The Indian table, even for the well-travelled chef, is like an onion that you can keep unpeeling and discovering yet another layer. Executive Chef Pradeep Khosla of Taj Krishna was certain he knew all that he had to learn about Kolkata's culinary heritage, thanks to his stint at Taj Bengal. That was till he stumbled upon the Chinese breakfast bazaar, which buzzes with energy between 5 and 7 each morning next to Poddar Court, off Bentinck Street, the place where Calcuttans with a foot fetish go to get hand-made shoes from Chinese shops that are disappearing with each generation.
Serendipity had led Khosla to this whole new world of food that got frozen in time when the first Chinese settlers arrived in Kolkata from Canton. Even as the sun was barely up, the chef was tasting home-made specialities that he wouldn't even consider as Chinese food had he not been at Tangra – baos filled with onions, celery, boiled eggs and diced chicken; puff pastries with pork or mutton mince and diced coconut, or simply coconut and jaggery; spring rolls with a stuffing of celery, spring onions and pork; and pork or prawn mince on toast.
This was the food with which one community began its journey in one part of India, yet no one had documented it anywhere. Out came the chef's digicam and what was meant to be a morning of food tasting ended in a lot of hard work. Khosla kept samples of each dish, dissected them into sections like a biologist, and took pictures of the preparations for Taj Krishna chefs to replicate them.
From San Francisco to Sydney, each city with a history and a gastronomic tradition has successfully marketed its food heritage to the world. In India, we have yet to cash in on the growing market for food tours. Not that there's a paucity of pioneers in this sunrise sector of international travel.
In Tellicherry, in the heart of the Malabar Coast, Faiza Moosa offers a complete Moplah gourmet experience to European holiday-makers travelling by cruise liners that anchor off Cannanore. From Cannanore, they travel by road to Tellicherry, where Moosa lays out a feast consisting of pathiri s and biryani s, prawn and mussel preparations, chicken and lamb curries (all without pepper, ironically) that evolved out of the marriage, many centuries ago, between Arab traders who had come in search of spices and local women. You won't get this food anywhere else in Kerala, which explains why Moosa has been featured on BBC and has had the French eating out of her hands at Lyon, the French capital of gastronomy.
Far away from Kerala, in the picturesque hill station of Darjeeling, tea tours are finding takers, with big names like Ambootia and Makaibari backing a good idea popularised by local hoteliers like Diamond Oberoi of The Eden and Dhiraj Arora of Cochrane's Place, who has gone to the extent of offering the therapeutic services of a tea spa and preparing a menu where each dish has tea as an ingredient.
On the other side of the country, Goa's spice plantations offer a completely new culinary experience – the Saraswat cuisine, famous for its stuffed mussels and crab, prawn curry and sol kadi , like what's served at the restaurant at Savoi Plantation, located 13 km from Old Goa down NH4A. You can't have better gastronomic tours than what's possible in India. And you must not make the mistake of believing you know everything about our cuisine.
As Executive Chef V. K. Chandrasekharan of Taj Coromandel will tell you, for instance, Chicken Chettinad is as authentic as Butter Chicken – you won't find Chicken Chettinad being served in a Chettiyar home, just like Butter Chicken hardly figures on the Punjabi domestic menu. Instead, you'll find your Chettiyar host serving you quail, turkey, rabbit and shark, or lamb that has been sun-dried for seven days. The same host may take you by surprise by becoming a resolute vegetarian on a Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
Even the origin of the word ‘curry' is open to debate, as I discovered on my recent visit to Chennai. Early writers, relying on Hobson-Jobson, the lexicon of Anglo-Indian words, believed curry originated from the Tamil word kaari . Ask Chettiyars the meaning of the word kaari and they'll say it's lamb; the word kozhambu (pronounced with a roll of the tongue) signifies a gravy item. So when you go to Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel in Chennai and ask for an Uppu Kandam Kozhambu, you'll be served a sun-dried lamb curry. Dry-fried items are collectively known as varuval .
If one were to identify a trend in Indian gastronomy today, it's the effort – sporadic at times, powered by committed hotel groups and individuals at other times – to go deep into the roots of our culinary heritage and to trawl the elements of authenticity from the debris of history.
