Punjab on a platter

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It started with a moment of curiosity. Two years ago, I was invited to speak at a gathering of alumni from Delhi’s Catering College (known within the trade as the Pusa Institute because of its location). As I looked around at the audience, I noticed that everybody who mattered in the hospitality sector seemed to be there.

How was that possible? I wondered why the Mumbai Catering College, which is as highly regarded, had not been able to produce such famous and powerful alumni.

Finally, an hotelier I met solved the mystery for me. Both catering colleges were outstanding, he said. The reason so many of the Delhi college’s students were so successful had little to do with the calibre of the institute.

It was because the Pusa college attracted more Punjabis. And Punjabis were natural hoteliers who always rose to the top of the profession.

He was right, of course.

We sometimes forget how much Punjabis have shaped our hospitality sector. The Oberois are proudly Punjabi. ITC hotels have Punjabis at the top (Yogi Deveshwar who gave the hotel division its distinct identity is a Punjabi, so is Nakul Anand who pushed the chain into luxury). The Kwality-Gaylord group which opened restaurants all over India in the 1950s and 1960s is owned by Punjabis. Most famous Indian chefs are Punjabis: Satish Arora, Arvind Saraswat, Manjit Gill, Hemant Oberoi, Sanjeev Kapoor, Vineet Bhatia, Gaggan Anand, Manisha Bhasin, Vikas Khanna and so many others. The judges of MasterChef India have come and gone but they have all had one thing in common: from Akshay Kumar to Kunal Kapoor to Zorawar Kalra, they have all been Punjabis.

Even the Taj, which was the least Punjabi of the major chains has now been headed by two Punjabis, one after the other: Rakesh Sarna and Puneet Chatwal. Both Sarna and Chatwal were among the most successful Indians in the global hotel industry before they came home and those Indians who continue to serve in key positions in foreign hotel chains – Radha Arora, Sandeep Walia, and Raj Menon (don’t be misled by his name), for instance – tend to be Punjabis.

Most important of all is the food: what most of the world thinks of as Indian cuisine is a Punjabi invention.

I was reminded of this last month when I heard of the passing of the legendary Kundan Lal Jaggi. I never met Jaggi properly. We said a brief hello last year when he was given the “Legendary Cuisines Award” at the Chef’s Conference. I wanted to chat to him about his role in creating some of the best known dishes of Indian cuisine and we fixed a meeting. Sadly, he fell ill before we could meet and never became well enough to talk about his career.

 In the 1940s, Jaggi worked in a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar. Moti Mahal’s claim to fame was that it used the tandoor (normally used for baking naans etc.) to roast a chicken. The dish was called Tandoori Chicken and though it was popular in Peshawar, it was relatively unknown elsewhere.

Kundan Lal Jaggi was in charge of the Moti Mahal kitchen in Delhi when it started

In 1947, during the horrors of Partition, Jaggi had to leave Peshawar along with Kundan Lal Gujral, another employee of Moti Mahal. The two arrived in Delhi as refugees and joined up with Thakur Das Mago, another Moti Mahal hand who had also fled to Delhi.

The three men had no means of income and possessed only the skills they had picked up at Moti Mahal in Peshawar. They contacted Moka Singh Lamba, the owner of Moti Mahal and told him that they wanted to start a similar restaurant in Delhi. Would he like to join them? Moka Singh, who was quite old by this time, told them that he had no desire to start all over again. They were welcome to start a restaurant on their own and they could even call it Moti Mahal if they liked.   

So the three men took a shop in Fatehpuri and began making a facsimile of the Peshawar Tandoori Chicken. But their breakthrough came when a Sikh gentleman sold them a space in Daryaganj for Rs 6,000. Gujral, Jaggi and Mago opened a full-scale Moti Mahal there and began serving their tandoori dishes.

The three men divided their responsibilities. Kundan Lal Gujral, who was the natural extrovert, became the face of Moti Mahal. He was the one who looked after the front-of-the-house and maintained relationships with such powerful patrons as Jawaharlal Nehru. Mago looked after the finances. And Jaggi was in charge of the kitchen.

One reason I had wanted to meet Jaggi was because many of the dishes we now consider staples of Indian cuisine were invented in the Moti Mahal kitchen in the 1950s. The original butter chicken, for instance, was created in that kitchen. How the dish was invented remains a mystery. Kundan Lal’s grandson, Monish Gujral, who has done so much to revive the Moti Mahal name, says it emerged out of a desire to reuse the leftover tandoori chicken.  A rich gravy was needed to rehydrate the chicken and butter chicken was created as a result.

I spoke to Neelu Jaggi, daughter-in-law of Kundan Lal and she told me that right till the end, Jaggi (he was 95 when he passed away) would supervise the making of butter chicken at home to his own recipes. He shunned the recent innovations (honey, methi etc.) and made the dish as it was originally created, with tomatoes, cream and butter.

Moti Mahal also reinvented the Punjabi black dal. Until Moti Mahal started doing it, few people put tomatoes in the dal. Now the rich, tomato-flavoured, buttery dal is the version that most Indian restaurants serve. One theory is that the Moti Mahal founders had the bright idea of using the same sort of gravy they used for butter chicken to perk up the traditional dal. Neelu says that Jaggi’s real concern was with slow-cooking. The Moti Mahal dal would not taste right unless it was cooked for hours on a slow flame. 

Though we now think of Moti Mahal in terms of chicken (butter chicken, tandoori chicken etc.), it also popularised many mutton dishes. The seekh kebab was usually cooked over an open flame till Moti Mahal turned it into a tandoori dish and the Barrah Kebab’s popularity is almost entirely down to Moti Mahal. “My father-in-law was very particular about the tenderness of the meat, about cooking it so that it retained all its juices and the aroma of the dish was all important,” Neelu recalls.

Eventually alas, the original Moti Mahal went into a decline and the founders and their descendants sold it.

But at a more significant level, their legacy lies in the rise of tandoori cooking. The original Peshawar Moti Mahal may have invented tandoori chicken but it was the Delhi Moti Mahal that taught us how the tandoor, an oven that was traditionally used only to bake breads, could be transformed into a means of imparting unusual flavours to meat, fish and chicken. Today, anybody who opens an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world, regards a tandoor as an essential component of his kitchen. Without the pioneering work of the Moti Mahal founders, this would never have happened.

The Moti Mahal story also demonstrates why Punjabis are India’s natural restaurateurs, hoteliers and chefs. Gujral, Jaggi, and Mago lost everything during Partition. But within a few years they had created a successful new restaurant and revolutionised Indian cuisine.

Lakhs of other Punjabi refugees followed similar trajectories. They fled from bloodshed and unspeakable violence, leaving everything they owned behind. But in no time at all, they were back on their feet again, flourishing in a new city.

It is ironic that people who had seen so much tragedy and suffering were able to offer such warm hospitality. But then, hospitality is the natural skill of the Punjabi. It is a skill that has shaped India’s hotels and restaurants and indeed, our cuisine itself. 

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