he very first dish that I ever made was my mother’s recipe of methi mattar malai. I was nine years old then. It got so burnt that even the most efficient and resourceful person in my family, my late grandma declared it a lost cause and we had to suffice with aloo ka bharta that night. I got a mouthful from my family about not belonging in the kitchen but the study table. Mum got a mouthful for not being serious about my studies. Needless to say, my first adventure in cooking was a glaring disaster.
16 years later, I am writing this blog for a website that represents a cafe that I founded.
From an avoidable and downright disgusting first attempt to My Signature Methi Mattar Malai, The road has been long.
I read somewhere that in the grand scheme of things, our failures get censored in front of our successes. I mean, who cares that Vikas Khanna couldn’t walk or that his initial restaurants failed before Junoon earned its first Michelin Star?
Who cares that Grant Achatz, who is considered by many as one of the biggest authorities of modernist cuisine in the world right now, was told he only had a few months to live!
I am not either of those, never will be. However, I am confident that I will taste my own success in the course of my life. I see my failures, I see where I fall short, and I realize that these shortcomings make me who I am, a generally humble Chef. It doesn’t do much for my arrogance as a cook but who cares about that anyway!
You all know, or atleast most of you do, that I love my carnivorous diet. it wasn’t the case always, I was actually a vegetarian for most of my childhood. The aroma of Riaz’s mutton, or Biryani from Bareilly Hotel, or Butter Chicken from Angithi, Saheb’s and others really induced wretching inside me! It was because I wanted to be a Chef that I slowly and steadily started eating other animals. When I was working with JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, I used to joke to my mentors there that “If it is eaten in some culture, I want to try it.”
Out of the few dishes I mentioned above, I, like so many others, fell in love with butter chicken. I wanted to replicate it.
This is the 2007-08 time, my family was going through a financial crunch (I mean, it's an understatement but whatever), Someone had gifted us these couple of cookbooks, one of them was written by “The External Affairs Officers’ Spouses’ Association” focussing on non-veg cooking. One of the recipes was a Lucknowy dish called Murgh Shahi Korma which I instantly liked because it had so many elements and so much prep going into it! I realised that it was because it was an Aristocratic Dish, simply, for people who could afford it.
Trial and Error is like Gospel to me, my Butter Chicken, aka TNYC Butter Chicken is to die for, because I love making it the most when it comes to Indian Cuisine.
Dad would get chicken for me to practice, So my initial indian cuisine was making these rich curries. So for close to two years, I was educated by my dad on how to cook protein, the major hits being Mutton, Chicken and sometimes Fish. House parties became a ground for experimenting. One of the reasons my house parties are the best is because I have had so much practice, I can’t even begin to elaborate.
When you go to cooking school, like I did, and if you have even a mild interest in cooking, chances are that you become sort of a food nerd to your family and friends back home. Same happened with me, but, our first year being pure French cuisine didn’t help with my cause of Indian Cuisine. Jabalpur in 2015 was sort of an overgrown village. And it was important to make do with what you had rather than what you could source! I had learnt a couple of absolute bangers in that semester, including one of my all time favourite range of Brown Sauce based dishes like Chicken Chasseur and Marengo. Now comes the fun part(it is not fun). My family wasn’t particularly fond of continental food, or basically anything that wasn’t going to give them acidity the next day, but being the adorably supportive family they are, I got the go ahead to make a few dishes.
Chicken Marengo made at home, which turned out to be not so good because there was no wine or bacon rashers around. Still, got a pretty picture.
So, fast forward to 2016 summer vacations and the biggest culinary challenge of my life. Something, which is almost taken for granted by the entire country, because it is the single most taken away dish in India. You guessed it! Biryani.
I mean, my track record with Biryani till 31st March 2021 was so bad, that I had really accepted the fact that I was never going to make an acceptable batch!
First Attempt at Biryani, circa 2016. Chicken was overcooked, rice was barely holding its shape.
Another Attempt, circa 2017. This one came out well, mostly because my Aunt, who is a gifted cook, was there to help out, or rather I helped her.
2019. Made the attempt to make the worst attempt yet look good. sigh, I decided after this that I should just quit trying to make Biryani.
I think it was the fact that Biryani had good margins and that it had a solid demand made me relook at it from a businessman’s perspective and on the request of one of my most regular customers, I made a Vegetarian Lucknowi Biryani(I know its a Pulao, shut up) for 50 people(wait, what?). 31st March, 2021. More than 2 years after the last attempt. I finally gathered up the guts to make Biryani again. I mean, it was mostly a night of binging Biryani making videos on youtube and a Cheat Sheet by my old Executive Sous Chef that gave me enough confidence to have at it.
And once I nailed it, it became an obsession! The second wave and the ensuing lockdown was all I needed to practice my Biryani making skills.
At this point, I would like to tell you about my buddy Abhyuday, aka Shuklaji. One of the reasons he is one of my truest and time tested friends is that he has utter disregard for how I feel and says things with a true sense of realism which often comes with a sense of humour that I have inherited from him. So when he had my Biryani, I had expected a true standing of what needed to be done to make it sellable
It is really a big win if you nail something that you thought you couldn’t do at all a week ago
I made Biryani a few other times before I was confident enough to finally sending out a whatsapp broadcast that I would be selling Biryani as a takeaway when the cafe opens again.
I am a Chef, and making Butter Chicken and Biryani isn’t really going to satisfy me.
Enter the research I did for the Bharat Menu, which includes dishes from all over India. While this concept is in itself new, I guess, it has been in the making since my 2nd year in college which focussed on Indian Cuisine. It is here that I actually developed a lot of skills(including rolling round rotis. Not many men can claim that). I also learnt one of my favourite dishes, and explored South Indian cuisine, which quite frankly is an underrated gift to India’s food culture. Mostly, because in the past 4000 years, Southern India has never been conquered, either by the Great Kings of the Golden age or Foreign Invaders. It is a damn shame that most of the North only recalls Dosa culture as southern food. Anyway, I know for a fact that despite reading and studying it for close to 5 years now, I have barely scratched the surface. I hop to have enough time in the future to truly explore the south, especially learning communicable Malayalam and Tamil.
Mutton Mulligatawny (also pronounced as Molahatanni) is a Kerala dish that's so beautifully made, it's almost like a Renaissance painting.)
I did my own tweaks to this dish, principally making it a true Shubhansh Gupta dish. But what truly makes this dish fun to make is that essentially no spices are added during the whole cooking process! You add the spices just before finishing it with the first extract coconut milk. Crazy, ain’t it? Most North Indian dishes make us add the spices as we are frying our onions and tomatoes, so that the spices also cook along the way, which admittedly gets the dish a sort of depth but at the same time over-indulges the spices, more than what is required. In this particular dish, all the spices are toasted and ground freshly, the essential oils are firing up all of their cylinders and when they hit the hot oil and gravy… Bam!!
There are essentially some recipes that are iconic that I am missing, mostly because I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting an authentic version first, which would fire up the few Neurons I have.
I have so far stayed in 4 states and tried most of the iconic dishes belonging to them. Working with some of the Best Chefs in the country also helped me expose myself to dishes from around the country and world.
You could consider this Blog as an Introduction to the Bharat Menu and the context with which I decided to do this here in Jabalpur. That and the fact that there aren’t many regional Indian options here. My patriotism towards this city compels me to do more and more, with the product and people in mind, the paisa would follow suit.
See you at the Cafe!