New Delhi rising
Priyam Chatterjee shares how a new breed of young chefs is pushing culinary boundaries in India’s capital.
The roots of North Indian cuisine comes from its history of enduring countless royal invasions. Each empire brought its own food culture to New Delhi, blended with the city’s supply of spices and local resources. The city saw a heavy influence of meat following the Persian invasion; the Mughals brought with them colonial British influences such as cream, which gave rise to the world famous murg makhani; while Indian partition refugees from the north western frontier provinces also added their own Indo-pakistani flavour to food. New Delhi is a culinary melting pot of different flavours and genres, and there’s much more to its cuisine than just daal, tandoori chicken and naans.
A new wave of local produce
New Delhi’s dining scene is best described as being adventurous and curious, offering myriad international cuisines be it Italian, French, Spanish, Asian fusion or modern Japanese. Now we have an increasing number of Asian-influenced restaurants that are constantly pushing new flavour profiles through vibrant produce sourced from local farms and markets.
The city isn’t blessed with a water body so prime farming and using locally grown ingredients isn’t largely possible. But adjacent states and cities provide access to some of the finest ingredients, thanks to the effort of hardworking farmers. For example, for my dishes and menu planning at Qla, I work closely with chefturned-farmer entrepreneur Achintya Anand of Krishi Cress for his microgreens, herbs, edible flowers and fresh vegetables. The produce is beautiful and a lot more valuable that just its role as garnishes. India’s chefs are not only showcasing their talents and promoting the local economy via this emphasis on local produce, but they are also going back to their roots and making use of
ancient local spices, herbs and vegetables once again. Following the global turmeric health trend, other key local ingredients that are fast gaining popularity again are coriander, mace, moringa, and nettle.
Today’s younger generation of local chefs has better international exposure, and a stronger appreciation and global approach to cooking than ever before. They are using their overseas Michelin-starred restaurant training stints to enrich New Delhi’s culinary repertoire, adding depth and dimension to the existing landscape. With increased international travel, coupled with omnipresent cooking shows, diners have broader horizons and are more open to new initiatives, lifting the glass ceiling on New Delhi’s somewhat constrictive and dated culinary framework. As a chef, it all comes down to exposure – travelling to new destinations, trying the unfamiliar and then bringing it back home and giving it your own twist in a locally acceptable way.
Hidden talents abound
While New Delhi’s culinary reputation is still to be internationally recognised, the vibrant city offers a lot more than street food, vegetarian fare, tandoori tikkas, momos or Indian-chinese fusion. Some of the city’s most promising young chefs include Vipul
Gupta, director of culinary operations at Andaz Delhi’s Annamaya, a European food hall concept. With dishes such as organic black pea linguine or millet chicken biryani with a lychee honey dressing, Gupta’s focus is on melding European plates and local palates with a ‘Made in India’ stamp, consciously using locally sourced artisanal produce.
Abhishek Gupta trained at two Michelin-starred Noma in 2016 and credits René Redzepi’s grooming for his current success as executive sous chef at The Leela Ambience Gurugram. With his ‘think global, act local’ philosophy, popular highlights of his Global Cuisine dégustation menu include freshly squeezed fermented beetroot juice; hoisin duck and black rice with lotus root fritter and burnt spring onion; and betel leaf shrimp ravioli.
The Oberoi Gurgaon’s executive sous chef Tejas Sovani also pays homage to his internship at Noma, where he learnt about foraging, and the art of fermentation, sustainability, curing and ageing. Employing a ‘less is more’ philosophy at his minimalist, modern Indian restaurant Amaranta, Sovani’s menu sports innovative contemporary dishes such as Koliwada prawns; Bird’s Nest of green pea-filled paneer envelopes, asparagus and idiappam in a cashew and onion gravy; and the fiery coconut pork fry with palm heart, maanga kari, tempered spinach and kadumbuttu dumplings, again using the best of seasonal local produce.
Yet another ex-noma trainee is Akshay Bhardwaj, executive chef of Whisky Samba, Gurgaon’s hippest whisky bar. Bhardwaj wows diners with an à la carte menu showcasing local seasonal produce, as well as his 11-course tasting menu paired with vintage whiskies.
