Ask meat eaters in north India about their favourite kebab, and you are likely to hear a passionate defence of which variety is best and why. Kebabs are a key part of food culture on the subcontinent, from chicken tikka (chunks of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked on a skewer) and sheesh or shish (minced meat with spices), to shami kebabs (small patties of minced boiled mutton or beef, ground chickpeas and spices). But while kebabs today are a source of national pride, their origins are generally believed to be distinctly foreign.
Historians believe kebabs were brought to India from Persia on the 'Genghis Trail' - the path that the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan and his troops carved across Asia in the 12th and 13th centuries - as chef and food historian Marut Sikka calls it. The geographical pattern matches the areas in which kebabs are eaten today. In Persian folklore, kebabs originated with medieval knights who skewered meat on their swords and cooked them over open fires.
The Mughals - distant Central Asian Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan, who ruled north India from the 1500s to the mid-1800s - further entrenched kebabs in Indian food culture. The Mughals took great pleasure in eating, according to Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A Biography, who quotes one of the earliest Muslim cookery books from Baghdad as describing food as 'the noblest and most consequential' of the six pleasures (the others being sex, clothes, drink, scent and sound).
Restaurateur and expert on north Indian and northwestern frontier food Jiggs Kalra and his research partner Pushpesh Pant, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and author of numerous books on Indian food, say they have unearthed Sanskrit texts from the third century referring to a Rajasthani kebab of venison and duck called suleh that was cooked on a makeshift spit with bricks and wire mesh. While this predates the Mongol/Mughal invasions of what is now India, the similarities between the Iranian, Afghan and Turkish versions suggest there has been a strong interchange of culinary history across the region.
Over the centuries, India has refined various kebabs and created new varieties. Some are skewered, and others are shaped into patties; some are grilled over coals, and others are cooked in the tandoor.
The galavat varieties use softening agents to tenderise the meat, usually pulverised raw papaya. Kakori, dora and galouti kebabs are examples. The dora, or 'thread', kebab is about 20cm long, highly spiced and made of goat meat and fat that is wrapped up in thread to hold the kebab onto the skewer, whereas kakori kebabs are made of finely minced goat shoulder that is tenderised and reformed by hand onto skewers, making long, thin tubes of meat. The latter are eaten with roomalli (meaning handkerchief in Urdu and Hindi) roti, which are large, thin breads that are folded like handkerchiefs.
Galouti kebabs, considered one of the finest dishes in the repertoire of the Awadhi cooking tradition of Lucknow, are soft patties of goat or lamb meat cooked on an upside-down griddle.
Kalra says the galouti kebab was created by a chef called Tunde for his elderly king.
'The galouti kebab came into existence when the nawabs [kings] of Lucknow lost their ability to chew meat. The bawarchi [chef] - Tunde, who had only one arm - created a kebab which was so soft that it melted in the mouth,' he says.
During Mughal times, the aristocracy would borrow chefs from one another, and Kalra's research shows that the maharaja of Patial borrowed Tunde for some time, introducing the galouti kebab to Patiala in Punjab.
Kalra says he obtained the recipe for the masala (spice mixture) of the original galouti kebab from Tunde's grandson. The kebabs are made with cashew paste, milk and yellow chillies, as yellow chillies have a sharper taste. Traditionally, the recipe also calls for musk, but as the musk deer is a protected species now, Kalra says he uses triple distilled rose water in the galouti kebabs served in his Punjab Grill restaurants.
Kakori kebabs are another distinctly Indian creation. Cooked in less than 30 seconds, Kalra says they were created to feed thousands of people quickly.
'The kebabs are named after the village of Kakori, seat of a much-visited mosque in Uttar Pradesh state,' he says. 'Thousands of people used to come every day to pray, so the locals came up with the fast-cooking kebabs and roomalli rotis to feed them' - a good example of a whole village creating a dish.