CHEF DELHICIOUS

His restau­rant is the only In­dian name in the World’s Best 50 this year. What takes Man­ish Mehro­tra flavour hunt­ing in the streets of Old Delhi?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - By Satarupa Paul

SATUR­DAY MORN­ING, 9.30 am. The rest of the city may still be snooz­ing from the af­ter­math of a late Fri­day night. But Old Delhi is al­ready abuzz. A scooter car­ry­ing its rider, his wife and three kids, zips in from the wrong di­rec­tion, brush­ing past us by inches. A tuk tuk burst­ing at the seams with pas­sen­gers honks ma­li­ciously, as if to say that we’re tres­pass­ing on its ter­ri­tory. “Damn! No rules ap­ply here, no?” says chef Man­ish Mehro­tra, 42, sidestep­ping a cy­cle rick­shaw-wal­lah, whose stunts can ri­val even Ra­jinikant’s.

Mehro­tra is, as Brunch colum­nist Vir Sanghvi put it, “the most ex­cit­ing mod­ern In­dian chef in the world to­day”. His Delhi-based restau­rant In­dian Ac­cent has be­come the only In­dian restau­rant to fea­ture in the pres­ti­gious The World’s 50 Best Res­tau­rants list this year. “It’s a re­lief to see at least one name from In­dia

among the world’s best... es­pe­cially, when we have such a rich food cul­ture,” Mehro­tra says. “But it’s not just another feather in my cap, it’s also another weight on my shoul­der. Your level of ex­pec­ta­tion from me goes up one more notch now. To sat­isfy that ex­pec­ta­tion day after day is a very tough job.”

The re­cently-opened New York out­let of his restau­rant is also rak­ing in the rat­ings and rave re­views al­ready. But when you’re try­ing to zig zag your way through the me­an­der­ing lanes of Old Delhi, even the great­est chef in In­dia can get just a lit­tle baf­fled – and very amused!

When we fi­nally ar­rive at the famed and over­hyped Paran­the Wali Gali, Mehro­tra pauses for a mo­ment to peep into one of the large fry­ing pans. A stuffed round paran­tha is swiftly dropped into the pip­ing oil, and as it siz­zles, we make our way deeper into the lane, past the stack of lit­tle paran­tha joints. The other shops here are yet to pull up their shut­ters, but street ven­dors sell­ing vegetables, spices, tea and ka­cho­ris have be­gun to swiftly oc­cupy their favourite spots on the lane.

At one such ven­dor, Mehro­tra halts and picks up a hand­ful of tiny, un­usual seeds. “What is this, boss?” he asks. “Yeh lehsun hai babuji, ek kali ka lehsun.” Mehro­tra peels one of the sin­gle pod gar­lic and takes a sniff, reel­ing back al­most im­me­di­ately. “Whoa! This is su­per strong,” he ex­claims, look­ing ex­cited. “It’s go­ing to make some bril­liant gar­lic-infused oil. Sau gram dena bhaisaab.” From another ven­dor down the lane, he picks up a bunch of colo­ca­sia or arbi leaves. “Ma­ha­rash­tri­ans and Gu­jaratis make a dish with this, sort of a leaf roulade,” he says, giv­ing me a quick recipe of the dish.

ALL IN THE ROOTS

Mehro­tra’s ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of vegetables and their myr­iad uses comes from his up­bring­ing in a shuddh veg­e­tar­ian house­hold. He was born and brought up in Patna in a big joint fam­ily; his father owned a petrol pump, mother was a homemaker. But his grand­mother ruled the kitchen. “There were a lot of rit­u­als dur­ing her time,” he says. “Be­fore cook­ing din­ner, she’d bathe, wear a spe­cial sa­ree that she’d have made in Ba­naras, do puja and then start mak­ing din­ner. No­body was al­lowed in the kitchen. It was only when she passed away that my mother and aunts took over.”

Onion and gar­lic were strict no-nos, but “we had the free­dom to eat any­thing out­side, in­clud­ing non-veg”. Grow­ing up in a veg­e­tar­ian house­hold in­stilled in him the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the fact that vegetables can be de­li­cious too and can be made into a va­ri­ety of dishes.

“We In­di­ans have such pre-con­ceived stereo­types about our own food,” he says. “For in­stance, we think Ben­galis eat only fish. But you can’t imag­ine how well they do vegetables and such a huge va­ri­ety of them too! We’re quite ig­no­rant when it comes to our own cuisines.” He as­serts that as a chef, you don’t even need to in­vent dishes – you just need to travel across In­dia to ex­plore them.

Dur­ing one such trip through Mo­rad­abad in Ut­tar Pradesh, Mehro­tra came across Dal Mu­rad­abadi – sold as a snack by hawk­ers on cy­cles, and of­ten served with chut­ney and pa­pdi or jalebi. He loved it so much that he put it in his menu, with a lit­tle twist – by adding some crisp moong dal and serv­ing it with flaky bread with parme­san cheese. “The good thing is that the In­dian palate is evolv­ing and our cui­sine is mov­ing for­ward. So a lot of tra­di­tional dishes which were lost or are in the process of be­ing lost, are be­ing re­vived now in mod­ern avatars,” he says. But he also be­lieves that you can’t ar­rive at mod­ern In­dian cui­sine with­out hav­ing your roots in tra­di­tion in­tact.

“We think Ben­galis eat only fish. But you can’t imag­ine how well they do vegetables and such a huge va­ri­ety of them too! We’re quite ig­no­rant when it comes to our own cuisines”

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