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The rise of Champaran Meat

Most Indian gastronomic classics —that is to say, dishes that you find on lots of menus — have been around for decades if not centuries.

North Indian biryani dates back to the Mughals. What we now call Kerala biryani predates the Mughals by several centuries. The great kormas of Awadh are two centuries old. Rogan josh is so old that it is hard to even figure out when it left Kashmir and moved southwards.



The most recent Indian classics are the post-Independence dishes brought by Punjabis from West Pakistan: tandoori chicken and its offspring. We can date butter chicken to the late 1950s or early 1960s. And after that, no real standards have been created.


   But there is now a new dish cropping up nearly everywhere. It is called Champaran Meat and is such a hit that it’s almost the signature dish of New York’s Dhamaka, the hottest Indian restaurant in America and possibly the whole of the Western world.


   At Dhamaka, where the chef Chintan Pandya experiments with dishes from all over India including the North East, his version of Champaran Meat is such a sensation that the New York Times has written glowingly about it, Chintan has done Instagram videos about cooking it and nearly every review of the restaurant mentions this dish.


   So what is Champaran Meat exactly? I asked Manjit Gill, my long time guru on all matters relating to Indian food and he gave me his definition. He said it is “slow-cooked goat meat made in a handi. The meat is marinated with onions and garlic and cooked over an extended period with chopped ginger and whole spices like green and brown coriander, tej patta, cloves, dried chilli, powdered red chilli, turmeric, cumin, dhania powder and mustard oil.”


   When the dish is ready it is brought to the table in the handi in which it has been cooked. It is a dark, semi-dry-dish by this stage and can look oily and can sometimes be very teekha. It does not look like the kormas of Awadh cuisine or the curries (butter chicken etc) of post-Independence Punjabi cooking. It usually contains whole garlic cloves and has a somewhat rustic, strong taste to it.


   Chintan had tasted a version of the dish at a friend’s house many years ago and when his brother sent him a video of how the dish was made, he created his own version and put into the menu. Even he has been surprised by the enthusiastic response.


   But here’s the thing. Nearly every chef I asked — and I spoke to about a dozen for this column — said that they had never heard of the dish until five years ago. And some Biharis also cast sneering doubt on its origins. I asked Sangeeta Singh who runs the National Association of Street Vendors about it. Though Sangeeta has wide experience of street and dhabha food and is a Bihari herself, she responded: “I had never even heard of it a decade ago. It’s very recent. There is only one famous dish from Champaran and it is called taash kabab. All this fancy claypot stuff is just hype.”


   I asked the ace restaurateur Prasanjit Singh who travels all over India looking for recipes. He did not know it well, he said. “Manish Mehrotra made it known in Delhi,” he said, “I did not know it before.”


   Sandeep Pande, now at the St Regis in Goa, is the chef that other chefs look up to. Chintan Pandya and everyone else who has worked with Sandeep regards him as an encyclopaedia of food. I asked him how long ago he first heard of the dish: “It became popular around six year or seven years back”, he explained. “And suddenly everyone jumped on to the bandwagon and started putting whole garlic bulbs in thin gravy in a sealed mud pot and called it Champaran Meat. Comorin does a version too. “


   Many of the chefs I spoke to — most of whom are Punjabis, it has to be said —referred me to Manish Mehrotra, the Bihari who they said had popularised the dish. By some coincidence I was talking to Manish anyway for a piece on the Mumbai India Accent (in a week or two on these pages) so I asked him how he felt about popularising a Bihari dish. Did he feel like a proud Bihari?


   Err, not quite.


 "Could Ahuna Meat be the original inspiration for what we now call Champaran Meat?"

   “To tell you the truth,” said Manish, “when I was growing up in Patna I had never even heard of his dish. Even when I travelled in Bihar, it never turned up. Yes, there were dishes like taash kabab. But this Champaran Meat? Never.” This was not what I had expected so I asked him why he had put it on the Comorin menu then.


   “Around seven years ago, this dish suddenly started appearing all over Bihar. I tried it then and liked it. Even small Bihari restaurants in Noida started serving it. The food concept of Comorin is that we take interesting dishes from all over India and serve them. That’s how I put this version of Champaran meat on the menu.”


   So, he was not acting out of some kind of Bihari pride? “No. Not at all. I had never heard of it when I was growing up in Bihar.”


   These situations are not unusual in food journalism: Dishes are often difficult to trace. There are two global historical models for this kind of confusion.


   The first is the Chicken Kiev model. All the evidence tells us that Chicken Kiev was invented in New York. And yet, if you go to Kiev you will find lots of restaurants serving what they claim is the original Chicken Kiev.


   So is Champaran Meat like Chicken Kiev, a made up dish adopted in its alleged homeland?


   I prefer a second model: The Spaghetti Bolognese example. We all know that Bolognese sauce was invented by Italian immigrants in England (probably) or America. The sauce they served their pasta with was unknown in Bologna despite its name.


    And yet, it is not quite the same situation as Chicken Kiev which is just a made-up dish. Bolognese sauce was based on a ragu that was popular in Bologna. That ragu had important differences to Bolognese. It was made with chopped meat, not mince. It used different kinds of meat. It was cooked for hours. And so on. But there was a clear line of inspiration from ragu to Bolognese.


   My sense is that something similar happened with Champaran Meat. As Manish says, the idea of this kind of dish is not new: What is kosha mangsho, he asks. It’s from the same family but it’s from Bengal.


   Chef Kunal Kapur, another encyclopaedia of food, had some thoughts too. Kunal pointed to Ahuna Meat, a popular Bihari dish (this one at least, everyone has heard of for many years) and said it was not unlike Kunna Meat, a similar dish in West Punjab. These dishes turn up all over India, he suggested.


   Could Ahuna Meat be the original inspiration for what we now call Champaran Meat? At the ITC Royal Bengal, Champaran meat is not on the menu but they make it on request for banquets. I spoke to Abhinav Chaudhary, the Bihari chef who makes it. He accepted that there was a connection to Ahuna Meat and said that it is the idea of meat slow-cooked on a handi with whole garlic that is at the root of what he and other Biharis cook. He did not recognise many of the modern recipes for Champaran Meat, he said, but every chef has the right to do his own thing.


   I went back to Manjit Gill. “Over time, this dish has undergone some refinements,” he admitted. “Some cooks started adding browned onion, curd and coriander leaves and some began using ghee. It became the fashion to seal the lid with dough.”


   But how, in such a short space of time, did the fancy version of a basic Bihari dish become such a rage?


   Short answer: Digital and social media.


   You will find videos of the dish all over Instagram and YouTube is full of (varying) recipes for Champaran Meat. It may well be the first Indian standard to be popularised by the internet. That it has become so popular in such a short time, tells you something about the power of the net.


   Manjit is not judgemental about this. “Culinary tradition can evolve and variations may exist in the preparation of a dish”, he says tactfully.


   This is fine by me. I love the idea that Bihari cooks took the basic elements a traditional dish, used them to create Champaran Meat, and let its fame spread through digital and social media (Chintan saw a video with the recipe before creating his own version). Less than a decade after the modern version was created the dish is now such a rage that people wait for weeks to get a table at Dhamaka in New York to eat this rustic Bihari dish.


   If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is!




  • Punit Prakhar 13 Aug 2023

    There is no such dish as Champaran Meat.
    The dish is : ahuna chicken/ mutton. The name of the restaurant selling these dishes in patna was Champaran Meat House. This name catches on subsequently idiots started to call the dish itself Champaran Meat.

Posted On: 11 Aug 2023 10:54 AM
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