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Tried and Tasted: Looking for an authentic dhaba in the heart of South Delhi?

It is pretty difficult to find a great dhaba with amazing food in a city like Delhi but fret not, we have found one for you.

more lifestyle Updated: Jul 07, 2017 18:26 IST
Rahul Verma
Chef Ravi Saxena of Dhaba by Claridges believes that the old favourites can be cooked in such a way that the taste lingers long after the last chicken morsel is gone.
Chef Ravi Saxena of Dhaba by Claridges believes that the old favourites can be cooked in such a way that the taste lingers long after the last chicken morsel is gone.

A revolution knocks on the door – and it comes with a fork and knife. The world of food is more exciting than ever before. New restaurants are coming up offering novel cuisines or digging out old ones. Chefs are looking at unusual ingredients and dramatic ways of presenting food. Meanwhile, some wizened old experts continue to wield magic with their skewers and ladles in remote parts of the city. There is a world waiting to be discovered or re-embraced– new cooking styles, world food, sub-regional cuisine and tiny holes in the wall which produce the most delightful dishes. Here’s a guided tour.

I always thought one of the best parts of a road trip to the hills was the dhaba by a highway in Punjab where you stopped for a hot and tasty meal. But the times have changed: my Yezdi, which took me to Manali, is quite possibly sighing in a junkyard now; traffic is manic, which prompts me to take a train; dhabas are not what they used to be and authentic Punjabi food outside homes is almost as rare as a Dilliwallah who doesn’t honk incessantly.

Just what happened to the dhabas? There was a time when a dhaba was a small unit with a counter where huge utensils carrying dal or chicken curry stood, while rotis were baked in a tandoor on the side. The last time I went to a dhaba off a highway, I found that it was a glitzy multi-storeyed building with liveried staff, air-conditioned rooms, a huge menu but dishes that all tasted the same.

I have no problems if dhabas wish to expand, but I feel sorry when the food changes. I have eaten delicious Punjabi food – cooked in friends’ houses and at modest dhabas. The yellow daal tadka -- boiled yellow lentils, tempered with cumin seeds in a bit of desi ghee, and cooked with onion, tomato and green chilli – was so delightful that you could make a meal of just the daal and a small hillock of phulkas. I fondly remember a bharwan baingan that a close friend cooks and I start to drool when I recall a Pune chef’s nostalgic account of his mother’s dish of shalgam (turnip) and shalgam leaves.

Yet, if you ask anyone to think of one Punjabi dish, chances are that they will mention butter chicken. I don’t mind the dish, and must say that I cook a mean butter chicken myself. Sadly, even this dish has almost been standardised – with butter, cream, tomato puree and cashew nuts.

But Chef Ravi Saxena of Dhaba by Claridges believes that the old favourites can be cooked in such a way that the taste lingers long after the last chicken morsel is gone.

“Butter chicken is the most famous Punjabi preparation where marinated chicken tikka is cooked in a tandoor for a smoky flavour, and then finished in sweet and sour tomato gravy flavoured with kasoori methi,” he says.

The Dhaba, which is a landmark restaurant in The Claridges and now has outlets elsewhere in Delhi, has been celebrating Punjabi food for decades now. Its kanastari baingan bharta is like the way the brinjal is cooked at home – roasted and mashed brinjal fried with onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and spices.

I fear that some dishes are going out of our lives. I can’t remember when I last ate chargah -- a roasted whole chicken -- or kunna gosht, a mace-flavoured lamb cooked in an earthenware pot.

But an exotic dish that is still with us is balti gosht. This may have come to Punjab from elsewhere (the origins are in dispute), but it is a dish that is truly delightful.

Chef Saxena describes it as a “robust mutton curry” prepared with onion and tomato, and a host of spices such as black and green cardamom, mace, clove, cinnamon, Kashmiri red chilli, garam masala, coriander and cumin powders, peppercorn, fresh coriander leaves and curd.

I think the time has come to celebrate the cuisine of Punjab. Like the people, it can be mild or fiery, soft or loud, modest or exotic. But always worth recalling.

(Rahul Verma has been writing on food for over 25 years now. And, after all these years, he has come to the conclusion that the more he writes, the more there is left to be written)

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