no mean task, though. I ask chef Raees at ITC Maurya for tips to let the mince stick to the egg. Chef Raees is a qorma specialist and has been in the trade for half a century, making delicacies like these for patrons who still ask for dishes not on restaurant menus.
He explains that the trick is to use very fine mince and add a dash of roasted gram powder to bind the mince and egg. “If the mince is not fine enough, it tends to fall off,” warns Raees. Another elaborate dish he cooks on demand for connoisseurs is meat qaliya, with cooked egg yolks coated with golden varq dropped into the gravy to resemble golden beads. It is an art that is dying, however. In many cultures, the egg is a symbol of birth and regeneration. Easter eggs are symbolic.
The Parsis have a special egg preparation for Navroze, which falls on the same day as the spring equinox. The bharuchi akuri, says chef Anahita Dhondy of SodabottleOpenerWala, is a heavier, fancier version of the akuri (scrambled eggs), cooked with cashew nuts and mawa (milk solid). It is served at New Year and wedding feasts. Another unusual egg dish, Dhondy says, is the “leela lasan nu eedu” — eggs baked on a slow flame with green onions and green garlic.
The nargisi kofta is a Nawabi delicacy that has boiled eggs enclosed in mince
In Goa, as also in Portugal and Macao, an inventive egg dish binding three regions of the world is the pasteis de nata, or egg tarts filled with creamy custard made from yolks. The origin of the dish has a popular lore associated with it: extra yolks found their way into desserts after the whites were used to starch nuns’ habits.
Easter may well see these being made. But for Rahul Gomes Pereira, head chef at Jamun, a modern Indian diner, Sundays all year round always meant a uniquely Goan scrambled egg preparation using the skin and oil of chorizo sausages. “The sausages would be eaten on Saturday nights and the leftover skin and oil used to make these redcoloured spicy eggs,” he says.
As the French saying goes, “to make an omelette, you have to break the egg.” How you do it is a matter of taste.