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The legend of the Indian Kathi roll and its many avatars

The vendor greases a griddle or tawa with a spoonful of oil, places a thin flatbread or paratha on it. An egg is cracked over the paratha.

Once evenly cooked on both sides, he lays a portion of succulent meat pieces or kebabs, garnishes with onion slices, diced cucumber, kasundi or mustard sauce and pickled green chillies. A final dash of chaat masala before rolling the paratha up and pressing down to give it a crisp exterior. A kati or cathi roll is ready.

A much-loved Indian street food that has traveled the corners of the globe.

Where it all began

Kathi roll was first created at the legendary Nizam’s restaurant, in Kolkata’s New Market (formerly known as Sir Stuart Hogg Market) during the reign of the British in India. Legend has it that British officials would stop by often, to eat freshly grilled kebabs on their way to the business district of Dalhousie Square (present-day BBD Bagh). Some would be in a hurry.

So eating the kebabs with their hands were a bit more time consuming and messy. The cooks at Nizam’s came up with a handy solution of the kebabs wrapped in a paratha, so they could be eaten on the go. It was the perfect combination in every bite and the world continues to relish kathi rolls.

The uniqueness of kathi roll lies in its filling – it’s wrapped in a white flour or maida roti, which is layered with an omelette. The meat is added, but the cucumbers and onions bring out a kind of freshness, exclusive to the roll.

-Hricha Saraf, 41

“The word ‘kathi’ translates to stick, in Bengali,” explained 41-year-old Indian expatriate Hricha Saraf a Dubai-based Indian expatriate from Bengal, and the owner of Bol Gappa restaurant in Al Karama, Dubai. The word ‘Kathi’ was added to this roll after Nizam’s made a switch from iron skewers to bamboo sticks to cook the kebabs. The switch was primarily done to accommodate the roll’s popularity, especially because iron skewers were heavy and unsuitable for the mass production of kebabs.

Soon after Nizam’s, every street food stall in Kolkata began serving kathi rolls. “In every corner of Kolkata, you would find a Kathi roll stand. It is such a whole meal in itself. The uniqueness of kathi roll lies in its filling – it’s wrapped in a white flour or maida roti, which is layered with an omelette. The meat is added, but the cucumbers and onions bring out a kind of freshness, exclusive to the roll. The heart of it all lies in the addition of kasundia sauce made with mustard,” said Saraf.

“As children, we were always money conscious, and the kathi roll was the only food dish that fit our food budget every time. It was always reasonably priced and effortlessly made, which is why it is still loved today. It’s a gem in Kolkata’s vast cuisine.”

I remember in my college days our main meeting places for friends and classmates would be at street corners where they would serve these rolls; and what’s interesting is that this tradition has passed on from one batch to the next. Even today, you would find college students enjoying a good bite, because it is so budget friendly.

– Swati Giri, 52

A sentiment shared by 52-year-old Swati Giri, a Dubai-based Indian expatriate. “Nizam’s kathi rolls… is a staple in our city, Kolkata. I remember in my college days our main meeting places for friends and classmates would be at street corners where they would serve these rolls; and what’s interesting is that this tradition has passed on from one batch to the next. Even today, you would find college students enjoying a good bite, because it is so budget friendly. In the course of its evolution into various combinations of egg, chicken and meat, its popularity has soared across cities and states; and as we know today – the ‘Kolkata Kathi Roll’ is a menu item even in many fine dining Indian restaurants.”

My favorite memory would be when I was in college. My campus used to be along Theater Road in Kolkata and adjacent to that was Kusum’s, on Park Street. They serve one of the best kathi rolls in town… it’s such a huge part of our lives.

