I was smitten by an exotic medley of flavours and spices as I ambled through the lavish all-day dining restaurant, Pavilion, at the ITC Maurya. I have a predilection for this hotel. As a journalist I would come here for the Times Food Awards, events and parties or just to hang out at the most beautiful Irish Bar, Dublin – reminiscing this I am getting maudlinly melancholic.
So, any invite from ITC, I am more than willing to be there and this time it was unique – I was going to take pleasure in the culinary diaphaneity of our neighbours – Kabul, Afghanistan. The embers of the sigri and the tandoor seemed every inch afire, the coal hasn’t once turned hoary from rufescent since the Chef Mohammad Hashim from Intercontinental, Kabul, and his mates have arrived in the hotel to give us an appetizing indulgence. Chef Hashim’s warm smile is infectious and so generous; he looks more like a Kashmiri than Afghani (I’ve been to Kashmir and can actually find strong resemblance in his demeanour) and quite enjoys his conversations. In a candid talk, he said he loves to be in India, cooking for us, giving us an insight into the Afghani culinary delicacy and heritage. As the memory of the bane by Taliban ebbs and dwindles in the sky of progression and revival, Afghanistan is all ready to proclaim its cultural worth. It was interesting to know how Afghanis are proud of their meat and rice; every family cooks them on a daily basis. They believe in an au naturel form of cooking – exposed on the coal and gingerly spiced. They marinate their meat in ‘bare minimum’ – salt, coriander and cumin and black pepper is used just as an add-on. Onions are sometimes used just to add texture. They go easy on spices also because the traditional spice route was a route less travelled and they like to savour the raw succulent juices of the meats. The Chef was stunned at the fact that Indians don’t consume big portions of meat. He said, “In Afghanistan one person can finish up one kg of meat all by himself”. This probably was an indication to pump me up to pull up my socks for a feast of a lifetime.
The cultural exchange program has been designed by the Indian High Commission – to celebrate Afghani cuisine in India in a 10 days festival but the Chef would want to come back for longer durations to cook here. He said, “it’s great to learn styles and forms here and also in return teach a thing or two to my Indian counterparts. I would love to return if the hotel deems fit”. What was interesting to savour was the traditional Afghani bread – thick layered but not chewy at all. What a finesse! The Chef said, “Breads are a favourite and are available in an exciting array – we bake them in tandoors and though not everyone has the space required for the enormous tandoor, they favour to buy their breads from the local markets”. He also spoke about camaraderie that Afghanis have with Indians there and how everyone likes to remain cordial.
Coming to the menu for the night, I relished the Chopan – what we call burra and gorge on at Jama Majzid, was just so delicious. What I loved was the Basa Fish kebab that was cooked slowly on charcoal, marinated with garlic water, onion, coriander, salt and pepper – it comes from a village called Jalalabad on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan which has a land-locked water body that cultivates a kind of Basa fish, a version of which the Chef did for us. Perfectly charcoaled, deep within what you could taste was just the tenderness of the meat – and an undermined flavour of garlic hits you which was beautiful. The mutton seekh, the Chicken kebab and the Chhabli were so succulent and finger-licking delicious – all deriving their flavours from the juices of the meats, slow cooked on the coal with no artificial marination. The Kabuli Pulav that is made of the sella rice, a variant of the bsamati, and garnished with a lot of dry fruits – a culinary tradition common to Muslim cuisine, I guess, was beautiful. Chef Hashim couldn’t initially find the sella so for the first two days he negotiated with the Indian basmati, most accommodatingly. I loved the simple flavours and the sweetness of the raisins coming through in the aromatic Pulav. The Murgh and the Lamb Qurma were just so delectable – tomatoes, onions, cumin, green chillies and salt – that is all it took to make these flavoursome delicacies – I couldn’t help but eat an extra piece of that yummilicious Afghani bread or naan. The gravy was not cooked to death and the spices were scandalously mild. The Chef says, “I can’t imagine even imagine using so many spices and can’t even take it”.
But what he definitely has to take back home is a picture with Sharukh Khan or else his entry to his homeland would have to be through the ‘spice route’. Hahhahaha….
Cheers to the culinary savoir-faire!
P:S Harman from the Pavilion was extremely hospitable.