Kobiraji Cutlet

A fter the British takeover followed the Battle of Plassey in 1757, India, and thereby its states, became the centre for trade in spices, goods, and textiles. Kolkata being the capital of the British Raj at that time was the melting pot of this massive socio-cultural exchange between the East and the West. Food, as a result, underwent drastic changes as well, and suddenly one could experience the city's taste palate getting acclimatised to dishes that were devised by implementing Western aesthetics, yet retaining local flavours and ingredients. One such specimen is Kolkata's prized Kobiraji cutlet. In fact, it was an extremely popular item during the colonial era because of its unique blend of the flaky, crunchy mouthfeel of the outer crust with the juicy meat or fish (traditionally, bhetki/ barramundi is used in the dish) cutlet inside. 

The journey of Kobiraji is deeply intertwined with the journey of the cutlet in India. The concept of a cutlet came from the French term "cotelette" (which stands for chopping, forming the meat and then frying). In a feature for Tribune India, noted food historian and writer Pushpesh Pant talks about the rise of cutlet in India: "It travelled easily across the length and breadth of the subcontinent on railway tracks and reserved its place in the remotest dak bungalows, where many a khansama-chowkidar took justifiable pride in their cutlets. It made use of any leftovers from the previous night’s meal to be paired with almost anything on the breakfast or teatime snack menu."

These rectangular-shaped fries, generally made of chicken, fish or even prawns, became a staple in railway dining cars and retiring rooms, and eventually made their way to the clubs, canteens and hostel messes. Bengali cabins, serving fast foods to office goers and workers, began selling these fried non-veg goodies, and within no time they became an absolute favourite.  

But the Kobiraji is a step ahead. It essentially has an egg coating around the cutlet. The term 'kobiraji' has no roots in either Bangla or English, it's just a distorted misnomer for "coverage", referring to the extra outer layer. Incidentally, the word 'kobiraj' in Bangla means doctor. 

In Kobiraji, the cutlet is surrounded by a fluffy, mesh-like, crispy layer that is made of egg yolk and bread crumbs. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that making this mesh is a work of art and requires patience and a good amount of practice. However, there is an easy way of just dipping the cutlet in egg yolk and then lowering it into hot oil, and eventually pouring the remaining egg yolk over it in a way that it forms a crispy outer cover. But the more skilled procedure involves dipping fingers in the egg yolk batter and creating a large mesh in hot oil and then dunking in the cutlet and enveloping it with the entire mesh. One of the most well-known eateries in North Kolkata, also one of the city's oldest, Mitra Cafe, has been making their Kobiraji in a similar fashion since the pre-Independence era.