The rise of the un-chefs
Salma Husain is well into her seventies, but she is in no hurry to hang up her hat. What is more to the point, the ITC group, with whom she has had an informal connection for decades, is anxious to enjoy her expertise for as long as possible. Salma Apa, as she is fondly known, is not even a cook. She is a Persian scholar with access to historic tomes of the Mughal era. They are not recipe books, but accounts of the lives of emperors, including marriages, state visits, political conquests and… yes, food. References to daily diet are elliptical at best. So, it is part inference and part detective analysis that Salma Apa undertakes to make a festival menu for an ITC hotel. The wonder is that the theme of one festival could be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s menu and the other could be little-known Mughal rice dishes.
It is the same with the Oberoi group, which was never well-known for Indian cuisines. Since 2014, when an initiative called Rivaayat was launched, housewives have been demonstrating their skills in regional cuisines to the entire phalanx of chefs across the group. For instance, Nazish Jalali, a shy, retiring widow from Rampur, has taken Gurgaon and Mumbai by storm with her food of Rampur and Old Delhi, from where her husband hailed. Sangeeta Khanna, food blogger and nutritionist from Varanasi, also showcased food from her home city in the plush environs of The Oberoi, Gurgaon.
Many leading hotels are tying up with dhaba owners, too. Delhi’s Harjinder Singh, better known as Sweety Singh, shuttles from one hotel to another to cook his brand of rustic Punjabi food from the pind. Patrons who drive up in their Audis and BMWs cannot get enough of it.
Dining with a difference
Delhi’s food scene has been exploding in all directions, not all of them healthy, delicious or desirable. But amid the cacophony, there are sparks of genius. Chef Sujan Sarkar, back in the country after a decade-long stint in London, has put together two menus with his trademark flair. Ek Bar, the funky east-meets-west bar, has Indian-inspired cocktails and snacks like granola bar with jhalmuri mix topped with avocado. Sarkar brings the relentless pursuit of traceability to Delhi’s markets just as Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent used to ask his suppliers about where their bananas and tomatoes came from, only to be met with bemused stares.
Mehrotra returned to Delhi from his stint in London in 2008. In the intervening years, there have been tiny movements in the right direction: the city sees periodic farmers’ markets. There is a niche band of organic suppliers, and Sarkar’s weekly degustation dinners—The Tasting Lab—are courtesy a countrywide network of foragers. So, just as the guest who walks in for the Thursday dinners does not know what’s on the menu for that evening, Sarkar is in the dark about the ingredients that will land up at his doorstep the previous day.
It is too early to call it a movement, but a lone vegetable-seller who used to acquire a scant handful of Bengal’s fragrant gondhoraj limes and mango ginger now has orders for 100 kilos a week for these ingredients because Delhi’s bartenders have discovered them.
And when healthy eating and fashionable food collide, organic farmers like Achintya Anand of Krishi Cress have to deliver undreamt volumes of kale to juice bars and health food stores, who will turn them into smoothies and kale chips for a city hungry for health.
Reshii is a food critic and writer.