Pretty much every culture around the world has come up with some kind of BBQ concept at some point in time - it feels like one of the first stepping stones somewhere on the journey between ape and man. It is therefore no surprise that the style of BBQ, what is being cooked and how it is done, changes from one region to the next, and India is no exception.
Our little meander into the world of barbecuing kicks off with the sigri, India’s favourite form of no-frills, low-tech grilling that is found from shore to shore and down pretty much every street food gully you can find.
So a sigri is basically a bucket. A bucket of coals. Well, to be more precise it’s more like a tray that has coals at the bottom and little grooves for resting skewers that can hang above the coals, but without touching them. This is straightforward skewered meat we’re talking about here. Popular across India as a street food staple, versions of the sigri have been used in India since the beginning of time, although the exact way it is done today is likely to have come into India along with the Moghul Empire that came in from Central Asia.
The beauty of the sigri is you can cook basically anything on it provided you can poke it onto a skewer. Across India the most popular sigri dishes include cubes of paneer (Indian cottage cheese) covered in dry spices, or richer meats either rubbed with spices or marinated in yoghurt. Because the food is never actually in direct contact with a hot surface like a pan, skillet or the metal grill, the meat is often more tender and the moisture stays intact as a result. More often than not, this kind of roadside BBQ set up goes hand in hand with green chutney, a yoghurt dressing or a tart, fruity sauce like a mango or tamarind chutney.
Most cities in India have notorious “khao gulleys”, which crudely translates into ‘eat streets’, which is exactly what they are - streets and side alleyways with mouth-watering reputations. If you find yourself in Mumbai, check out the Muhammad Ali road area in South Mumbai for first hand experience of full-on sigri culture. In Delhi, pop around the back of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi and get stuck into a similarly appetizing experience.
Look out for anyone skewering long thin strips of meat onto their spikes, folding back onto itself repeatedly like a long rippling ribbon. This ‘ribbon’ style of skewer makes for an extra succulent meal because the marinade pressed in between the folds doesn’t get directly exposed to the coals and so keeps its moisture better.