FORTUNE COOKIE: An Afghan Treat and Gastro Diplomacy  

Delhi is no stranger to Afghan cuisine. Offspring of the ‘medical tourism’ boom between Kabul and New Delhi, Afghan restaurants in the city appear to be multiplying every month.

One might start with Kabul Delhi in Lajpat Nagar, where I discovered the joys of digging kebabs as they were meant to be (without the overpowering presence of garam masala).

It really seems the moment that a Max Healthcare hospital comes up anywhere in the city, the business of Afghan restaurants registers a hefty spike. 

Chef Mohammad Hashim of the Intercontinental Kabul, seen making Seekh and Joojeh Kababs at Pavilion, ITC Maurya, speaks of the good times returning to his city

Chef Mohammad Hashim of the Intercontinental Kabul, seen making Seekh and Joojeh Kababs at Pavilion, ITC Maurya, speaks of the good times returning to his city

You have to see the restaurants proliferating at Hauz Rani, on the side that meanders beside Press Enclave Road in Saket, opposite Max Healthcare’s Super Specialty Hospital, to believe it. 

They are patronised by the families of patients who come daily from Afghanistan – and by Afghans who have decided to stay on after first coming to Delhi as refugees escaping three decades of self-destructive wars. 

As I sat down with Chef Mohammad Hashim from the Intercontinental Kabul, a hotel that has survived wars unleashed by the Soviets and the Americans, and inquisitions by the Taliban, mental pictures of these neon-lit, rickety restaurants flooded my salivating mind. 

The flavourful yet minimally spiced Chicken Qurma

The flavourful yet minimally spiced Chicken Qurma

Hashim looks more like a Kashmiri Pandit, maybe because he doesn’t sport a beard, than the ‘Kabuliwallah’ as we have known him to be from Rabindranath Tagore’s story, first translated into English by Swami Vivekananda’s acolyte, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), and then made into a film by Bimal Roy, with Balraj Sahni playing the title role. 

You cannot have a sub-continental conversation without references to Hindi cinema. The chef, who’s here on a culinary exchange at the ITC Maurya initiated by Amar Sinha, India’s Ambassador in Kabul, laughingly said how his friends back home said to him: “If you don’t meet Shah Rukh Khan, you needn’t come home!” 

SRK has been a presence in the lives of the Afghans – he’s the reason why the chef can speak fluently in Hindi. One of the signs of good times returning to Kabul is the proliferation of shops selling CDs of Bollywood films. The other giveaway is the house-full status of Intercontinental Kabul’s Bamiyan Brasseries, where the legacy of the Bamiyan Buddha, obliterated by the Taliban, lives on in a grand wall hanging. 

“Bamiyan,” Hashim says proudly, “is the Bukhara of Afghanistan.” 

As war recedes into a haze of memories and the Taliban seem like a bad dream, families are eating out more often. Women no longer are banned from restaurants, as they were during the days of the Taliban. 

Your nose will guide you to ITC Maurya’s all-day dining restaurant, Pavilion, where the tandoor and the charcoal sigri haven’t seen a dull moment during dinnertime since the day Hashim and his mates landed from Kabul. 

The Afghans believe in a minimally invasive style of cooking that lets us savour the natural flavours of the meats. They marinate their meats with salt, sometimes adding onions that double as tenderisers, cumin and coriander leaves; black pepper is an occasional add-on. Lamb is their favourite meat; in Delhi, it is goat meat and chicken all the way, yet Hashim and his team have adapted to the change seamlessly. 

The adaptable Hashim, though, still cannot take the spice levels of our cuisine (and of course, the prices of dry fruits in the local market, plenty of which go into the Kabuli Pulao). 

If Hashim’s Chopan (a subtler version of the burrah), Seekh (sexed up with nothing more than onions), Jujeh kababs (succulent chicken chunks on the bone) and Chhabli (a cross between a chapli and to sil batte ki shaami) acquire their flavours from the juices of the meats, his chicken qurma has nothing more than to it than onions, green chillies, garlic and tomatoes. 