It was Camellia Panjabi, who was almost single-handedly responsible for Taj restaurants like Konkan Café, Karavalli, Raintree and Southern Spice becoming the benchmarks for regional cuisine, who awakened the world to the vastness of the Indian kitchen with her ground-breaking book, 50 Great Curries of India . And her tradition is being enriched by hoteliers like S. S. H. Rehman, food consultants like Salma Hussain and Umni Abdullah, chefs like Sultan Mohideen and V. Srinivasa Chalapathi Rao (of the ITC Welcomgroup), caterers like Chitra Ghose and Gunjan Goela, and passionate foodies like Begum Noor Bano of Rampur, Randhir Singh of Patiala and Rocky Mohan of the Mohan Meakin family.
Together, they've made Indian cuisine come alive with stories and traditions, discovering recipe books and cooking styles that change dramatically every 50 km. Mughlai cuisine, as we knew it when every restaurant claimed to be serving it, is not seen as a monolithic tradition anymore.
Salma Hussain will tell you that the recipes dating back to the Mughal Emperor Jehangir – the man known to the contemporary western world as the ‘Great Mogol' – had no red chillies (they hadn't become popular in India by that time), garlic, onions and tomatoes, and kebab s barely figured among the delicacies. During the reign of Jehangir's successor, Shahjahan, red chillies began to make an appearance, the use of eggplants was common, but tomatoes were yet to enter the kitchen.
Today, to quote Gautam Anand, bon vivant , an encyclopaedia on Indian cuisine and a vice-president with ITC's Hotels Division, the food that used to grace the tables of the Mughals is lost somewhere in the dark recesses of history. So what we have instead are derivative cooking styles developed in the former princely states of Rampur (which, in turn, influenced the kitchens of Patiala, whose recipes are being researched by Randhir Singh, a scion of the royal family), Awadh (Lucknow) and Hyderabad (where the royal cuisine was married with local ingredients to develop a distinctive flavour).
Even Bengali cuisine, whose most eloquent chronicler was the late Kewpie Dasgupta, is evolving as professionals like Chitra Ghose dig deeper into sources like forgotten recipe books discovered in old bookshops – notably, the two-volume Bangla Aamish-Niramish Ranna (Vegetarian & Non-Vegetarian Recipes of Bengal) by Pragya Sundari Devi and Purnima Tagore's Thakur Barir Ranna (Tagore Family Recipes). “Aristocratic Bengalis used to maintain three kitchens,” says Ghose, who was in advertising before becoming a caterer in 1994. “One was vegetarian dishes without onions and garlic. Another was for the ladies of the house. And the third, where the khansama cooked mutton and chicken dishes, was primarily for men.”
Railway archives also yielded a wealth of information on preparations like Chicken Cutlet Cornwallis, which was served with English mustard, Eastern Railway Mutton Curry, Company Bahadur's Chicken Steaks stuffed with paneer (cottage cheese) and Empress Victoria's Trifle Pudding (with oranges). The Railway Masala, Ghose found out, owed its distinctive aroma to the 25 ingredients that went into making it.
It's this spirit of inquiry that led Sultan Mohideen, ITC Maurya Sheraton's Executive Chef, to the elusive table of Tipu Sultan, the eighteenth-century southern satrap who befriended the French to challenge the growing power of the East Indian Company. During his two-year quest that started in 1997, Sultan stumbled upon a recipe book, Sultanat-i-Khudadi , which was in the possession of a retired professor, one of whose forefathers was Tipu's physician. Sultan also dug out the store records of the ship in which Tipu's ambassador set sail in 1788 to meet the King of France. It helped him figure out what ingredients were used in Tipu's time.
Armed with all this information, Sultan was able to recreate the elaborate recipes that were in vogue in Tipu's kitchen. Tipu, for instance, would begin his meetings with his French interlocutors by serving them Sherbet-i-Firdaus , a delicious drink that combines tender coconut water, palm fruit juice and fresh sandalwood extract. Sultan's favourite is the Qusar Kofta Khat , or mutton balls simmered in a gravy made with horse gram stock, tamarind paste and raw mango pulp, flavoured with a medley of spices – ground black pepper, cardamom, cloves and curry leaves.
