With all respect to modern chefs, and no malice towards enthusiastic gastronomes, the surfeit of ‘creative fusion,’ has reached pandemic levels. So while there is certainly a case for ‘experimentation’ or ‘interpretation,’ — whichever way you choose to look at different takes on classic dishes — there are some cuisines that belie being tampered with. In an Indian food context, that’s because any rendition of a dish — the genesis of which lies in cuisines of Awadh, Amritsar, Hyderabad and Delhi which have traditionally been ‘rich,’ — is unlikely to ever match up favourably with the original.
So it was, with a mixture of trepidation and skepticism, that this writer made his way to (the recently concluded) ‘Rivaayat’ Festival at the Capital’s tony set’s favourite all-day dining spot — Threesixty° at The Oberoi. This culinary institution has a well-deserved reputation for serving the most succulent gourmet burgers in the city; and while the Indian cuisine is excellent, as you’d expect in an eatery with such credentials, I’d go on a limb to say that it’s not the star of the show. If I had one evening in Delhi, and wanted to sample the best Indian food I could possibly find, then Threesixty° is not the first name that would come to mind.
As it turns out, that’s precisely the question the hotel’s chefs — Rohit Gambhir and Arun Mathur — asked themselves at the onset of an exercise to embellish the Indian fare served at the groups’ various properties. “The idea was mooted by our President Kapil Chopra, who wanted to ‘take Indian cuisine to the next level. As far as Delhi was concerned we honed in on the food trail in Old Delhi. The idea was not just to try and replicate the ingredients that have been used for ages by the khaansamas, but mirror the actual cooking process,” says Gambhir. The duo scoured the streets of Old Delhi, to identify the khaansamas they wanted to work with; but getting the latter to subscribe to the whole notion of sharing their recipes and cooking techniques was another matter. “As long as we were there, and asking questions, no one paid us much attention, there are lots of culinary trails in Old Delhi these days and they (the Khaansamas) probably thought we were just curious gastronomes,” recalls Gambhir with a chuckle. The chefs soon realized that they needed an insider to convince the khaansamas.
Help came in the form of well-known food critic Osama Jalali who hails from Old Delhi and is a familiar face in the walled city. The khaansamas identified by the chefs took some convincing: the culinary world has a long tradition of secret ingredients and recipes, but Jalali eventually won them over.
What followed was an unprecedented exercise in which Gambhir marshalled over 40 chefs from different Oberoi properties across the country; a banquet hall at the Gurgaon property was booked for a week and outfitted with cooking stations and a big screen. Over four days the motley congregation of chefs then proceeded to follow, literally every move of the spatula by the khaansamas, notably Nazish Jalali and her son, Osama (Delhi); Sweety Singh (Punjab); Nawab Izzat Hussain (Lucknow); Mumtaz Khan and her daughter, Parveen (Hyderabad). All in all ten recipes were mastered by the chefs who were then dispatched to Old Delhi to get a taste of the original dish, prepared in its traditional milieu, and judge for themselves how their preparations stood up to the test.
They certainly couldn’t have faulted their recreation of Sweety Singh’s famous Amritsari Fish which has beckoned to foodies for years, drawing long lines at Kake Di Hatti near Delite Cinema in the Capital. As subtle and tart, embellished with a hint of ajwain and amchoor; and the fish possibly even fresher than the original, the preparation was loaded with flavours which immediately evoked memories of Singh’s creation. The star though was the fantastic Talli Murghi (fried chicken) which the chefs picked up watching Mohammad Hussain at his ever popular food stall in Old Delhi. “That was quite a challenge,” admits Gambhir, explaining that Hussain’s unique cooking technique wasn’t the easiest to replicate. “Hussain doesn’t have freezers and is constantly throwing ice cold water to preserve the raw chicken. Then that’s marinated for barely five minutes and fried on the go. Its chilled chicken that hits the oil and that gives it a nice crust whilst keeping it moist inside.”
In spite of the obvious challenges of recreating long drawn slow cooks at a five-star property, Gambhir insists that,” … we do have to ensure the quality of ingredients, but besides that there are no limitations to the things we can do here. It’s more of a mindset: we do have to dish out the food quickly in a five-star but this is not the kind of food we need to make to order. In fact it tastes better if it’s had a little time to sit,” he says.
The steeped flavours of the Nihari gosht — which has obviously had a few hours to let the garam masalas and saffron infuse the tender meat with a complex assortment of aromas — testify to Gambhir’s point. But the one dish that stays on the palate long after the meal is over is Nazish Jalali’s saag murgh kofte — chicken meatballs poached and then sautéed with spinach makes its case delicately but leaves a lasting aftertaste.
The festival may be over but the dishes have found their way on the menu of Threesixty° and other restaurants at Oberoi properties around the country. And while the whole experience of going to Old Delhi for a culinary trail will never lose its charm, there’s something to be said for enjoying the same food in the cosy ambiance of a fine-dining restaurant. Especially when all you’re craving for is a familiar classic.