Bringing traditional bamboo chicken dish from India’s tribal regions to upmarket Parnell

As a teenager Ganesh Pulapa would ride 50km on his bike from his home in India’s East Godavari District to the tribal regions of Araku just to eat bongulo chicken.

The dish, also known as bamboo chicken, cooks marinated chicken pieces inside a bamboo stalk and it is synonymous with Araku, a hill station surrounded by thick forests of the Eastern Ghats mountain range.

Now 27, Pulapa is the owner of Plan B Lounge in upscale Parnell, and he wants to offer the Indian tribal delicacy at his eatery.

“Bamboo chicken is a very unique dish which, for me, represents my homeland and cultural roots,” Pulapa said.

“Putting it on the menu is not only my way of keeping myself connected with my country of birth, but also a way of sharing my culture here.”

Pulapa started Plan B Lounge last October just after the second Auckland lockdown with an aim of bringing back night life to Parnell.

The lounge serves a wide range of craft beers and liquor along with a good mix of Indian-fusion sharing plates.

Pulapa hopes the bamboo chicken, which he plans to add to the menu in the next week, will give people an added reason to come to the affluent Auckland suburb known for its boutiques, galleries and dining.

“I used to ride my bike for over an hour in India just to eat this, and I know if we do it right then people won’t mind travelling from all over Auckland for the bamboo chicken,” he said.

The origin of the dish can be traced to Maredumilli, where bamboos grow wild in its vast evergreen forests and tribes used them as a cooking medium.

Marinated meat is stuffed inside a bamboo stalk and roasted over the fire or grill. It is cooked without oil, and the chicken is stewed with its own juices within the bamboo, which gives it a very unique flavour and texture.

“It is very healthy because there is no oil used, and we can’t say that about many Indian dishes,” he said.

The popularity of the dish spread quickly from Araku to several parts of India but Pulapa is believed to be the first to be introducing it here.

About 200 to 250 grams of chicken, marinated with a mixed of local and imported herbs and spices, are stuffed into each bamboo stem. Pulapa said he plans to price the dish at around $25 per serve.

“We are trialling at the moment to get the roasting time just right, because if we don’t have it on the fire long enough the chicken will be uncooked and if a bit too long, the meat will be burned and tough,” Pulapa said.

Diners can either ask a server to empty out the chicken from the bamboo stem or to do it themselves at their table. The dish is served either on its own or with a side of biryani rice.

“Back in India the boys like to impress the girls by taking them on bamboo chicken dates, and I hope this will give guys a chance to do the same here too,” he said.

Pulapa came to New Zealand on a student visa in 2015, and was inspired to start his own restaurant after working for a short time at Paradise, a popular Indian restaurant in Sandringham.

“When I worked at Paradise I saw how much Kiwis love Indian food, but I also noticed that almost all Indian restaurants have the same things on the menu,” he said.

“I want to offer something different, which will also share with New Zealanders something from my cultural Telugu roots.”

Murali Kumar, secretary of the Auckland Tamil Association, says bongulo chicken is “rare and unique” and very few even among the Indian community would have had the chance to try it.

“I love good Indian food so of course I am thrilled that I will soon get bamboo chicken in Auckland, but I hope it will be authentic,” Kumar said.

Kumar said the introduction of new Indian dishes raises the awareness about the diversity of Indian food.

“Contrary to what many here think, Indian food is just not about butter chicken and tikka masala,” he said.

“Each region in India and every Indian diaspora offer their own unique dishes, and the range in types and flavours can be truly staggering.”

Restaurant Association general manager Nicola Waldren said one of the great things about a diverse hospitality is the opportunity it creates for fusion cooking.

“Chefs are like artists and they are continuously pushing their art form taking in influences from other cuisines and new styles of cooking,” she said.

“But being a restaurateur also means running a good business. Last year was incredibly challenging and while our industry is enjoying a brief honeymoon period over the summer months, we know the road ahead will be tough.”

Waldren said most businesses have made changes in their business to be able to weather a prolonged period without tourists, and the mood was “cautiously optimistic”.

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