I still remember my first meeting with Nawaz Buhari at Chennai’s legendary Buhari Hotel on Mount Road (now Anna Salai). I walked in with a one-point agenda — to indulge my nostalgia. For about three decades, Haneef was the official ice-cream seller for Don Bosco School in Egmore. Virtually every trip down memory lane still involves conversations about the Buhari ice-creams we blew up all our pocket money on. So, when we had our biggest school reunion over a year ago, I asked Nawaz if there was any way he could organise the same ice-creams as our tribute to Haneef. Nawaz burst my bubble; Buhari’s had exited ice-creams as part of its expansion plans for its restaurant business.
For most Chennaites, Buhari is still synonymous with its first location on Mount Road. You have to go back to the ’50s and the ’60s to truly understand the brand’s impact on the city and its popular culture. One of those trails will lead back to 1965 and to, arguably, the restaurant’s biggest culinary contribution.
By most accounts, AM Buhari, Nawaz’s grandfather, was a man ahead of his time and my conversation with Nawaz only confirmed everything I’d heard about him. For one, the man who set the tone for dining out in Chennai was actually from Colombo and even the restaurant’s most famous recipe might have been something he dreamed up in Colombo. Nawaz puts the restaurant’s biryani in perspective, “Our founder (AM Buhari) tried 200 different versions of the biryani before arriving at the Buhari biryani as we know it today.” Even the idea of embedding a boiled egg into the long strands of rice in the biryani started here; now it’s almost a standard at many restaurants. In fact, the Buhari biryani was the gold standard for biryanis in Chennai and it’s only recently that biryanis from Dindigul and Ambur have started attracting notice.
While Chennaites still associate this restaurant with its iconic biryani, it’s Chicken 65 that makes Buhari show up on Google searches the world over. There are some bizarre theories about its nomenclature and Buhari spoofs the Wikipedia entry by adding these theories to its website with a tone that almost reeks of ‘go figure’.
My favourite theory is one that suggests that the dish needs to be cooked with the meat of 65-day old chickens. Imagine the pressure that would put on the sourcing team at Buhari! Equally bizarre is the suggestion that the marinade needs 65 days to prepare. Nawaz quells some of these obviously false rumours with the most accepted answer that unfortunately is also the most boring. ‘The dish was added to the menu in the year 1965 and, hence, the name.’
You can’t usually go wrong when you deep-fry chicken. Buhari’s Chicken 65 recipe entails coating the chicken (usually with bones) with a multi-spice marinade that includes ginger, garlic, red chilli and vinegar and then deep frying it after at least 30 minutes. The actual mix of spices and ingredients is still a closely guarded secret — Buhari might have expanded into a chain, but the ownership for each of these branches still rests with the family. Most regions in India have versions of the Chicken 65 and some of these have existed earlier than 1965 — like the Karnataka version that is served with freshly grated coconut. But many of these traditional versions have all been badged as Chicken 65.
AM Buhari opted not to patent his invention. He felt that this move would result in the legend of Chicken 65 travelling beyond Buhari’s stronghold in Chennai. And he was spot on. From upscale bars to highway dhabas, the Chicken 65 has travelled far and wide as a bar snack, or an indulgent meal accompaniment. Buhari’s experiments with chicken didn’t stop with Chicken 65; there’s Chicken 78, and my personal favourite, the sinful and ‘calorie-licious’ Chicken 90. But, the Chicken 65 still reigns supreme. Blame it on nostalgia!
Yet another theory about the dish is that Chicken 65 was named on the fly. AM Buhari was entertaining some guests on New Year’s Day in 1965 and one of his chefs had prepared a new chicken dish. When his guests quizzed him about the name of the dish, AM Buhari called it Chicken 65 and the name stuck. The legends that surround the Chicken 65 are never ending and you might hear more tales from some of the restaurant’s ageing wait staff who worked under AM Buhari. Today, late-night revellers in Chennai are spoilt for dining options, but back when Buhari ruled the roost, this is where you could get a comfort meal after a late-night movie. And quite often, that meal included a Chicken 65.