The Delicious History Of Kolkata’s Favourite Kathi Kebab Rolls
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In Bengal, where life practically revolves around food, much respect is given to street food. In Kolkata, for instance, tiny shops selling momos and phuchkas (also known as pani puri and golgappas in other parts of the country) are everywhere. Cha (tea) shops that sell spiced, milky tea in small earthen pots called ‘bhands’ in Bengali as well as black lebu cha (lemon tea) are tucked away in every narrow lane in the city. There’s also the beloved jhalmuri, chops, cutlets and rolls. The Kathi Kebab rolls are the most popular amongst the rolls.

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The story behind how they were first created is quite interesting. Like many dishes of Bengal, the invention of the Kathi Kebab also dates back to the period of the British Raj in India. The dish is believed to have been invented in the early 20th century in Kolkata, a bustling metropolis and cultural hub of India. The year was 1932 and the restaurant was Nizam’s located in Hog Market in Calcutta (now Kolkata). 

Started by a gentleman named Raza Hassan Saheb, Nizam's quickly gained a reputation for its delicious kebabs, which were originally made with beef. These kebabs were cooked on iron skewers and served with traditional accompaniments. As the popularity of kebabs soared, Nizam's tried to streamline the cooking process. The iron skewers were not very convenient for the fast-paced lifestyle of Kolkata's working-class population. 

The need for a more practical and portable version of this beloved dish led to the creation of the Kathi Kebab Roll. The word ‘kathi’ in Bengali means stick and refers to the bamboo skewers that were later used to cook the kebabs. The bamboo skewers were not only more practical and easier to handle but also gave a subtle smoky flavour to the kebabs. The dish then came to be called Kathi Kebabs. 

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From Kathi Kebabs To Kathi Rolls

While both locals and the British loved the juicy kebabs, the British Sahebs found it difficult to indulge in the kebab’s with their hands. That’s when one of the chefs at Nizam's had a brilliant idea. They started wrapping the succulent kebabs in parathas, a type of Indian flatbread, making it easier for people to eat the kebabs while on the move. The bottom of the paratha was wrapped in paper earlier and then foil more recently.

This new creation was not only convenient but also incredibly tasty, as the paratha absorbed the flavours of the kebabs and the accompanying chutneys. The original Kathi Roll had a kebab, often beef, wrapped in a flaky paratha, with a smattering of spicy green chutney, onions, and sometimes a dash of lime. The combination of the juicy kebab, the crisp paratha, and the tangy chutney made it an instant hit among the locals and British officers alike.

The Kathi Kebab Rolls Today

Hog Market is called New Market today and Nizams is still thriving. The success of the original Kathi Roll inspired numerous variations to cater to different tastes and dietary preferences. While the initial version featured beef kebabs, other meats such as chicken, mutton, and even seafood were soon incorporated. Nizam’s too doesn’t serve beef anymore. For vegetarians, paneer, mixed vegetables, and soy-based kebabs became popular alternatives.

The paratha itself saw several transformations. In some versions, the rich, flaky paratha was replaced with a lighter, whole wheat roti or a thin roomali roti, which made the roll less greasy and a preferred option for those who are health-conscious. The fillings also became more elaborate, with the addition of ingredients such as bell peppers, tomatoes, and various types of chutneys and sauces.

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Going Global 

The Kathi Kebab Roll embodies Kolkata’s culinary diversity, blending Mughlai, Bengali, and British influences into a single, delicious package. As Indian cuisine gained international recognition, the Kathi Roll found its way to global menus. Indian restaurants and food trucks around the world began offering Kathi Rolls, introducing the dish to a wider audience. Its portability, combined with its rich and varied flavours, made it an ideal choice for urban dwellers seeking a quick yet satisfying meal.