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How restaurants are breaking the north-Indian stereotype

Chefs are going beyond ‘chhole’ and ‘paneer’ to showcase the diversity of flavours from northern India

Sigree butter chicken tikka at Dhilli, The Oberoi, New Delhi
Sigree butter chicken tikka at Dhilli, The Oberoi, New Delhi

One of my biggest peeves is eateries grouping cuisines from Kashmir, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi under the broad umbrella of “north Indian” food. After performing lip service to some of these regions by including pindi chhole, dal Moradabadi and rogan josh on the menu, they end up serving the same old paneer butter masala, butter chicken and dal makhani.

Over the years, the stereotype of the “north Indian eatery” has taken root across the country. It usually has ornate, dimly-lit interiors, tables set with copper plates and tumblers and ghazals playing in the background. But the diversity of flavours that marks the culinary landscape of the north has been missing.

For the longest time, only a handful of restaurants, such as the Indian Accent in Delhi and Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai, would innovate with regional flavours from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and other states in their modern Indian menus. Now many more restaurants, including stand-alone ones, coming up in metros are focusing on the tapestry of flavours from the north. In the past few months itself, several such eateries have opened up: Dhilli at The Oberoi, Delhi; Pincode, also in the Capital, helmed by Kunal Kapur; Nksha and Jhelum in Mumbai, to name some. They are demolishing the perception of “north Indian” dishes as heavy, cream-laden creations with lashings of spice.

The refined, elegant offerings on these new menus are informed by the memories chefs and owners have of the region. At Dhilli, for instance, chef Vineet Bhatia—a Mumbai boy—reminisces about the time spent in Delhi during visits to his nani’s house, and as a student and an upcoming chef. The menu showcases the rich culinary heritage of Old Delhi, the flair of Rajouri Garden and everything in between. So you will find a samosa chaat board and chatak chena chaat on his menu, followed by a butter chicken, done differently in a sigree (coal-fired stove) and then enveloped in a sauce.

Pincode, which has opened in the Capital’s Civil Lines area after a successful debut in Dubai, draws on Kapur’s travels through India’s many pin codes and family recipes, with innovative dishes such as chaat hummus, dhokla chaat, pressure-cooker chicken curry and lamb seekh tawa masala. “As a child, I would accompany my grandfather to Old Delhi to buy groceries in bulk from the wholesale market. For me, the treat would be getting to eat chhole bhature, rabri and chaat from some of the iconic places. While doing that, I would pick up on conversations between my grandfather and the shopkeepers about the quality of produce,” says Kapur. Those conversations became the stepping stones for the menu at Pincode.

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Cornetto chaat at Pincode
Cornetto chaat at Pincode

One of their signature dishes is the Old Delhi-style bread pudding, inspired by a dish his mother would whip up in winter. Kapur recalls her tucking in the children and serving them doodh bread with sugar sprinkled on top. “It would be cold and the bread pieces would stick together. She would garnish this with a lot of tutti frutti. I have tried to recreate that,” he says.

At Jhelum, which opened in Mumbai’s Bandra locality this month, the owner, 24-year-old Abhay Chhabra, pays homage to his grandfather, who was from Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. “The food and flavours at Jhelum draw from the Peshawari-Punjabi identity of my family,” says Chhabra. Since the food draws from towns and cities along the river, you will find a smattering of Kashmiri dishes on the menu, along with hearty Punjabi preparations like baingan masala. Chhabra sources all the masalas from Kashmir and Punjab to maintain the authentic taste.

Clearly, customers too are now seeking a more regionally diverse spread. Chef Vikram Arora, who launched Nksha with Pranav M. Rungta in Churchgate, Mumbai, on 23 April, believes this is due to people travelling a lot more within the country. “For instance, Varanasi is no longer merely a pilgrimage centre. People are going there to understand heritage, culture and to savour the food as well. They want to see a good tamatar ki chaat being replicated at their favourite restaurants,” he adds.

