Some days ago, a friend asked me to recommend a restaurant that served good north Indian food in the city. What do you mean by north India, I asked her. Punjab, or Delhi? Or perhaps Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh?
For most of us, north Indian food has long translated into dal makhni and tandoori chicken — or perhaps biryani and korma. But that is a tiny part of the north, which stretches from Punjab and Delhi to Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kashmir and beyond. The region has a culinary trove that sadly few know of. And many of the much-loved dishes from the region (often slow-cooked) are slowly disappearing from our lives.
I still remember the taste of dal cooked on low heat in our village home. The dal would simmer for hours in an earthenware pot, and we’d have it the next day with ghee-smeared rotis. It was bliss.
I got a taste of some little-known northern dishes at a new restaurant called the Loya at Taj Palace. The restaurant has on its menu several forgotten or much-loved dishes gathered largely from the north. Many of these are slow cooked, a culinary style prevalent in the region. Dum, for instance, is a form of slow-cooking which lets food cook in its own steam, thereby trapping all the flavours.
I tried Loya’s dumba kadhai, a delicious kid goat meat dish flavoured with slit chillies, ginger and black pepper and cooked on slow fire. Another memorable dish was the kunna murgh from Punjab. It reminded me of my favourite Champaran meat, for, like the Bihar speciality, kunna meat had been cooked in mustard oil in an earthen pot, and flavoured with a large garlic bulb. It had the additional zest of stone flowers or patthar ke phool (also known as dagar phool).
A region in the north that is now finding culinary fame is Moradabad. The meal kicked off with a dal ki chaat – which was like the Moradabadi dal, tempered with tomatoes and garlic. The dal came with crispy besan chips, and I found myself happily digging into it. The timbri jhinga of the north Indian hills, however, didn’t impress me much. The prawns had been marinated with pahadi bhang jeera chutney, but the flavours were a bit too mild, I thought.
I have a long acquaintance with the food of Himachal Pradesh, having spent many months there on several occasions, living on khatti dal and sepu wadi. The urad dal dumpling dish is on the menu, as is Kangra’s khodiya gosht. The meat dish got its smoky taste and intriguing black look from walnut shells that had been roasted, powdered and added to the gravy.
Chef Gagan Sikka of Loya tells me that another landmark dish is Multani gobi — which comes from a region that was once in Punjab and is now in Pakistan. In this dish, the cauliflower is flavoured with mustard seeds, wrapped and cooked in clay, and then served with a coriander emulsion.
Loya seeks to showcase the dishes of the north (with some meanderings here and there). The north, indeed, has so much to offer. I remember in particular a dish from Punjab called Kot kapura chicken or atta chicken. For this, a whole chicken is wrapped in wheat flour and semolina, then coated with clay and roasted. Once done, the clay is broken, and the chicken is eaten with the crispy crust of atta and suji.
And did I hear someone say Punjab was all about tandoor chicken?
(North Indian meal for two ₹ 6,400 (average) at Hotel Taj Palace; 2, Sardar Patel Marg; Tel no:. 011-26110202)