This Saturday, I was faced with two small onions and a kilo of frozen chicken.
Onion always bring do piaza to mind. The dish has a nice historic tale of its own – it is traceable to Mulla, one of Akbar’s Navratnas, a commoner who had worked his way through the imperial poultry farm to the royal court. Mulla (who was a scholar and administrator, not a cook) was so famous for this recipe that it became his royal title – he was officially called Mulla Do Piaza. He was said to have invented the recipe in question as a cost-saving measure; apparently the royal kitchen prepared both grated onions and fried onions for use in different dishes, much of which was wasted at the end of the day. I must also mention that though do piaza features in both Lucknawi and Hyderabadi food, Bengali men are particularly fond of claiming culinary excellence at it.
The humble onion is omnipresent in food but usually as a sidekick - it is unusual to find the onion as the star, and a double role like this is nearly unheard of. Now there are as many ways of making a do piaza as cookbooks in the universe. Some claim that two onions are to be used per kilo of meat (what size?). Some say double the weight of onion to meat (that will get you onion soup) and yet others insist on adding it twice, in different forms at two different stages of cooking. The last explanation seems to me the most plausible, and is also the one most authoritative cookbooks will tell you. So thats the do piaza it was, and since it was one of those rare instances that I was cooking in the daytime, some self-indulgent photography seemed called for.
My version of dopiaza comes basically from my favourite Lucknow cookbook - Dastarkhwaan-e-Awadh. Since it was the Mughal influence that brought chicken to Bengal to start with, I figured this would be as ‘authentic’ as any and anyway, it comes out wonderful. The sauce uses a base of grated onions while dark, deep fried onions are added at the end for a textural contrast and an extra dollop of flavour. The basic gravy is simple, whole garam masala and coriander-chilli-pepper powder added to an onion-dahi base. The recipe calls for no jeera powder, and the final twist at the end is mace and nutmeg powder.
Ok the pictures were good, but the chicken was great too. The deep-fried onions add a sweet-onion bite with that slight bitter edge and a little bit of bite to a smooth, flavourful gravy. I add my own twists to the recipe – a few chopped-up dhania stalks, a little bit of green chillies to heat things up and a pinch of amchoor for added tang.
Now for the bit more. Given that two onions were all I had, I was still left with some no-piaza chicken; only spices from my spice cabinet to spice things up. Always up to the challenge, I decided on the usual cinnamon-cardamom-clove trio, along with whole coriander seeds, black pepper, shahi jeera and plain jeera ground into a coarse powder. On that, I needed a binder – something to make it sticky and coat the chicken – so some cashew paste in milk was added. Everything was duly fried in ghee, tossed with a leftover green chilly from earlier - low heat and a bit of patience later, things were looking good. A pinch of nutmeg and mace and voila! – there landed on the plate a beautifully fragrant chicken with a great chunky textured coating. Some cashews to top if off, and it was ready for food porn.
There’s a sub-note. I’ve just discovered one key downside of do piaza – it does not reheat well. When I had it fresh, the second of the two piazas was crisp, chewy, nicely textured and added a lot to the overall dish. A bit of microwave love and those lovely fried onions were just dark brown stains in the gravy; they melted away at the first sight of heat leaving us, I guess, with ek-piaza.