Table Talk: A feast for the senses
A silver moon lit the narrow gullies of Old Delhi’s Ballimaran that night. In the courtyard of a haveli as old as time, a young man cleared his throat and began reciting: “Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ki har khwahish pe dam nikle…”. Other such memorable couplets and poems enthralled a motley group of poets, gourmands, history buffs and enthusiasts of all things unique and fine. The last recitation ended to much applause, and the first dish of the evening was promptly presented with a short story behind it.
“This is Gooler, or fig-like kebab,” announced chef Sadaf Hussain, the curator of the handcrafted dining experience, Dawat-e-Dastarkhwan. “In the old days, chefs often used ingenious techniques to disguise dishes. This is one such recipe of a minced meat kebab, stuffed with caramelised onion, dried fruits and poppy seeds to mimic the texture of a fig.” Seven such lost culinary delights of Old Delhi, and the nuggets of stories behind them, came together beautifully with the session of poetry, to make for an engaging dining experience— unlike any that you’d have at a conventional dine-out.
Much like Hussain, several food experts as well as a number of initiatives in Delhi and Mumbai are now offering dining experiences to the discerning connoisseur that go beyond the plate and the palate. Experiential dining is all about reinventing the idea of eating out—whether through creative collaborations, engaging programming, or sometimes, even through presenting the most mundane in innovative ways at offbeat settings. Each experience is distinct, each table handpicked, and the only common thread is the careful deliberation employed in designing them all.
Experiments of Taste
A single long table. Twenty-five guests sitting around it. A taster’s menu. And a performed reading of a radical life. That is what an episode of Table Radica looks like—a series of ‘taste-performances’ that brings alive the life, times and food of iconic personalities in Indian theatre. Held at Oddbird Theatre, Delhi’s new collaborative centre for the arts, the first edition of Table Radica is an immersive experience that celebrates the life, work and tastes of noted theatre director and playwright, Habib Tanvir.
“Because of the kind of geographical and cultural terrain he had traversed during his time, Habib’s life offered us a fantastically moving range of taste, not just in food, but also in sensibilities, aesthetics, desires, principles and politics,” says writer Sarah Mariam. The dishes served are chosen from archival material as well as biographical accounts, and craftily woven into the narration. While the text is based on accurate facts, the food is a creative interpretation, adhering to no particular cuisine. “Each dish is integrated into the text of the show so as to let the audience use their sense of taste to imagine and interpret their own life experiences through those of Habib,” says food curator and chef Kaushik Ramaswamy.
With seven sold-out shows held so far, Table Radica offers more than just an experiential dining experience. “The intention of the show was to be at the intersection of biographical theatre, food and design,” says Virkein Dhar, co-creator and producer of Table Radica. The inception of the show came about from wanting to find ways to make the archives a living experience. “All other elements—be it food, design or music, come in to aid that experience. Table Radica takes taste beyond food, and into the realms of life, love, choices, struggles and fears.”
In Mumbai, two women are presenting their own experiments with taste—in this case, inspired from books and literature that have food as an integral part of storytelling. The Literary Table is a series of experiential dinners with books as its central theme, and they’ve so far hosted three such experiences—Muggles’ Feast, based on the Harry Potter series; Murakami’s Kitchen Table, inspired from the works of Haruki Murakami; and A Feast For The Throne, based on GRR Martin’s books and the just concluded Game of Thrones series.
The inspirations though are far from the obvious. “A lot of people assume that the dishes will be those mentioned in the books, but that’s not necessarily how it works,” says Shriya Shetty, chef and one half of The Literary Table. “The process starts with re-reading the books. Sometimes, I’ll take inspiration from the scenery described in them, sometimes it’s the characters.” For the Muggles’ Feast, for instance, Shetty created a dish for Dumbledore that was inspired from the Pensieve—a bone broth consommé with chilly oil. The cocktails too follow the same process, which is why an ode to Nymphadora Tonks could be a simple gin and tonic but with a fun element added to make it change its colour.
Apart from the food and free-flowing conversations, such evenings also have activities centred around the books. “For Muggles’ Feast, we asked people to write their own Harry Potter fan fiction. For the Murakami dinner, we had a live band performing the songs that feature in his books,” says Shirin Mehrotra, co-curator of The Literary Table. “Besides, our dining experiences are hosted at a community table format, which encourage strangers to talk and bond over their shared love of books.”
Celebrating Diversity, Reviving Traditions
In the colourful, hip new ghetto of Champa Gali in South Delhi, sits a co-working space plus restaurant called Studio Thali. The five-month-old establishment offers not just a conducive atmosphere for artists and other creative professionals to work out of, but true to its name, it also celebrates the modest Indian thali through regular pop-ups with home cooks and chefs from various regions of India who live in Delhi. “There’s so much diversity and plurality to Indian cuisine, and the interesting thing about Delhi is that it’s inhabited by people from across the country. Those are the two potentials we wanted to tap into,” says Pakhi Sen, an artist as well as the manager and curator of Studio Thali.
Studio Thali has so far hosted dining experiences around Maharashtrian, Assamese, Kashmiri, Darjeeling and other regional cuisines. Sen says, “The emphasis of these events has been not just on the food, but also on learning the culinary traditions and histories as well as the personal journeys of the participating chefs.” During one such recent event, for instance, home cook Ayesha Mualla from Hyderabad, prepared a three-course Deccani meal in celebration of Nowruz. Traditionally, Nowruz was one of the four holidays in the erstwhile princely state when the Nizam would hold a public darbar for the people to celebrate the Iranian New Year with much pomp and feast. Borrowing from that tradition, the experience at Studio Thali offered a ‘Marag’ broth with naan, a haleem main course and a Kubani Ka Meetha as dessert, along with a generous helping of food history and personal exchanges of Mualla’s love affair with Hyderabad.
In fact, reviving traditions and celebrating diverse, indigenous food is a hot theme for experiential dining in the Capital presently. Mood is a year-old venture by a mother-daughter duo that operates as a weekly take-away service, offering home-cooked meals, all prepared by the mother, Kusuma Juneja, who was born and brought up in Darjeeling. While the menu changes every week—and depends entirely on the mood of the mother—it invariably features food that she grew up eating in Darjeeling, along with recipes she’s learned from family members and during her travels over the years.
It’s this same idea that Mood extends to its sit-down food tastings as well, which are usually hosted at their home. Previous sit-downs have included traditional dishes such as Lepcha Kanrgong or pork sausages, Bhutanese Paa (dried pork with radish and red chillies), Tibetan Khapse (a sweet biscuit) and the Darjeeling staple of momos. “While the first few home experiences had about a dozen guests, the last one roped in over 20 enthusiastic diners excited about trying out our regional dishes,” says Nicole Teresa Juneja, co-founder of Mood. “People enjoy breaking away from the monotonous and trying something new. And that is what such experiential dining experiences offer.”