Taking the confusion out of fusion food
Two separate experiences in two different cities gave me the idea for this column. The first was in Gurgaon at the Meridien (the old Pullman, now renamed) I was the judge at a Nestle-Eazydiner event for some of the city’s top chefs. One of Nestle’s in-house chefs demonstrated how dishes could be created with the company’s ready-made Makhni gravy (the gravy for Butter Chicken) masala.
The masala was fine but afterwards, during the discussion that followed, many of the chefs complained about the uses that the gravy had been put to. If it was a Butter Chicken gravy, they said, then it should only be used for Butter Chicken or Butter Paneer.
As others joined the discussion, a strange consensus emerged. Indian food was losing its originality, they said. There was too much experimentation. And then they made that old chefs’ joke about how “fusion is really confusion”.
The following week I found myself in Chandigarh, a city that has no food culture to rival Amritsar’s or Ludhiana’s. (If you are reading this in our Chandigarh edition, you can berate me the next time I am in your city!)
Worse still, from the point of view of authentic Punjabi food, I was staying at the new Sukh Vilas, the most upmarket hotel in the region where I expected only to get Chicken Sea Bass and New Zealand lamb chops. My expectations were not entirely wrong. They did serve me New Zealand lamb chops but they served them in a style I have never encountered before – as their signature Rara Ghosht.
You know the dish, of course. Since the 1960s (or even earlier) it has been a staple of the Kwality-Gaylord kind of Punjabi restaurant and though the spelling of Rara varies from menu to menu and there is a popular chicken version, the basic idea is usually the same: chunks of goat cooked in a keema sauce.
I will describe the Sukh Vilas Rara Ghosht in detail later, but given that I had eaten an inferior version of the dish on my last trip to Chandigarh (at a famous local restaurant that I will not name), I was intrigued by how the chef had reinvented a dish that is second only to Butter Chicken in popularity.
As I always do, when researching a dish, I called Manjit Gill, ITC’s top chef and my guru on all matters relating to Indian food. Manjit spoke warmly (if, it has to be noted, not terribly respectfully) of Rara Ghosht. It was, he said, a restaurant dish (like Butter Chicken or ITC’s own Dal Bukhara) that had its origins in the mind of some chef. He had never heard of a Punjabi household where Rara Ghosht was part of the tradition. “But of course, now,” he added, “when people cook Butter Chicken at home, the distinction between traditional Punjabi food and restaurant dishes has gone.”
Manjit called it a classic restaurant dish which depends on slow cooking. And depending on the restaurant they can throw in anything, from tomatoes and yoghurt together to differing spice mixes, he explained. Manjit was right, of course. No Punjabi I know raves about his grandmother’s Rara Ghosht. Everyone remembers the dish from a dhaba, a catered party or one of the old-time restaurants of Connaught Place or Churchgate Street.
I thought back to the best Rara Ghosht I had eaten and it was at Embassy restaurant in Connaught Place’s D Block, famous for its Dal Meat and its old-style Punjabi restaurant cooking. I persuaded Amit Kundal, the executive chef at Embassy to send me the recipe. It was as I remembered. You cook the mutton pieces first with onions, ginger and garlic paste, coriander and cumin seeds, chilli powder and garam masala. When the mutton is ready, you add keema. Tomatoes, garlic and chillis come next and then you slow cook the dish till the flavours have mingled.
Monish Gujral, grandson of the founder of Moti Mahal, and author of many cookbooks sent me his own recipe. This one differs in many respects from the Embassy classic. The masalas are not exactly the same, much is made of whole spices, the mutton is marinated in yoghurt and it is cooked in ghee rather than Embassy’s oil.
The most significant difference, however, was that Monish adds the keema first and the mutton only enters the pan after the keema has cooked for 12 minutes.
I asked Monish where the dish came from. He said it was invented in Peshawar to eat in the winter because the whole spices (cloves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, etc.) were regarded as warming. And yes, it was always made with keema and mutton pieces.
I was not surprised by the claim of Peshawari origins. Just as every Punjabi you meet whose family came over after Partition came from a long line of billionaires (“Arre, we left behind thousands of acres, so much gold, so many houses.....”) every great dish of Punjabi cuisine is traced back to the North-West Frontier. Obviously, East Punjab had no cuisine at all. (I’m kidding, of course. Many Punjabi migrants did leave behind vast fortunes which they rebuilt by working hard. But no, I don’t believe that there was a great cuisine only on one side of the border and many hungry sardarjis on the other. At least some of this is myth-making.)
Monish knows his stuff so I take his recipe seriously. I looked around for other Rara Ghosht specialists. Many people on Twitter suggested Pandara Road. The chef Sujoy Gupta (who I know from Umaid Bhavan) said that the best Rara Ghosht he had eaten was at Delhi’s Karim’s (made with no yoghurt), which is interesting because Karim’s is not, on the whole, committed to upholding the Punjabi restaurant tradition.
Finally I decided to do some Rara tasting. I ordered in from Havemore in Pandara Road Market and from Embassy. A new possibility suggested itself. The Delhi Pavilion at the Sheraton Hotel in Saket has brilliantly recreated many classic dishes, benchmarking them against dhabas. The Pavilion only does Rara Ghosht on its buffet (it is not on the à la carte menu) but I was lucky: it was on the buffet that day. So, I ordered the Delhi Pavilion version too.
All three were completely different in taste. The Embassy version was just as delicious as I remembered it. The Havemore Rara was another dish entirely. It had so much tomato that it tasted like a Punjabi version of the bolognese sauce they use in industrial catering in the UK.
And, a little to my disappointment (because we like to think that hotel kitchens can never get these dishes right), the Delhi Pavilion version had a perfect dhaba taste about it, with an authentically oily gravy and the best meat quality (including a chop) of any version – which you would expect given that it comes from a five-star hotel kitchen. (It only cost a hundred rupees more than Havemore, so it’s good value.)
Which brings me back to our chefs and their contempt for “confusion”. The problem with their pious respect for traditional flavours is that many of the dishes they cook –including Rara Ghosht – are not traditional at all. They were created by cooks in restaurant kitchens who were experimenting with new flavours.
Few chefs have rethought Rara Ghosht as successfully as Simran Singh Thapar, the young chef at Sukh Vilas. He takes Indian lamb (not goat – and he uses the leg) and minces it. Then, he slow cooks it with his own spice mixture (no haldi). Next, he takes New Zealand lamb chops and marinates them in traditional spices for half an hour. He then cooks them lightly (till rare).
Next he lets the chops rest in the keema for a while. Eventfully he cooks the chops and the keema together after adding a little lamb stock. By the time the stock has been absorbed, you get one of the most delicious and inventive Rara Ghoshts I have ever eaten, one that merges the techniques of Punjabi, Awadhi and French cooking
So, is that fusion? I imagine the chefs would think it is. But here’s the point. If a chef modifies a dish created by another chef, for which there is no standard recipe anyway, who does he harm? He certainly doesn’t harm the ancient traditions of Punjabi cuisine because there is no ancient Rara tradition.
And who benefits from his creativity? We all do. As does Indian cuisine.
From HT Brunch, May 21, 2017
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