Yet another speciality on Tipu's table was the Ziag-i-Azam , slices of palm fruit topped with mulberries resting on a bed of grapefruit. Tipu, by the way, introduced grapefruit and mulberry from France to India. He planted the first grapefruit tree at Devanahalli, which is about 10 km from Bangalore. “Tipu ruled for 19 years, but spent 18 of them fighting,” says Sultan. “On the battlefield, he would eat like a soldier, but at times of peace, he would dine like a Mughal.”
Tipu's kitchen is another instance of the gold mine of regional variations that combine to create this grand idea called Indian cuisine. How can there be even a monolithic South Indian cuisine when the pungency of the Guntur chilli is different from that of its cousin from Nellore?
The South, as Taj Coromandel's Chandrasekharan reminds us, has four states with four different cooking styles each. If that surprises you, well, here's something for you to chew on. The Walled City of Delhi, which Shahjahan built in the seventeenth century, is home to three cooking traditions – Mughlai, Kayastha and Bania. The Mughlai tradition is alive in the degh s of Karim's; take a 15-minute walk cutting across Jama Masjid and going into Chandni Chowk, and you'll enter the bastion of Kayastha and Bania food.
You can spend a lifetime trying to understand it, but the Indian kitchen will continue to surprise you – and your tour groups – with its versatility.
A GASTRONOMICAL TOUR OF INDIA
Do you want to sell a culinary package to your international groups? Here's an itinerary that you can follow.
Start your tour with Karim's for the authentic Mughlai experience in the shadow of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi (remember, the restaurant is closed during the holy months of Ramadan).
For a robust Kashmiri meal – or the experience of sharing a tarami (platter) with your friends sitting on the ground – Chor Bizarre on Asaf Ali Road, at the point where New Delhi meets Old Delhi, is still the best.
To give your tour group a taste of Lucknowi fine-dining, a stop at Dumpukht, ITC Maurya Sheraton & Towers, New Delhi, is an absolute must. Another option, not as fancy as Dumpukht but an experience to savour, is The Great Kebab Factory at the Radisson New Delhi, on the NH-8 leading up to the international airport.
For as real a rustic experience that an international can ask for, Chokhi Dhani, near Jaipur on the NH-8, is still the best. The more upmarket option, for those who can pay for dining with royalty, is a Jodhpuri meal at Umaid Bhawan with Maharaja Gaj Singh or a lavish Mewari dinner with Arvind Singhji at one of his palaces in Udaipur. This is one package that will find many high-spending takers.
Trishna in Mumbai serves the best Mangalorean seafood specialities; Mahesh is a poor second. And Swagath in Delhi is a distant third, though it has been hyped out of proportion. A better alternative is Ploof, at Lodi Colony in the centre of Delhi, whose Karwari seafood preparations are to die for.
The Saraswat lunch at Goa's Savoi Plantation is another wholesome experience and a complete outing.
Southern Spice (Taj Coromandel) and Dashin (ITC Park Sheraton) in Chennai offer an interesting selection of dishes from the south. But if you wish to treat your tour groups to authentic Chettinad food served in the Chettiyar style, you must take them to Kaaraikudi, where you'll get dishes like Rabbit Chukka and Turkey Roast or Biryani.
Hyderabad's Dakshin, at ITC Kakatiya Sheraton, is more innovative with food festivals – a festival recently was dedicated to chillies and another explored the Moplah kitchen. But for the real Moplah experience, you have got to check out the spread at Faiza Moosa's heritage property in Tellicherry.
Saravanah Bhawan, with its menu of 300 vegetarian items, remains the favourite of the Tam Brahms of Chennai. Sageetha's Tamil Thali, though, is turning out to be a doughty challenger. Murugan's is another place that all Tamilians worth their gunpowder like to recommend for its idlis.
Nobody serves Udupi cuisine better than Bangalore's MTR, which started its life more than 60 years ago as Mavalli Tiffin Room.
For home-style Bengali preparations, Kewpie's in Kolkata is the leader, though it can't take many people. A breakfast at Flury's, or an evening at Trinca's, the Park Street restaurant, is a must for those travellers who are nostalgic of the Kolkata of the Raj. Film director Gautam Ghose's restaurant, Bhaja Hari Manna, has gained quite a following. It's worth checking out.