Tracing the roots of traditional cuisine of Delhi is not an easy task. Cumulative culture of Delhi was made by a succession of rulers coming in from diverse places and their influences on the local inhabitants. There have been Moghals, Punjabis from the north west frontier, Kayasthas, Marwaris and Jains influencing each others cuisine peppered by the vast variety of spices and fresh produce coming to this market place that Delhi is. The accumulated diversity in the food culture over the century makes Dehlvi cuisine. But you just can't fathom it so easily.
Purani dilli (old Delhi) is still preserved in the past because most old families of Delhi still have some residents there and the food and spice markets have survived, though we see some signs of the blind race to 'development' there as well. You would get Khas ki jad (Vetiver root) and Paan ki jad (Betel root) a bit after searching, good old traditional taste of bedmi alu and nagori halwa more easily and all seasonal fruit very very easily being carted freely on the streets just like old times. But you have to have that eye to look for tradition and history if you are walking through lanes of old Delhi, else it just looks like a maze of rickshaws, hanging wires and pushy cartwheels.
How would Dehlvi cuisine be when brought to a posh five star hotel? I was wondering about the same question when I heard Chef Dirham Haque's long research on this subject and his rendition of this centuries old cumulative cuisine at The Oberoi Gurgaon. It was an absolute delight when we went to taste the Dehlvi spread laid out at a huge round table at threesixtyone and had a detailed talk with Chef Dirham Haque and Chef Ravtej Nath who has curated the Dehlvi menu.
They brought the spices on the able first, all sourced from spice vendors and haqeems (Unani and Ayurvedic practitioners) of Khari Baoli area in old Delhi, I have never used mica and nagkeshar in my home cooking and it was great to have a feel of the aromatic spices before we started the elaborate lunch. I am definitely going back to khari baoli really soon and get my spices.
While we were discussing spices a welcome drink came that looked excuisite and smelled heavenly. This is called Mufarra which is made using extracts of vetiver, flowers and some ittar (a blend of aromatic oils). This was so sweet I could not have more than a couple of sips, but kept bringing it to my nose to have a whiff of the past centuries.
The appetiser was a known dish, the dahi bada which is called dahi ki gujhia but not like banaras wali dahi ki gujhia. This dahi ki gujhia has no stuffing but shaped like half moon that is traditional for gujhia. It was well made and nicely presented but it made me miss the banaras wali dahi ki gujhia. I might make it soon sometime.
The platter of kababs was a sight. Five assorted kababs would make a full meal and more. And here I tasted all of them.
Clockwise from top is a succulent and mildly spiced chicken tangdi kabab from punjabi origin, a green peas kabab (stuffed with hung curd) from marwari community, a silbatte ka kabab stuffed with hung curd, methi ka dhoka in the middle is a delectable mutton kabab covered with fenugreek leaves to give an illusion of vegetarian kabab. The melt in the mouth gilawat ka kabab was the best gem on the platter that was polished off completely. I liked the onion ring salad with cucumber tomato and slices of sweet mangoes quite well.
Jamun sorbet was the palate cleanser and wowed everyone. Smooth chilled jamun puree half frozen half melting and really delightful.
The main course started with murgh musallam. It came with a rich gravy of nuts and aromatic spices. Murgh musallam is tough to do if you ask me, I have never attempted a full chicken in my oven as I know some parts of the chicken get tough when roasted whole and it is not one of my favourite dishes honestly. This one was done well and we were told this used to be a part of the 'Farmaishi khwan' in older times. Farmaishi was 'on demand', cooked occasionally hence rich.
'Saadgi khwan' was the everyday food. Nalli nihari is the best example of Mughlai saadgi khwan, slow cooked meat on bone is served with khameeri roti for breakfast for the common man who has to work hard during the day. Nalli nihari is nourishing food and oh so yum.
I love ginger, green chilly and coriander greens over it. I had to taste just one spoon from all these as it was difficult to eat anything more. So many things to taste to get through the journey of Dehlvi cuisine.
I liked the tinde ka bharva stuffed with keema. Soft tinda (apple gourd) stuffed with mildly spiced mutton mince and covered with rich and creamy gravy.
All this was polished off using bits of this flaky layered naan crusted with almond slivers and called naan e bakumach. Farmaishi khwan had to have some special naan as well. Khameeri roti was to accompany the everyday (saadgi khwan) nihari.
I tasted matar ka paratha and it was done really really well. This was like we have tasted in our marwari friend's homes, associations with food never fade.
I loved the mutton biryani and a vegetarian mirch nimona ki biryani which had green peas stuffed whole green chillies in it. Very interesting flavours but I just had a small spoonful as there was no scope for more food.
We tried kunni daal which is cooked in earthen pots for long hours. The paneer dish everyone loved was a layered paneer lavanglatika with a rich gravy. Amrood ki subzi and bharva karela were clear winners among the vegetarian spread. There is no comparison of vegetables when cooked well and these dishes proved it rightly. We just took bites from the meat dishes and polished off all the bharva karela and amrood ki subzi.
Desserts were from another world it felt. This creamy dessert somewhere between a mousse and souffle topped with mango cubes and pomegranate seeds, pistachio dust and gold leaf is called royal fruit cup and has some custard, whipped cream, smooth rabdi and small bits of rasgulla in it and was really good.
No one could finish this delectable dessert as the serving was just too big.
This kulfi khaas madhubala dehlvi was a favourite of actress Madubala who belonged to Dehlvi clan. Nicely done kulfi but not my favourite.
The most exciting dessert was this dabba ice cream. Dabba is a contraption for hand churning the ice cream that was used in olden times. A metallic container with fruit pulp and reduced milk etc is kept inside a wooden case lined with ice cubes and salt (to make the ice last longer) and the ice cream is churned using a lever.
The finished ice cream looks like this. Still inside the dabba.
And on the table. Taste of dussehri mangoes made richer by reduced milk and churned by hand. What pleasure. This ice cream was called as kulfa in Banaras I got to know recently while talking to a septuagenarian.
Quite an experience it was. We left with our fingers smelling of vetiver thanks to handling all the spices that were displayed. Aromas of the mufarra kept coming back even though I am allergic to strong smells. Real aromatic oils of spices and flowers have some magic in it.
Blogger friend Ruchira had brought us all together for this wonderful journey. I met Deeba, Parul and the tea lady Anamika too. Mallika Dasgupta ( Manager-Communications at The Oberoi Gurgaon) played a great host as we chatted with Chef Ravitej Nath and Chef Dirham Haque. What a memorable day it turned out to be.