My delicious dives into India's culinary legacy

Osama Jalali proudly looks onto the old Delhi food
cooked by his mother 'Ammijan' Nazaish Jalali at the Trident BKC
Caveat: Long read

I had a couple of glorious meals this month. Both inspired from traditional/ ‘lost’ Indian, specifically North Indian, recipes. Both at five star hotels. One put together by the chefs at one hotel and another by a home cook invited to their kitchen by the other hotel. Both meals mesmerized me by the magic of their vibrant flavours where each dish stood out on their own. Nothing was overtly high on chilli levels. The food was light and didn’t leave one with a bloated feeling. I was suitably impressed by both experiences.

Exploring Mewati food from Rajasthan

The first meal was at the ITC Grand Bharat, at Manesar outside Delhi, who hosted us for a night during our recent Delhi trip. 

We had a few good meals at the Grand Bharat but the one that really stunned me with its rustic magnificence was the Mewati dinner that we had at the Apas restaurant (open on three sides) by the pool. ITC Grand Bharat's executive chef, Shivneet Pohoja, explained that Grand Bharat is located in the Mewat region which is the border of Rajasthan and Haryana. It probably lies on what were once roads used by travellers in the middle ages. Travellers who would stop at camps called ‘serai’s for sustenance. They would eat there and then pack food for the road. Therefore the food would have to be such that it would travel over distances.

Chef Shivneet Pohoja at work
He has been with ITC Hotels for 15 odd years

They have apparently tried to recreate the Serai concept at the Apas and recreated dishes from the Mewati region for the Local Love  menu at the hotel.

The dishes that followed from chef Shivneet and his team that night were magical.

Apas at Grand Bharat
Clockwise: Green moong dal, junglee maas, dhaniya chicken,
juicy skewered sholay kebab & Mewati biryani

Among the starters, the bajra (millet) shallow fried kebabs had a lovely texture and fresh taste to it that won the hearts of even us non-vegetarians. Shivneet had added in a bit of cheese to help bind the kebabs. The cheese embellished the flavours without overpowering it and was a great idea.

Among the mains, the green moong dal (often made in Calcutta too where it is called torka) was very simple and light and shrouded in the enchanting flavours of ghee. There was a dhania chicken where I was really impressed by the taste of the chicken and its succulence. So different from the chicken we get in Mumbai which is usually tasteless. The chicken at Apas tasted the way God meant it to be. Shivneet explained that they used Punjab brown chicken from local markets which apparently has the flavour of country chicken but is not as tough as country/ desi chicken.

We also had the Rajasthani hunter’s dish, junglee maas (literally ‘wild meat’). A dark brown fiery coloured curry which was pretty calm despite the red chillies used in it. This one had a curry unlike the junglee maas I had in Jaipur’s Handi which was dry. Shivneet explained that his is the version with salan (sauce). Ad legend, Piyush Pandey, had first told me about Junglee Maas and I enjoy it a lot more than the more famous Rajasthani laal maas.

The dish that won my heart that night at Apas and had my whimpering like a happy puppy was the Mewati biryani even though I had it at the end of the dinner and was quite full by then. Those who know me know how anal I am about biryani and how I am not fond of any biryani apart from the Kolkata one. Well, the rice of the biryani was ever so fragrant and had a slight tanginess to it which come from the preserved lime in which it was cooked and had me in its spell. There was no masala overdose in this biryani and the lime was apparently used to make the food stay well while travelling. The goat meat, like in the jungle maas, was incredibly tender. They use Rajasthani goat meat here. As Chef  Anirudhya Roy of Taj Land’s End told me, the meat from Rajasthani goats is of superior quality as they are reared in open fields. The quality of the meat improves as the goats get to graze over wide distances and lead a happy life unlike big city bread goats.

For desserts I tried a firni which was made again with bajra or the local millets instead of the traditional rice and had lovely texture.

The ITC Hotels group has a tradition of bringing Indian cuisines to theirtables and the meal put together by Chef Shivneet Pohoja at Apas did them proud. Shivneet said that they have used local ingredients and tried to recreate dishes which folks would eat in the serais in the olden days. There is not much written history when it comes to this food so inspiration, ingenuity and intuition lay at the heart of the Mewati Local Love meal at the Grand Bharat.

