“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”
Delhi is one such city that evokes memories each time I visit, of a baby Sourabh frolicking in steaming summers or chilly winters, darting from storefront to snack shop, merry in the absence of life’s problems. Having already dined recently at an East Asian oasis in the middle of the nation’s capital and paid homage to my Punjabi heritage with a cognac gulab jamun dessert, it was time to go traditional. And surreal, at that. For my parents and I had a reservation at one of Delhi’s finest, authentic gems: Bukhara, located inside our residences at the ITC Maurya, much to mommy’s joy.
Waiting for our table under the hypnotic ceiling brought a flood of memories of yours truly gazing at them, a decade or two ago, in awe of the impeccable watercolored art thatched together with mahogany wood. Called the Chaitya Art Gallery, evolving with art pieces from India, I recall having spent many evenings across my youth and adolescence under this multicolored inspiration.
Known to have maintained its unchanged menu in 30 years courtesy of Chef JP Singh, Bukhara is still known for its consistency in serving food cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). And thankfully it did not visually boast of having hosted the Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, Bukhara had a warm and inviting, almost old fashioned decor that blended well with the identity. Stone walls and floors with rust hued Bukhara carpets, and copper pots suspended from ceilings like borrowings from a rural space.
Despite a hiccup in our reservations which consequently took up to 2 hours to seat us by 11pm (we were hotel guests after all), we made the most of exploring the enchanting lobby and studying the history of the iconic landmark. The luscious space was saturated with colors – bright pink flowers at the center, bronze chests concealing historical secrets, mother of pearl engraved into wooden seating, brass cauldrons of water flowing with deep red rose petals and tabletops with books quoting figures and images of art and history.
Bukhara itself stems from the history of the North West Frontier Province which borders Afghanistan, and where food is known to be cooked in a clay tandoor, often in darkness except for the warm glow of campfire light. Apparently, chefs need to undergo years of training to make naans in a tandoor in order to gauge the proportions of dough and yeast, judge the heat of the tandoor, and in particular, cook the meats sans gravy.
After peaking at the menu written on a wooden plate, we were given our plaid napkins and branded wrapped bottled water, all made of starched linen and embroidery, understating the opulence of this place. Not to mention, I love plaid, a fashion trend and soothing on the eyes when placed in interior decor.
Not feeling like cocktails for a change, the water itself arrived in copper glasses, reminiscent of Punjab, earthy ochre in color. Feeling an unplaced comfort, we sipped away at Bisleri water, preferring our starch branded water to the pitchers of copper lined against the walls.
As we waited by the views of the open kitchen, it was a hard to take our eyes off the chefs tossing dough into the air, making rumaali roti, a tactic used to break the dough up for balance as it stretched relentlessly. A process that was ever so fun to watch.
Being a self confessed paneer addict (un-creatively known as cottage cheese), I obviously got the tandoori paneer tikka, made in spicy marinades in the legendary tandoor oven. It arrived on a bed of semi-cooked tomatoes and garnished with chilies, coriander and raw ginger. The sauce was a combination of gramflour, yellow chillies skewered in the clay oven, and fresh cream, giving it a buttery texture and a spicy taste. The fascinating thing about cooking in clay ovens for longer periods of time was that the food was infused with a warming aroma of homemade, earthen clay pots. The paneer was pillow soft, and the sauce brightly flavorful; a welcomed entry into a homely city with what still ranks as one of the best paneer dishes I have ever had.
Perhaps my least favorite of northern Indian food staples is the dal: lentils cooked in tomato and spice gravy, and usually savored with rice. Which is why it was perhaps not on our list to order, until the exemplary waiter urged us to try it like a grandpa explaining history to his kids. For the world renowned Dal Bukhara is actually cooked overnight in the tandoor and simmered all night, finished with tomato, garlic and ginger the next day. A spoonful of this dal was a shocking revelation for me, having grown up not liking black lentils. And it took just a spoonful of the warm and spicy blend of ginger and tomato and a hint of butter to make me slurp my dish clean.
The wild card was the tandoori stuffed capsicum and potatoes, cooked like neighbors of the same tandoor. The capsicum was stuffed with sauteed beans, carrots, vinegar dressed cabbage, spiced with cumin and garnished with my favorite of nuts: cashews. Sprinkled alongside were sultana raisins, reminding me why I loved India so much, for these Afhani / Punjabi / Middle Eastern morsels of sweet goodness were so lacking in Western cuisines. The potato halves were stuffed with a crispier potato hash, the same combo of cashews and sultanas, alongside green chilies and coriander that had been skewered in the tandoor.
To pick a favorite of these was tricky, for while the capsicum was fresh and cooling thanks to its cabbage and bitter cumin flavors, the potato was a carb-lovers finest dream – spicy and appetizing with a textural crunch in the hash and nuts. Both were dreamy to eat, and mom and I vowed to try them both in our own kitchens, sans tandoor.
And nothing tondoori is complete without the entourage of breads and naans that arrived with indescribable aromas. The pudina parantha belonged to a North Indian variety of stuffed breads, this one stuffed with greens, and topped with garlic and coriander as it was simmered in clarified butter in the tandoor. I chose the un-buttered naan topped with toasted sesame seeds for a delectable crunch. Both were sumptuous – perfectly soft to bite, warm and fresh, giving off hot steam as they were gently torn to dip into the gravy dishes. These tied the entire meal together in poetic, cohesive sequence, sewn together by the Afghani Punjabi tandoori flavors and rustic ambiance.
With Delhi’s sweltering weather and my soft spot for ice cream, it was natural to order the almond pistachio kulfi, served with corn starch vermicelli and rose syrup. The latter brought back another flood of history when a youthful little boy snacked on kulfi and falooda as delectable street food, perhaps the start in a sequence of food adoration. The kulfi was served in a mustard hued earthenware plate, as was the subsequent surprise, completing the entire meal in bohemian elegance.
For the last course was my favorite digestive: paan, consumed before in kulfi format, but obviously much adored in its original finery. Defined as a betelnut leaf soaked in rose syrup and stuffed with fennel, licorice, coconut and other true loves of a bygone era, it is a digestive that is savored in style. One bite made me close my eyes and dream.
As we tumbled out beneath the artistry of the Maurya post midnight, the luscious hues all seemed to blend together in seamless poetry. Indeed, while nostalgia removes the rough edges from the old days, reliving the memories adds the color to the very same parchment. And here we were, back where the love for food and adoration of Delhi began, once again.
I love my cyclic life.
In a round world that is oh so small.