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Chop, cutlet and patty

What do these three culinary terms often used in India but derived from the names of Western dishes have in common: chop, cutlet and patty?

If you said they were the names of popular dishes, you would be right. But here’s the thing: each of them describes a completely different dish in India from the one it refers to in the West.


Let’s start with cutlets. In Western cuisine the term has two specific meanings. The first is a piece of mutton (with bone) from the neck of a lamb. The second, used most often for veal, describes a flat piece of meat (from the rib usually) that is breaded and fried. It has French and Italian variations but the most famous version is the Cotoletta Alla Milanese. (It is a cousin of the Austrian Wiener Schnitzel but that is usually made with a cut from the thigh.)


   Neither of these is a meaning we would recognise in India. We use the term to refer to a dish consisting of mutton (or chicken or fish) keema shaped into a flat patty, bread-crumbed and then fried. Rarely, if ever, will we use a whole cut of meat—it is nearly always keema—and over the years, vegetarian cutlets have also become popular.


   There is a tradition in the West of breading and frying chopped or minced meat for dishes called croquettes or rissoles. But rarely are they made in this size or made to look so flat.


   Given that we had no breadcrumb tradition in India till the British got here, our version of the cutlet is probably a Raj creation.


   The food writer Lizzie Collingham offers one explanation. The British were used to hanging meat for a few days to make it tender. This was not possible in the Indian climate where meat spoiled in the heat (there were no refrigerators in the early days of Raj) and Brits found fresh meat tough. Consequently they often preferred to eat keema over whole cuts of meat. Also, keema was a good way to use leftovers. This led to the creation of what we call cutlets in India. Originally, Indian cooks would stick a bone into the edge of the cutlet to mimic the real thing.


   The Raj ladies who asked their cooks to make keema cutlets probably did not realise that they were creating a whole new genre of Indian cooking, especially with dishes involving keema. Because the basic keema cutlet soon had a cousin.


   There is no unanimity about the date on which potatoes arrived in India. The credit is usually given to the Portuguese who are supposed to have introduced them to our shores in the early 17th Century. The problem with this theory is that there are very few old potato recipes in India dating to that period.


   What probably happened is that the Portuguese brought the sweet potato to India. It is also called batata in Portuguese (though these days they call say ‘batata doce’ to avoid confusion). The confusion over the potato and the sweet potato, both New World vegetables, was more or less universal: even European accounts of the arrival of the potato to that continent do not distinguish between the sweet potato and the potato. (The sweet potato came first, the potato was brought from South America by later expeditions.)


   It seems probable that the potato only made a full-fledged appearance in India when the British planted it in local gardens in the 19th Century. It certainly was common enough in Bengal to be included in biryani as a cheaper meat substitute by cooks in Metiabruz (what we call a Calcutta Biryani today) in the second half of the 19th Century.


"In the West, a patty is a flat disc of keema of the sort that goes into a hamburger. In India however, it means something entirely different: a savoury stuffed pastry."

   It was the British who recognised how well keema and mashed potatoes go together. In the UK, they already had Shepherd’s Pie (made with lamb and mash) and Cottage Pie (made with beef and mash). Because the potato content was high, these cost less than dishes made entirely from meat. And mince could be made with the cheapest meat cuts.


   Shepherd’s Pie (often made from leftover meat) was a popular Raj dish which spread to clubs all over Calcutta. Given that there was already a tradition of keema cutlets, it was a small jump to create keema-and-potato cutlets.


   Curiously, they were more popular with Indians than with Brits. And even more curiously, instead of calling them cutlets (which is what they were) Bengalis took to calling them chops, which is of course another name for the original cutlet in the UK.


   The term has had a mixed history in India. It is used all the time in Bengal and in parts of Mumbai. But it has yet to spread to the north of India where it only turns up intermittently. Part of the reason perhaps is that firstly, keema-potato cutlets are not very popular in the North. Secondly the term ‘chop’ had already been appropriated by cooks in UP. They use it to refer to a curried cut from the rib of the goal (it is sometimes corrupted to ‘champ’ or ‘chaap’) which became part of North Indian cuisine.


   That leaves us with patty. In the West, a patty is a flat disc of keema of the sort that goes into a hamburger. In India however, it means something entirely different: a savoury stuffed pastry. There are few exact equivalents in the West though the UK’s Cornish Pasty is probably a cousin. So is the ‘puff’ so beloved of South East Asian cuisine, where the curry puff, a similar dish, is a favourite.


    What complicates matters in India is that not only have we made the dish our own, we also refuse to refer to it in the singular. So it is always ‘patties’ even when we are talking about just one patty! And sometimes we use our own spelling: pattice.


   The pastry patty has the most interesting origins of any of the dishes dealt with here. A version of the patty may have existed as far back as 1170 according to some European food historians who trace its origin to Italy. There is an alternative theory that traces the patty to the Middle East as early as the ninth century.


   What we can be certain of is that the idea of filling pastry patties with meat has been around for over a thousand years. The Sambusak of Arabia (the ancestor of our samosa) is one example. So is the calzone of Italy, which is not a kind of pizza as we sometimes think but a samosa-like dish created hundreds of years before pizza came along. Calzones and Sambusaks could be baked or fried.


   These dishes travelled around Europe and the Middle East, turning up in Portugal and Spain where they became the empanada (which then went to South America) and eventually to England as the pasty.


   None of them came to India for centuries after they were invented because we had no baking tradition and did not use maida.


   I reckon that the samosa got here first. But who brought the patty? It’s hard to say. The Portuguese are supposed to have taken the puff (which is vaguely the same thing) to the Far East but my money is on the British bringing our modern patty to India. It is possible that the name is a corruption of pasty which is what they call it in Britain.


   What is clear however is that we have made it our own regardless of the Raj associations. It is also a dish that unites India’s many religions. You will find it at Christian pastry shops and at Muslim bakeries. Over the last decade it has become a rage at Hindu snack bars in Ahmedabad, where they call it a puff (often filled with cheese).


   And then there is the pattice of the Gujarati ragda pattice which is not a pastry at all but has more in common with the aloo tikki. Where did that come from?


   Good question. But that’s for another column…



Posted On: 27 Oct 2023 01:05 PM
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