The murgh rezala is a celebration.Of the happy blend of Bengali and Muslim cooking, of the sophistication of the subcontinent’s food, and of India’s composite culture. A rezala refers essentially to the sauce in which the murgh or chicken is cooked. Food historians estimate that this dish evolved when the descendents of Tipu Sultan were forced to leave their royal abode in Srirangapatna, Karnataka and exiled to Kolkata, Bengal, by the British East India Company. The royal cooks who travelled with the household and nawabs brought with them rich treasures of Muslim cuisine perfected in palace kitchens.
Murgh rezala is the chicken version of a dish normally cooked with goat meat or mutton. A rich curry by all accounts, the rezala is akin to a velvet robe that holds within its luxurious fold, succulent chunks of mutton or chicken. Murgh rezala has a list of rich ingredients that one would expect in a dish eaten by kings – spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and cloves; ghee, yoghurt and milk, cashewnut paste, saffron and kewra water (distilled from the flowers of the screw pine tree). I skipped the kewra water because I didn’t have it and couldn’t bother to get a bottle just for this dish (it is not frequently used in regular Indian cooking except in a few sweets). Some recipes even add mawa or khoya – fatty milk solids made from slowly cooking down full-fat milk till all the water has evaporated. Khoya is used to make many Indian mithais or sweets. I also omitted the khoya. Even so, my murgh rezala was rich, creamy and every bit as delicious as the ‘authentic’ one would be.
The curry has a base of onion, ginger and garlic pastes which add loads of umami. The whole spices build into this while the dairy and cashew paste compose the silky sauce. Everything about the murgh rezala is gentle; the flavours are subtle and layered. There’s tang from the yoghurt, sweetness from the browned onions and green cardamom, warmth from cinnamon and whole red chillies (but no heat), a silky texture from ground cashew nuts and a complex, seductive aroma from the savouriness of meat marrying the perfumed flavours of the spices. It’s a perfect dish for a celebration.
While the list of ingredients is long, the cooking process is surprisingly not. It includes marinating the meat, slightly searing it and then letting all the pastes and the meat cook together slowly in a pot. You cannot get your murgh rezala wrong. At least not in my opinion. It would be smart to do your prep and have everything ready- the onion, ginger and garlic pastes and the cashew paste. After that it takes all of 20 minutes to cook the curry. Like me, you could fry the onions in advance and then grind them to a paste. This helps save time spent in browning the onion paste. I always use this opportunity to fry extra onions and keep them ready for pulao or biryani in the coming days. I have used chicken so the cooking time is relatively less. If you decide to make mutton rezala, cater for at least 40 minutes to an hour to allow the meat to get fork-tender. Serve with flatbreads of your choice such as rumali roti, naan or paratha, or like us, with fragrant, steamed basmati.
- 1 kg skinless,medium-sized chicken pieces (on the bone)
- 10 cashew nuts soaked in water for 30 minutes along with the poppy seeds and ground to a fine paste
- 2 tbsp poppy seeds
- 4 tbsp fried onion paste (onions sliced, deep fried till golden and ground to a paste with very little water)
- 2 tsp garlic paste
- 2 tsp ginger paste
- 90 g natural, plain yoghurt, beaten
- 3 1-inch pieces cinnamon
- 4 cloves
- 3 whole, dried, red chillies
- 3-4 green cardamoms
- 6-8 black peppercorns
- 2 dry, Indian bay leaves (tej patta)
- 1 tsp garam masala powder
- 25 ml warm milk
- A pinch of saffron soaked in the warm milk
- 2 whole green chillies, slit halfway
- 2 tbsp ghee
- Place the chicken in a glass bowl. Add a little salt, 2 tbsp of the yoghurt, 1 tbsp each of the ginger and garlic paste, mix well, cover and marinate in the fridge for at least 5 hours or ideally overnight.
- The next day, allow the chicken to come to room temperature before you begin cooking.
- Heat the ghee in a kadhai/Dutch oven/deep pan and add the whole spices including the red chillies. Saute for 20 secs.
- Now add the chicken and the remaining garlic and ginger pastes. Fry for a couple of minute till the raw smell disappears and the chicken is slightly seared. Take care not to brown or burn the pastes.
- Pour in the remaining yoghurt and cook for a minute.
- Next, add the fried onion paste and the ground cashew nut and poppy seed. Season and mix well to coat all the pieces.
- Toss in the green chillies, cover and cook the chicken on a medium flame for 15 minutes till the meat is almost done.
- Check the seasoning and pour in the saffron milk. Sprinkle the garam masala, simmer for a minute more (you should have a not-to-runny sauce) and turn off the heat.