-Debjani Ghoshal, 45

“For me Kolkata’s kathi roll is a huge part of my childhood,” added 45-year-old Dubai-based Bengali expatriate Debjani Ghoshal. “Durga Puja, or any occasion for that matter, would be incomplete without eating kathi roll. We used to look forward to the eating it, especially because there were so many versions of it – chicken, mutton, paneer, egg, cheese, and so on. My favorite memory would be when I was in college. My campus used to be along Theater Road in Kolkata and adjacent to that was Kusum’s, on Park Street. They serve one of the best kathi rolls in town… it’s such a huge part of our lives.

“For the vegetarians, there would be paneer kathi rolls and vegetable kathi rolls… I’ve also heard that they’ve introduced soya kathi rolls as well. I haven’t been in Kolkata for over four years now, but I’ve definitely mastered the art of making it at home on a regular basis. It’s quite easy to make when you are really short of time.”

Frankies, Khan Chacha rolls… other names for kathi roll

kathi-roll

The Kathi roll caught on so well that it reached other parts of India, with different names and avatars
Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Kathi roll caught on so well that it reached other parts of India, where it took on new names and forms such as ‘Frankie’ in Mumbai and apparently ‘Khan Chacha roll’ in Delhi. While these rolls took inspiration from the original recipe of Nizam’s, it has its variations.

…it was sizeable; one frankie could be shared between two people. Moreover, the way a frankie is made, is enough to get any person walking past that shop – hungry. I still get hungry thinking about it.

– Roshni Mithaiwalla Siddique, 45

“Thin rotis, laced with egg, chicken, onions, diced capsicum, green chillies and chaat masala – that’s what the Mumbai Frankie is all about,” explained 45-year-old Dubai-based Indian expatriate and food blogger Roshni Mithaiwalla Siddique, who runs Café Funkie Town in Al Karama. “The best part of the Frankie is that it is toasted on the tawa again after rolling. I think the best frankies of Mumbai are served in Heera Panna (a shopping mall), which was quite popular in the 1990s. I remember, as college students, we used to go and eat the Frankie over there, and then head to the opposite side to eat or drink something more from the Haji Ali juice center.

“I think the term ‘frankie’ was first popularized by the brand ‘Tibbs’, but the meat was juicier and was served in two flavors – chicken curry and mutton curry. Heera Panna’s frankies were cooked fresh on the grill, cooked right in front of our eyes and served hot – it was the ultimate food spot for us. I used to stay in Bandra at the time, so we used to drive all the way to Heera Panna’s just to eat this – and it was sizeable; one frankie could be shared between two people. Moreover, the way a frankie is made, is enough to get any person walking past that shop – hungry. I still get hungry thinking about it.”

As for Khan Chacha rolls, they are made with rumali rotis, a thin flatbread made using all-purpose flour. According to popular Indian food critic Vir Sanghvi in ​​his online food blog virsanghvi.com wrote, “…the Khan Chacha formula is to make three kababs: a chicken tikka, a thin seekh of the kind we used to buy from street vendors… and a so-called kakoriwhich is probably not a kakori at all but is more like a real seekh kabab than the thing they call a seekh.

“You can order the three kababs separately. Or they will wrap them up in rotis and serve them to you. In that sense, the Khan Chacha roll (in any of its three avatars) is a true Indian sandwich…. But I doubt if they’re descended from the Nizam’s roll.”

kathi-roll

Today, these rolls – be it Kathi, Frankie or Khan Chacha – also come in vegetarian avatars and other flavours, to suit the world’s palate
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Eventually, Nizam’s roll was popularized globally by a businesswoman named Payal Saha. The Kolkata-born entrepreneur, who owns the popular Kati Roll Company chain of restaurants, claims to be the first person to have introduced it in the US. She currently owns five outlets, with one in London.

Today, these rolls – be it Kathi, Frankie or Khan Chacha – also come in vegetarian avatars and other flavours, to suit the world’s palate. However, it is a dish with many memories, and these UAE expatriates can vouch for it.

Has this story got you craving kathi rolls and frankies? Try out these three recipes for Kolkata paneer kathi roll, Kolkata egg chicken kathi roll and Mumbai chicken tikka frankie.

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