     Chat with chef Shivneet on Mewati culinary heritage

 Old Delhi home styled food

About a fortnight after the lovely Mewati dinner I had another spectacular meal. This time at the Trident BKC in Mumbai in their Rivayaat e Purani Dilli Festival. This is part of the Rivayaat or revival series which, from what I understand, was originally spearheaded by chef Ravitej Nath when he was the executive chef of the Oberoi Gurgaon.

Chef Ashish Bhasin has got the Rivaaya series over to the Trident at BKC where he is the executive chef. The current installment features dishes cooked by ‘Ammijan Nazish Jalali’, the mother of Osama Jalali who I gathered runs a Facebook food group on Lost recipes of India, writes on food and works in PR. This was the first time that Osama and I had met though I was aware of him and his mom.

With Ashish Bhasin in the centre
and Osama Jalali

The story of the Jalali family is an interesting one. Osama’s late father was a doctor in Old Delhi and practiced near Karim’s. Lot of his patients were apparently khansamahs (cooks) who would often get food over instead of paying fees to the doc. Food instead of fees used to occasionally happen to my late father, a doctor, too and I remember my mom used to fret about it. Osama’s mother would sometimes to try to recreate the dishes sent by the khansamahs, in her kitchen, for her family. She is from Rampur in UP and added the new recipes that she learnt to her repertoire of Rampuri recipes.

Osama told me that when his father passed away 3 years back, his mother withdrew into a shell and spent her time reading the holy Quran and doing namaz. Osama then encouraged her mother to cook for a larger audience as she loved cooking. She had earlier cooked for family gatherings of 200 (!) people or so but never commercially. Egged on by Ravitej Nath, the Jalalis began exploring old recipes and tapped on sources such as Salma Hussein and Pushpesh Pant who have done seminal work in archiving old Indian recipes and added these to  the Jalali home recipes which come from Rampur and old Delhi. Since then the Jalalis have worked with hotels such as the Oberoi Group (which includes Trident) in special meal pop up festivals. Osama tells me that his mother has had a new lease of life thanks to her new career as a home chef. 

Win win for all, as the food that I had at the Trident was fabulous!

The Trident festival featured old Delhi food and I have eaten in Old Delhi before. I have done the runs of nahari (a morning dish traditionally) at the late Kallu Miya’s shack in the evening, padpi chaat at Ashok’s, Moinuddin’s juicy sheekh kebabs, brilliantly indulgent butter cream chicken at Aslam’s, Karim’s oil fest, Pehelwan's biryani, kheer at Bade Miya, koolfi at Doolichand but I have not had it’s home food before barring the recent old Delhi inspired mutton curry at the ITC Maurya's Pavilion.

At the Trident last Thursday I skipped the quirky dishes such as parinde pe parinda (chicken stuffed with quail) and the moti biryani (biryani decked with egg white balls) and the other lost Mughlai recipes which the Ammi  Jalali had recreated basis Osama's interactions with food scholars such as Salma Hussein and Pant. Instead,  I went for the old Delhi home food and what a feast it was!

Skip the starters and go for the mains is my suggestion at the festival which is on till 29 April 2016 at the Trident BKC. You will be surprised to see how good the vegetarian fare and one normally doesn’t associate vegetarian food with Muslim cooking. There is a potato curry which would be at home anywhere in India. The mangochi --- simple moong dal dumplings combined with a contrasting rich curry was brilliant in its complexity and contrast of tastes. The channe dal ke bharta, where split pulses were cooked with ghee and cumin into a semi solid textured dish, was a show stopper with its bold flavours.

Mama Jalali's food from left to right
Row 1: mangochi, dal bharta, mirchi kheema
Row2: chicken stew, potato curry, nahari
Row3: arvi curry, udad dal gosht, biryani

Among the non-vegetarian dishes there was a chicken stew which was subtle in its flavours and so soothing and silken despite the summer heat. The udad dal gosht, where pieces of goat were cooked with black lentils was so Arabic in its origins. I had a bite and knew how much K would have liked it. The lentils were kept firm which added a nice bite to the dish. Then there was the traditional goat meat nahari which is slow cooked overnight. The dish, while rich, didn’t leave you with throat burn, that an oily roadside nihari could give you. The green chilli hued kheema (minced goat meat) was pretty mystical and alluring. The biryani was pretty fragrant and you could recognize it as a cousin of the Calcutta biryani.

