From Pasty To Pattice: How The Chicken Puff Came To India
Kalonji (Nigella sativa) spiced chilli vegetable pattice at Jimmy Boys. Photo: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
Some scenes of my debut film Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin were filmed in South Mumbai. A film about one eventful night, we began shooting at 7 pm, and invariably director Sudhir Mishra and some of the crew ended up at Kyani café early the following morning. Fortified by cups of sweet Irani chai and flaky chicken pattice that came straight out of Kyani’s dinosaur ovens, I’d race off to St Xavier's College for economics class.
Everyone in Mumbai has an Irani café story and pattice are an integral part of the menu.
THE ENGLISH CONNECTION
It is suggested that Indian chicken and Mutton Pattice also called Pattie and puffs is a ‘desi’ variant of the Cornish Pasty introduced to the colonies by the British. It is not hard to imagine how the word Pasties evolved into Pattice in the subcontinent. While a typical Cornish Pasty in England is a small, crimped, stuffed D-shaped savoury made with short crust pastry or rough puff (flour and fat), most Chicken Pattice at Irani bakeries and gymkhanas are a version of French puff pastry or pâte feuilleté.
Cornish Pasty is associated with the miners of Cornwall and is traced back to 1300 A.D. even though mining began there in the 1100s. It was a poor man’s food and contained only potatoes. Meat was added later.
The Cornish pasty has a Protected Geographical Indicator status since 2011. In order to be sold as a Cornish pasty the savoury must be made in Cornwall. The Cornish Pasty Association insists it be made with beef, must contain no other vegetables besides turnip (swede, also called Rutabaga in the U.S.A), onion and potato. It also lays out specifications for the kind of dough (not too flaky, the addition of bread flour is recommended, but hearty and robust enough to survive a trip down a mine shaft). The journey this culinary delight took through the English colonies transformed the plain potato and meat fillings into more flavourful versions spiced with scotch bonnets, garlic and curry spices.
Caramelised onion and paneer from Jimmy Boys. Photo: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
THE FRENCH AND OTHER CONNECTIONS
In cookbooks dating between 1129 to 1200, the French were making a kind of stuffed pie called pastilles. Pastis Landais, Gascon and bourrit are variants. Pastis (not to be confused with anise flavoured liqueur) is derived from the French word pâte meaning pie. A pie differs from a tart. To be called a ‘pie’ the dish must have a filling and a crust at the bottom and the top.
Larger pies in the early medieval period were made with a rock hard crust of flour and water, called a Coffin. This crust was intended only to protect the filling. The rich ate the filling and tossed the crust. But smaller, pocket pies like the Pasty were made with a softer, fat and flour dough that was meant to be consumed in its entirety.
Larousse Gastronomique links Pasty to Bastilla, the national dish of Morocco. Some suggest Pastilla has Arab Andalusian origins from the time of the Caliphates in the 8th century. Pastilla in Spanish means ‘small pastry’ and employs a fine werqa dough. The B in Arabic replaced the Spanish ‘P’.
Pasties, patties and pattice fall into the ‘portable pies’ category that also include turnovers, calzones, empanadas, pop tarts, Natchitoches and Stromboli. There are numerous references, entire cookbooks even dedicated to these small, stuffed pies throughout medieval history. They were cheap to make, easy to transport and satisfying. It is no wonder they have been adapted the world over.
The Spanish have the empanada, the Brazilians pastel, the Persians made Baghlava Esfhani, sweet D-shaped pastel and Boreks, fine yufka dough stuffed with meat originated in the Ottoman Empire. Author Claudia Roden writes about the Pastelikos de Carne made by Sephardic Jews from Greece. The Syrians also make a pie called Pastelis.
Kolumna in Russia claims to have invented a sweet Pastilla with egg whites and has a museum dedicated it. Corsicans still make Bastella, a meat and vegetable pie.
I also found mentions of patties, pastie and puffs in Rundell’s ‘A New System of Domestic Cookery’ (1814). Interestingly, the terms are used interchangeably but they all employ puff pastry, are individual pies, stuffed and baked.
Cafe Excelsior's spicy chicken pattice (L) & chicken pattice at Nahoum's, Kolkata. Photos: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
THE AMERICAN CONNECTION
Cornish Pasty is believed to have travelled to America in the 1830s when 37,000 miners immigrated to the USA. It is possible they took with them the food they loved the most.
In parts of the USA, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the Pasty continues to be popular, the dough is sometimes made like choux pastry by boiling butter, water and flour over a stove. The Cornish pasty evolved a little differently in Jamaica where the traditional patty is dough seasoned with turmeric and is often served vada pao style with a coconut bread bun. In the USA and UK, a patty is also a breaded cutlet like a tikki or Ragda Pattice in India.
MY FAVOURITE CHICKEN PUFFS IN INDIA
My favourite chicken pattice came from Bastani near Metro cinema before it closed. In Mumbai, Jimmy Boys make a delicious caramelised onion and paneer puff that resembles the shape of the Cornish Pasty sans the fluted edges. You can also buy a spicy chicken puff from Café Excelsior in Fort. Wengers in New Delhi, Nimrah in Hyderabad, Flurys and Nahoum's in Kolkata also sell scrumptious pattice.
The author began her career on the English stage and worked as a model and MTV veejay. Post marriage, she moved to the US and attended classes at The French Culinary Institute in New York and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The cookbook author now lives in New York and Mumbai, and documents her food stories on her website.