Apart from crowdpleasers such as achari chicken with Parmesan biscotti, and Kolkata-style kasundi tenderloin skewers, avant-garde dessert include creations like Five Textures of Flamed Pineapple with coconut cream, Classic After 8 Samba Style Hot Fudge, and Whisky Sour Ice Cream.
Heading one of India’s only Armenian restaurants is Megha Kohli, head chef of Lavaash by Saby. Kohli crafts popular Armenian dishes from Bengali chef Sabyasachi Gorai’s childhood in Kolkata, which he has brought to the artsy Mehrauli precinct in New Delhi. Spiced pide pie with kalimpong cheese; Iranian lamb koobideh skewers; and ponchiki filled doughnuts are just some of the must-try exotic dishes.
The must-do rustic foodie trail
A sampling of traditional rustic foods is a must in this sprawling city, which is divided into Old Delhi and New Delhi, each with starkly different food styles. Old Delhi offers authentic heritage from the Delhi sultanate, while New Delhi exudes a slightly more modern approach to its traditional dishes. Start the morning in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk – birthplace of India’s quintessential chaats and mithais – and move on to the smoky, twisting labyrinth lanes of the Nizamuddin locality in the evening. The historical quarter offers real Mughal-influenced food such as classic grills, tandoors and age-old dessert shops, while Nizamuddin is a haven for meat-lovers. For instance, Ghalib Kabab Corner is a hidden gem famous for its fork tender buff(alo) tikkas and tandoori chicken that falls off the bone. For supper, Iqbals Restaurant in Jamma Masjid stays open till 4am, serving buff kebabs, chicken malai tikka, and phirni, a creamy broken rice pudding. Another of my favourite haunts is Nizam’s Kathi Kabab in Defence Colony, famous for its kebab rolls and its underrated chicken curry.
Other must-do’s include the Amritsari kulchas at pioneer Baljeet’s Amritsari Kulcha in Paschim Vihar, which has been serving the stuffed Punjabi flatbread since 1982. Accompanying the stuffed kulcha loaded with butter is an entire thaali with chutneys, onions, chickpea curry and raita. The recipe is so sacred, the staff even import their water for the dough from Amritsar to make the flatbreads as authentic as possible. Ganesh ‘macchiwala’ Restaurant in Karol Bagh serves up the best fried fish and chicken barra in town; and across the road, Roshan Di Kulfi is the address for scrumptious chole bhature and kulfi falooda. The Potbelly Rooftop Café in Shapur Jaat offers hip Bihari food, originating from the eastern state of Bihar which borders Nepal. I recommend litthi chokha – traditional stuffed whole wheat dough balls, meat pakora basket, multi-coloured poori basket and spicy chicken stew. Finally, Ahad Sons in Uday
Park Market is a spectacular hole-in-the-wall Kashmiri joint serving traditional Wazwan cuisine. House specialities include maaz yakkhn flavoured with cockscomb flower water; and kong firin, a rich, saffron-flavoured rice pudding with nuts.
Priyam Chatterjee grew up among a family of exceptionally traditional cooks, but was more interested in joining the army than the kitchen as a young lad. Chatterjee is currently head chef and director at Qla, a modern fine dining European restaurant in Delhi, working mostly with fresh fish and vegetables. Trained by Jean-claude Fugier, the 29-year-old also counts Marco Pierre White as his mentor, and credits Massimo Bottura, Matteo Grandi and Andoni Luis for being his strongest influences when it comes to showcasing his eclectic cooking style and creating exquisite art on a plate. Chatterjee was awarded Chef of the Year 2017 by Delhi Times Night Life; featured in ‘Special Mentions’ in FORBES India’s 2018 Annual 30 under 30 achievers list; and was a Southeast Asia semifinalist in the S.pellegrino Young Chef 2017 competition in Singapore.
The India Gate, a war memorial in New Delhi’s ceremonial boulevard of Rajpath
Amaranta Poached Gujurat baby lobster, black sesame, aubergine and olive powder Lamb loin in smoked milk, raspberry, beetroot, dark Ashanti chococlate Millet Biryani at Annamaya
King - Power Play menu at Amaranta Traditional manti with Kalimpong cheese at Lavaash by Saby