Whenever I travel, I bring something home with me. Sometimes it’s a piece of clothing or jewelry to remember the trip, but more often, it’s something intangible—a taste memory. On my recent trip to India, extraordinary flavors and ingredient combinations crowded every meal; I could hardly keep up. Here are a few dishes, stripped down to their essence, that I plan to attempt in my own kitchen.
Gurgaon and Delhi
At the serene Amaranta restaurant in the glamorous Oberoi Gurgaon (just outside of New Delhi), chef Ravitej Nath explores 4,500 miles of Indian coastal cuisine and presents it in modern ways, influenced by his travels through London, the US, Tokyo and beyond. I’m definitely borrowing two of his most refreshing ideas: to start a meal, coconut water mixed with lemon, honey and mint; and, as a palate cleanser or light dessert, a small scoop of Champagne sorbet (I might substitute lemon sorbet) in a martini glass with Champagne poured on top. 443 Udyog Vihar; oberoihotels.com.
I had the most sophisticated food of my journey at Indian Accent, a modest-looking restaurant in a boutique New Delhi hotel called The Manor. Chef Manish Mehrotra’s tasting menu includes Indian classics and Western dishes with a sly sense of humor. His twist on tuna ceviche is so smart: He tosses chunks of raw tuna with avocado, onion and water chestnuts, then tops the dish with the crisp and crackly Indian snack mix called chaat (in my kitchen, I’ll substitute toasted puffed rice). He also uses a pressure cooker to help make kulfi, India’s answer to ice cream, which he serves in a toy pressure cooker. That’s a dish I would not attempt to re-create without a recipe! 77 Friends Colony (West); themanordelhi.com.
Priya Paul, the chairperson of The Park Hotels, and The Park Hotel New Delhi’s chef, Anurudh Khanna, took me on a careening nighttime rickshaw ride. I saw vendors selling every kind of street food—chaat, breads, kebabs. Finally we arrived at the über-popular Karim’s, comprised of four stalls in a little cul-de-sac. We feasted on mutton, then topped off the meal with an insane dessert called shahi tukra—deep-fried bread soaked in sugar syrup, layered with sweetened condensed milk, then cut up and served. At the hotel, Khanna makes his own terrific version. Karim’s: 16, near Jama Masjid, Matya Mahal Rd.; karimhoteldelhi.com. The Park New Delhi: theparkhotels.com.
Right next to Karim’s is the world’s best fried chicken stand. Maybe it was the drama of the preparation that enthralled me: There’s a guy squatting on his haunches, holding a knife between his toes, cutting up skinned whole chickens to toss in a marinade. In front of him is a vat of boiling oil and a cook who wields an enormous perforated spatula. He lowers the chicken into the oil once, twice, three times, allowing it to drain between fryings. The result is the crispiest, juiciest meat. At home, I won’t triple-fry my chicken, but I’ll blend ground cumin, coriander, black pepper and salt to sprinkle on top.
At a private tasting at The Leela Palace Chennai, I witnessed how beautifully the food of India can be updated with restraint and elegance. The trio of starters—lamb medallions on paratha, minced chicken on skewers coated with Kashmiri morels and peppers, and tandoor-baked paneer with saffron foam—were sublime. But the dish I’ll try to make at home is the Afghani lamb marinated with cumin, cardamom and bay leaf, then grilled. If I could have it with the 2004 Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne, as I did in Chennai, all the better. Adyar Seaface; theleela.com.
A dazzling amount of research went into the dishes at Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel Chennai. Chef Alok Anand and his team traveled through four states in southern India collecting almost 700 recipes from home cooks and small restaurants, and also consulted old cookbooks, before paring the number back to the 100 or so dishes on his current menu. If he and his staff couldn’t get a recipe quite right, they invited the original cook to their kitchen to demonstrate. I tasted 30 dishes in a single evening, from a light chicken broth with black pepper and herbs to a chilled coconut pudding. The one I’m going to try at home is the asparagus paruppu usili: diced asparagus tossed with yellow lentils and Madras chiles. 37 Mahatma Gandhi Rd.; tajhotels.com.
For years, I’ve heard about Nimmy Paul and the cooking classes she holds on the back patio of her house. So I was thrilled at the chance to meet the great teacher myself. All her food is inspired by her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes, and it’s easy to replicate as long as you’re willing to chase down ingredients like fresh curry leaves. (Her grandmother gave her one memorable piece of advice about cooking: “Never bruise a curry leaf.”) But many dishes require only supermarket ingredients. There are two drinks I’m going to try: I’ll puree fresh tomato chunks with lemon juice, fresh ginger, sugar and salt, then strain and serve over ice. And I’ll grind black pepper, cumin seeds, cardamom seeds and dried ginger and add to some ground coffee before brewing it. Then I’ll experiment with thoren, a dish I had several times in India. Nimmy’s version is excellent: very, very thinly sliced green beans stir-fried with dried red chile, green chile, shallots, curry leaf and black mustard, combined at the end with delicious fresh grated coconut. nimmypaul.com.
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