The Menu of Rivayaat E Purani Dilli
At Maya, Trident BKC, till 29 April, 2016
They have thalis for lunch too

Dessert was pretty ‘molecular’ where the Jalalis have reprised a dish which was part of Old Delhi folklore I am told. This is the mutton (!) halwa where goat meat is cooked in milk and presented in a form where you would mistake it for a classic semolina/ suji halwa. First time I have heard of the dish and Osama says they hit upon it by trial and error as there were no recipes to go by.

Magical mutton halva

Despite having tried so many dishes that night, I didn’t feel any acidity or heaviness and the morning after was pretty chirpy.

That’s the mark of good home style cooking.

     Chat with Osama Jalali on old Delhi home food

The return of Indian lost recipes
It’s good to see these efforts in reprising traditional Indian recipes. The five star hotels do have the resources to invest in this. Hopefully customers will respond well too. I don’t eat often at 5 stars as I find them expensive in absolute terms but I bumped into friends at Trident BKC who were dining at the Maya where the Rivaayat fest was happening and who said they had enjoyed the meal too.

I have seen other examples of people pushing this exploration of historical Indian recipes. In recent times, before the hotel festivals that I mentioned happened, was Shubhra Chatterjee’s Lost Recipes series on the Epic Channel. I missed it as I rarely watch TV but heard that the show was well received. 

Babso Kanwar has been doing events in Delhi to showcase Delhi’s food heritage. My mother had given her some east Bengal recipes for the Partition food event that Babso held.

I had also attended a talk on the roots of Parsi cuisine by Dr Kurush Dalal in Rushina Ghildayal’s A Perfect Bite Cook Studio  as a part of their culinary legacy series. Kurush’s Katy’s Kitchen had also put together a Parsi heritage lunch there.

                                          Chat with Kurush Dalal on Parsi culinary heritage

For the interest in the roots of Indian food to grow, we need people in mass media like Shubhra and the Epic channels and event organizers like Babso and Rushina, hotels like the ITC and Oberoi/ Trident and their executive chefs like Ravitej Nath and Anish Bhasin, and story tellers like Osama, Shivneet and Kurush, and mammas in the kitchen like Ammijan Jalali to push this movement and I hope that my fellow bloggers will do their bit too.

Finaly though it all comes down to how the food tastes for this revival to work and what one experienced in Shivneet’s Rewati meal at the Grand Bharat and Nazaish Jalali’s old Delhi food Trident BKC’s Maya was stellar.

If I go by what one's seen, India’s culinary history is definitely going to see a renaissance and revival, and the great news is that this has already begun!

Let me also stress have got nothing against 'modern Indian' cuisine and innovation. My favourite dish, alu posto, for example, would not have existed if some Bengali housewife hadn't decided to use potatoes, then a newly introduced and exotic vegetable in India, and the seeds of the poppy (posto) cultivated for the British opium trade.

However, as chef Manjit Gill of the ITC Hotel Group says, there is such variety to Indian food that we still have a lot to discover about it and shouldn't be hurry to just chase the new.

Do let me know if you know of more such efforts to revive the culinary heritage of India.

Chef Manji Gill who has been with the ITC Hotels for 38 yrs
& is a big champion of Indian food


My meal at Maya was courtesy Trident Hotels & the stay at ITC Grand Bharat was courtesy ITC Hotels

The ITC Grand Bharat is this huge, newly built property, where the accommodation is in the form of tastefully decorated suites, some with attached private pools. You are in the lap of luxury when there. They have some massive presidential bungalows too. The resort is pretty new and fairly empty now and is a good place to go to unwind if you live the Bold and the Beautiful life.

Bedroom in the suite

Semi_private pool outside the suite

The hall in the suite, forgot to click the spa like tab

We had a lovely lunch at the stately India Room at the Grand Bharat where the dishes use ingredients which were brought to India by foreign travellers while travelling down the spice route. For breakfast, I had the ITC Grand Chola  platterwhich included a nice & soft Tamil home-styled dosa and the healthy fare at the Pavilion using sole fish, brown rice and local multi grained rotis was surprisingly tasty too.

The India Room at the ITC Grand Bharat

The delectable Grand Chola breakfast
At the Pavilion at The Grand Bharat