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Bukhara: Creating dishes with consistency for over four decades

The menu at the iconic Bukhara restaurant in Delhi’s ITC Maurya has remained unchanged for the past 45 years

The restaurant's signature Naan and Dal Bukhara

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 05.04.2024  |  02:00 PM IST

Bukhara, the culinary landmark at ITC Maurya, New Delhi, has always been in the news for its high-profile guests. From diplomats and heads of states to actors and sportspersons, many who visit the Capital make it a point to dine at the restaurant specialising in food from the North-West Frontier and where a meal can cost about 8,000 per person. One of the biggest draws of Bukhara, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary, is the sense of comfort it offers through food.

“Ever since people from across the globe heard of (former US president) Bill Clinton enjoying the Sikandri raan during his visit to Delhi, there has been a fascination with Bukhara," says Delhi-based Chetan Sharma, 41, a patron and an international trade consultant. “Now my clients ask to be taken to the restaurant and no one leaves dissatisfied." Sharma, who has been visiting the restaurant since he was a child, brings his four-year-old son to Bukhara regularly to savour the signature dal and naan.

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There is warmth in the familiarity of flavours—knowing that its signature Dal Bukhara, tandoori jhinga and pomfret, the phirni or the Sikandari raan will be just so whenever you visit. “Simple and rustic" is how executive chef J.P. Singh describes the Bukhara menu that has remained unchanged for the past 45 years. Singh’s quiet presence adds to that sense of comfort—on most days, you can find him in the kitchen, going about marinating, skewering and basting kebabs with his team.

I ask Singh what an average day at Bukhara is like but he doesn’t mention the flurry of service or the heat of the kitchen. “I have seen generations of a family come in over the course of time, with their grandchildren visiting now," he says. “Sometimes I enjoy it here more than at home," he laughs. Hospitality, then, lies at the core of his ethos.

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In the Indian food and beverage industry, where restaurants open and shut at frightening pace, Bukhara’s quality has remained consistent, and its flavours true and authentic. The menu is not expansive and yet holds a draw for regulars. Sharma says: “Unlike other restaurants, at Bukhara, one never gets the sense that the food was good yesterday but not as delicious today. For the past so many decades, the flavour has remained the same. The staff is also so thoughtful."

When it opened in 1978, Bukhara was ahead of its time in terms of design as well, with an open kitchen that allowed guests to see what was being cooked and its large tandoors on display. Its décor was reminiscent of the rugged North-West Frontier Province.

Set against stone walls with earthy tones, wooden accents and traditional décor, the log-top tables add uniqueness to the space. The low seating and pots and pans hanging from the walls evoke the feel of the region that Bukhara chooses to represent. “It is with good reason that we say Bukhara is timeless. From decor to the concept, all elements have remained consistent. This is what our diners want. We now look forward to Bukhara's fifth decade," says Anil Chadha, chief executive, ITC Hotels, who has seen various milestones at the restaurant, from its silver jubilee to celebrating its 35 years, and now the 45th year anniversary.

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Sikandari raan

Contrary to the popular perception that the dishes from the North-West Frontier are rich and heavy on the digestion, Singh maintains that the rustic cuisine focuses on good health. “Unlike other cuisines, we use only lean meat. Anything that is fatty will stick to the tandoor in such high temperatures. Even the Dal Bukhara contains only five to six per cent fat. A dollop of butter is added on top only if the guest permits it," he says.

The consistency in quality can also be attributed to the suppliers the restaurant has worked with for nearly four decades. Each knows the cut and precision that Singh seeks out. In past interviews, the chef has mentioned how he weighs everything; for instance, the leg of lamb that goes into the Sikandari raan, has to weigh 1.2-1.5kg when it arrives in the kitchen.

Among patrons’ favourite dishes is the restaurant’s Dal Bukhara, best known for its simplicity, familiar flavours and its unchanging quality. The classic Indian lentil preparation is known for its rich and aromatic taste. “There is no passing down of recipes here, but imbibing of standards to retain the integrity of the cuisine," explains Aman Kidwai, area manager, luxury hotels (north) and general manager ITC Maurya.

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“The lentils are simmered overnight over charcoal with minimal spices that bring out the natural flavours of the dal," says Kidwai. They are also careful about the size and ingredients of the breads, so that they complement the tandoori style of cooking. The huge Naan Bukhara, for instance, which is aimed at communal dining, is many times the size of a regular naan and has a separate tandoor dedicated to it.

“Our chefs constantly explore innovative ways to incorporate sustainable practices into our cooking processes, whether it is through using seasonal produce or implementing eco-friendly cooking methods," says Kidwai.