Still, you can’t stop dipping your Kabuli naan into it. More power to culinary diplomacy! 


Nostalgia and the Taj: 36 years of memories 

A hotel that’s been around for 36 years becomes a part of the city’s collective memory and contemporary heritage. 

Delhi’s Taj came up where a gentleman named J.E.D. Fonseca had been running a popular 23-room hotel in a Lutyens’ villa at the centre of a sprawling garden shaded by ancient trees. It opened its doors in 1978 – and since then has been the repository of stories, recounted during an evening of sparkling conversations over a menu infused with nostalgia. 

Anjolie Ela Menon’s bas relief mural, seen here at the old Haveli restaurant, has been around for 36 years

Anjolie Ela Menon’s bas relief mural, seen here at the old Haveli restaurant, has been around for 36 years

Anjolie Ela Menon has seen the hotel come up from the day it was all brick and concrete. The bas relief mural she painted “for a pittance” on one side of what was to become the Haveli restaurant, is one of the features that has survived through all these years. 

She remembered how her tiring three months, which is the time it took her to complete the mural, were more than compensated when her husband, Rear Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon, and she got to entertain their friends with the Lucknowi food cooked by the chefs who were being tested for the restaurant. 

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan remembered an chance meeting he had with J.R.D. Tata at Machan. The sarod maestro’s son Aman, then a 10-year-old, ran to the business tycoon and said to him: “My father has the same watch as you.” Tata replied, “But mine is a Rolex!” 

That did nothing to shake little Aman’s belief that Tata was wearing the same watch as his father. 

Ronnie Lobo, the hotel’s best-known general manager, chuckles when he recalled how he ran into Mick Jagger, who’d come unannounced for an India-Pakistan cricket match. The hotelier discovered The Rolling Stones lead singer, who’d checked in under an assumed name, had been assigned an ordinary room. Jagger was promptly upgraded, but getting a private jet to fly him to Pakistan wasn’t that easy!

Lobo also remembered how he pinched David Lean from ITC Maurya. The director wrote A Passage to India, his last film based on E.M. Foster’s novel, in the two years he spent here. 


Why some food brands remain hits 

Why do some food brands inspire people to keep coming back? The question struck me as I denuded the bone of the flame-grilled Peri Peri Chicken for the Purists at Nando’s in Cyber Hub. 

The chicken was soft like melting butter and tasted even better with the milder peri peri sauce. It came back to me one more time when I just had the Pita Pit wrap with equal portions of chicken seekh kababs and tikkas (the server’s suggestion, not mine) dressed with tzatziki sauce and an array of accompaniments at the My Square outlet in Select Citywalk, Saket. 

I had heard the answer before. Consistency with quality: Nothing works better for restaurants. 


Generation FOBO and the Death of Etiquette 

Cut it out! Chefs hate diners photographing their food before they've even tasted it

Cut it out! Chefs hate diners photographing their food before they've even tasted it

Nothing upsets chefs more than newly-wed couples coming for a meal and then not eating anything (or talking) till they’ve posted pictures on their favourite social media platform. 

And whatever little conversation that takes place grinds to a halt the moment they start getting likes and/or comments. 

“They would rather eat cold food than not tell the world that they are eating at a particular restaurant. Where’s the romance in dining out?” a chef said in disgust, adding that whenever an order comes from a newlywed couple, he sends the food a couple of degrees warmer than normal so that they get to eat food at the right temperature when they choose to eat it. 

This is the FOBO (Fear of Being Offline) generation for you – a generation marketers lovingly describe as ‘Digital Natives’. 

Have Facebook and Instagram rung the death knell of conversation? FOBO couples would rather be responding to strangers online, than talking to the loved one across the table. They would rather be on Facebook than look at each other while talking. 

That kills the social purpose of eating out, doesn’t it? And did someone just bury dining etiquette?