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At Churchgate Hospitality Pvt. Ltd’s Nksha, 80% of the dishes stay true to their original taste; the rest are given a creative twist by Arora. So, you will find tamatar ki launji being paired with burrata in a cheddar cheese tart, truffle cheese kulcha, coffee rasmalai and papdi chaat topped with berries instead of the regular pomegranate seeds. Among the originals are dishes such as stuffed gucchi, a bater or quail preparation and Dilli 6 wala mutton korma. “A certain monotony had set in, at least in Mumbai, when it came to north Indian food. If people wanted something creative, they would have to head to restaurants in five-star hotels. The stand-alone eatery culture, in this genre of food, was very conventional. We hope to change that,” adds Arora.

Mirchi halwa at Nksha
Mirchi halwa at Nksha

Chefs believe there is so much potential in every state or region that you could spend years researching and still touch only the tip of the iceberg. For them, one such destination is Delhi. Its rich history—with mentions in the Mahabharat, the seat of power for the Chauhan Rajputs, the Delhi Sultanate and Mughals, followed by the British and the government of independent India—has left deep imprints on its culinary heritage. Bhatia hopes to celebrate all this at Dhilli, while making this legacy accessible to the younger generation.

“They would rather go out and have burgers or pizza and completely disregard their own food. I want to speak to this generation about food that is so complex and flavourful that it can easily beat any other cuisine around the world,” he states in an email interview. To him, Delhi is so much more than just chhole bhature.

While training as a chef in Delhi, one of his most sought after dishes used to be rajma chawal, which he would cook for friends every alternate day. “I have categorised it as ‘Rajouri Garden’ in the menu, as the ones you find there are absolutely blissful,” reminisces Bhatia. The akhroti tawa seekh is a take on the kebabs found in the lanes of Jama Masjid and once a staple at his home as a teatime snack. “The moti ittar pulao from Nizamuddin was something that my team and I fell in love with. A lot of the dishes on the menu are about recreating experiences we enjoyed on the streets in Delhi while connecting with the locals,” he adds.

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Over the past decade, ITC Hotels such as Maurya and Sheraton have been offering in-depth sojourns of Delhi through festivals and restaurants such as the Delhi Pavilion (started in 2015). Now another festival, The Dehlnavi Trail, has taken this exploration up several notches by highlighting the city’s sub-cuisines—those influenced by the Baniyas, Kayasthas, Punjabis and Marwari traders, who have made Delhi their home over the years. The festival, which started in Delhi in April, moved to Mumbai this month and will travel to ITC properties in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata between June-September. It has been curated by Manisha Bhasin, executive corporate chef, ITC hotels, and chef Rais, who uses one name. The chefs have been instrumental in laying the foundation of Dehlnavi, introduced as a banquet offering in 2005 and integrated into the menu later, as a brand.

The Dehlnavi meal starts with Mohabbat ka Sharbat, which came into the spotlight recently when politician Rahul Gandhi savoured a glassful during a visit to Old Delhi with actor-food writer Kunal Vijaykar. Made with chunks of watermelon, rose syrup and milk, it acts like a palate cleanser between courses too. The extensive meal features a chaat platter comprising dahi gujiya, aloo tikki, papdi chaat and more. Also interesting are the silbatte ki shaami and the jackfruit haleem.

Other highlights include nihari with malai paratha, kuni ki dal, with slow-cooked Bengal grams and black lentils, meha bharwan, or round gourd cooked in light tomato and asafoetida gravy, and the unique mirchi nimona pulao—a Basmati rice preparation with whole gentle green chillies stuffed with peas paste. “Our chefs at ITC Hotels have been researching this concept since 2005-06, starting with 1200 AD and going up to the post-Partition era. It was interesting to see how members of certain communities picked up nuances while working in the British kitchens. That is how the chicken ishtoo came into being. The Kayasthas brought with them kofte and faux-meat dishes such as dhokha keema. The Punjabis introduced the tandoor and the kuni dal. Our menu takes inspiration from all of these,” says Bhasin.

For a long time, people would take the name of Delhi and Awadhi cuisines in the same breath. However, there is a fine distinction between the two. According to Bhasin, Awadhi food, made in the royal kitchens, is more refined while that of Delhi is rustic and robust, without any frills. “Delhi was invaded so many times, that there was never any time to settle down and evolve. Hence it sticks closely to its roots. Delhi biryani and nihari are very different from their Awadhi counterparts. It would not be right to compare the two,” she adds.

It is this kind of nuanced discourse that is helping to redefine the idea of what constitutes “north Indian”.

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