Tandoori tales

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Cooking is like the performing arts. To be a good cook, one must first be an artist. Then, and only then, can you become a chef.

Great chefs ‘play’ with their dishes in the same way that an artist ‘plays’ with his canvas – preparing a visual extravaganza for the mind to digest. That explains the unbearable temptation for people who are unable to resist food.

In my opinion, our state of mind plays a major role in our eating habits. And as we grow up, our habits become more defined.

All children love their mother’s cooking. When a mother watches her children eat a hearty meal cooked by her, it’s the most satisfying experience. Like most people, if I were to be asked who I believe is the best cook, my answer would be ‘my mother’.

Regardless of the dish, the unique taste of my mother’s cooking comes purely because of the love with which she cooks for her family.

Although I loved all the dishes my mother made, I rate her spinach tikkis (patties) the best. She added cardamom to the numerous vegetables in these patties and called them ‘power balls’. She would tell me that these would help me grow.

Whether that meant lengthwise or breadthwise, I didn’t quite understand until much later! And by the time I realised what she meant, I had already become disproportionate in shape having gorged on her spinach tikkis (cutlets).

It made want me reinvent the tikkis. I started to heat them on a non-stick pan, rather than deep fry them. A far healthier option, you’ll agree.

My fondness for cooking dates to my school days.
After finishing school in New Delhi in 1983, I joined Hotel Oberoi for a summer job that paid me Rs700 a month.

It wasn’t really the money that made me take up the job, it was the opportunity to work with a friend who was also working there. I didn’t tell anyone at home that I had applied for the job. But when my grandfather, Kundan Lal Gujral, came to know of it, he summoned me and asked me to join the family business instead.

I vividly recall my first day of training at Moti Mahal. I reached the restaurant dressed in a suit and was promptly packed off home by my grandfather. ‘Go back, wear casual clothes and return,’ he ordered.

My grandfather first set up Moti Mahal in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1920. Following Partition in 1947, the family moved and he re-established base in Daryaganj, New Delhi.

He set out on a culinary adventure and changed the face of Indian cooking. My grandfather was instrumental in turning the ordinary village tandoor – a clay oven, which until then was used for baking breads – into an contraption that could grill chicken.

That is how tandoori chicken was born. And Moti Mahal became the first restaurant in India to introduce tandoori cuisine to the world.

My grandfather also made a place for himself on the international gourmet map.

Tandoori Chicken was followed by the now famous Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani and Moti Mahal became a destination for both Indian and foreign VIPs and dignitaries.

Indian independence fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad even recommended it as one of the two ‘must visit’ places in India – the other being the Taj Mahal.

Those days, Moti Mahal would resonate with the sound of night-long qawwalis (a performing art) held in the restaurant’s open-air courtyard.

Old-timers recall that as the music reached its crescendo, many guests would get up leaving their food and dance till the wee hours.

Back during those days India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were regular visitors. Moti Mahal also hosted US President Richard Nixon, Canadian President Pierre Trudeau, Soviet leaders Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Bulganin and former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In fact, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was so impressed by the restaurant’s cuisine that he invited my grandfather to set up a restaurant in Moscow at the 1960 World Trade Fair.

Over time, I have tried to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps.

After graduating from Hansraj College, Delhi University in 1986, I did a two-year hotel management course at the Pusa Institute in New Delhi.

Subsequently, I sweated it out in the kitchen of Moti Mahal. It was on-the-job training, learning about inventory management and I acquired culinary skills directly from my grandfather.

To commemorate my grandfather’s journey from Peshawar to Delhi …
… I launched the new-look Moti Mahal Deluxe Tandoori Trail restaurant a couple of years ago. The restaurant is different not only in its look, but also in its menu presentation and style of service. It offers a complete range of tandoori dishes as well as vegetarian dishes.

A while back, I visited a doctor for a routine medical check-up. He was blunt in his advice. “To remain fit, you must take only a single helping at each meal.”

Not one to give up easily, I protested. My argument was based on an old saying that states: ‘Once you see food that arouses your hunger, it blocks any advice that your brain is giving you’.

You continue to enjoy the food, even as you continue to block the signals that are ordering you to stop right then.I have been unable to change my food habits. And I am sure my doctor has given up on me.

The incident with the doctor reminds me of one of my experiences in Paris …
… a city where food and fashion go hand-in-hand. At the time, I was puzzled by how the French managed to stay so slender with all the gourmet food they consume. But I soon discovered the answer.

On a bright Sunday afternoon, I was sitting outside an old bakery called Escoffier, which overlooks a cobbled boulevard. I was enjoying a cup of aromatic French coffee.

At the table next to me sat a beautiful young girl who was eating a flambéed cherry pie with relish. Having finished it, she bought another one and gobbled it in no time.

Amazed, I gathered the courage to go up to her and ask her the secret of her slim figure despite such a (high-fat, high-carbohydrate) diet. First, she laughed. Then she confessed that the thought of eating a second pie was too tempting to forego.

With a wave of her hand, she said, “Just as a good figure is to be admired, scrumptious and appetising food is to be eaten with passion. One can always compensate for such indulgences by stepping on to the treadmill later and sweating it out.”

I, sadly and honestly, have never been able to put her advice to use.

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