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28.03.2017

Late one night last week, craving a second dinner, I checked online to see if I could order some kind of roll. Soon, however, I forgot all about eating. I was crying. Howling. Bawling my eyes out. I spotted two separate places that now serve butter chicken rolls -- yes, butter chicken plonked into rolled-up roomali roti.

See, in this little town, we like our music loud, our guns loaded, and our violence unprovoked. We also like our butter chicken buttery and chickeny, with a quarter plate on the side for the naan or roti (achaar/lime/onions optional), like civilised human beings — a deconstructed butter chicken roll, if you must.  

Discovering this infection spreading across menus in Delhi takes me back to the dark days of being poor (while pretending to be rich) and eating butter chicken rolls in Bombay. Flashbacks of drunken evenings in the Sovereign Islands of Western Bandra ambush me. In body I am home; in memory, I am once again on 33rd Road, west of that alleged landmark KFC, a street filled with yuppies, waffling hepcats and people with nothing to say to each other. 

Beyond a short line of bars lay -- indeed, still lies -- a north Indian restaurant called Mini Punjab, which specialises in late-night food delivery, and is particularly beloved for being able to bring you, at 3 am, this bastard of a dish. Mini-Punjab has the dubious honour of being godfather of the butter chicken roll. It’s their most popular item on the menu, yet its conveyor belt of horrors has never been known to run out. 

Roti + Kapda + Makhkhan 

It’s only normal for a Delhi person to find the whole concept a slap in the face. Butter chicken is such an intrinsic element of our food map: it’s a fundamental part of growing up, pretending to like the overrated fare at Kake Da Hotel. Laughing at vegetarians who dare compare it to paneer makhani. Getting kicked out of Gulati or Pindi on Pandara Road for eating too much. Dismissing the dish at any fancy place — “Yuck, so bourgeois”. Arguably, butter chicken is more Delhi than Gurgaon is.

Reader, I personally enjoy eating dessert with my mains. I eat pineapple on pizza. I top up single malt with soda. I am even, I assure you, tolerant of vegetarians and their potato-paneer inclinations. So this is not about tradition. The problem with the butter chicken roll is that it is abysmal. 

It’s only normal for a Delhi person to find the butter chicken roll a slap in the face. Butter chicken is such an intrinsic element of our food map. But not only is it a grand insult to the glorious tradition of butter chicken, it’s also an affront to the great roomali roll.

Not only is it a grand insult to the glorious tradition of butter chicken, it’s also an affront to the great roomali roll. The chief characteristic of a roomali roti roll is that fragile interplay between dry and wet, always leaning slightly toward the former. The green chutney is meant to gently soak the roomali roti’s parched surface. The meat, tender and warm, develops a playful push-pull dynamic with the crunchy onions. Each bite is meant to be an understated surprise of taste and texture. 

The BC roll is merely excessive and overwhelming in contrast to this complexity. It has none of the subtlety of the roomali roti roll; instead of butter chicken’s flair, this dish has only superficial extravagance. Like that friend always shouting at waiters, this roll has no self-awareness, no nuance. No chill. 

Chicken Confidential 

Wheeler-dealers are more than welcome to subvert the roll; how else will we move forward? But it’s one thing to try out different variations of the form, another to destroy it whole with bucket-loads of leftover gravy packed into roti casings -- a sepoy-mutiny kind of mistake -- held together by sellotape, thumb tacks, fading glue, and hope. Would you eat a dal tadka roll? Matar-paneer? Kadhai chicken? Where does one draw the line?

It may sound like I hate the butter chicken roll. But this isn’t about hate: I really don’t mind its existence. I’ll confess to having eaten it plenty of times, even enjoying it on occasion (but only in the right context, which is Bombay, where the quality of roomali roti rolls is underwhelming). There is, however, such a thing as self-hatred, and this is why I think the appearance of this creation in Delhi deserves our intellectual disdain. Did its makers even realise the cultural dissonance of bringing it here? You wouldn’t put milk in lemonade, would you? Or wear a helmet while driving? 

It amazes me that the loudest section of our country is all up in arms about people eating b**f while butter chicken roll propagandists roam free, multiplying at will.

Getting there: You may order a butter chicken roll from Rollplay GK-II for Rs 145, call 9911274447. We didn’t. 

This letter was contributed by Akhil Sood, an arts & culture writer from New Delhi. 

Image credit: Goila Butter Chicken, whose butter chicken rolls are loved by our Bombay editors.

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