It has been a month of eating Indian food outside of home. But not the kind of Indian food you would expect to find on normal menus.
I will start with the meal I enjoyed the most – though perhaps that has something to do with nostalgia. I went to boarding school in Rajasthan, to a place called Mayo College in Ajmer. The school was set up by a now forgotten Viceroy called Lord Mayo to offer an Eton-style education to the sons of Indian princes, over a century ago.
The parallels with Eton probably existed only in Lord Mayo’s mind because the school, when it opened, had a distinctively Maharaja touch about it. The first student arrived on an elephant with a huge entourage and proceeded to live with his servants in a large palace built specially for him – not quite the sort of thing they ever did in Eton!
As more and more maharajas sent their kids to Mayo, new mansions/palaces were constructed over the huge campus (over 200 acres). I am not sure how much quality education was imparted but nearly all of the great North Indian princely states were represented. The late Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur (who married Gayatri Devi) was a student there. So was Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, father of Dr. Karan Singh. The Udaipur royal family has historical links dating back many generations.
And eventually, the Rajput aristocracy (rajas, thakurs, etc. who were not quite maharajas) began sending its sons to the school. Almost every distinguished Rajput of (the former Foreign Minister) Jaswat Singh’s generation went to Mayo, though by then the school had democratised somewhat and there were no elephants and each student did not get a palace to himself.
By the time I went to Mayo, it had become a normal public school and the mansions and palaces had been turned into boarding houses. But if you were part of say, Bikaner House, you knew that at some stage, the sons of the royal family of Bikaner had occupied the whole building. So it was with the other houses, all of which had such names as Jodhpur, Kashmir, Jaipur or Bharatpur.
Though a legendary English principal (Jack Gibson) had transformed the school into a more egalitarian operation in the 1950s and 1960s, Mayo was very proud of its Rajput legacy. We wore Rajasthani safas on Sunday. Except for the teachers, the staff were all proudly Rajasthani, wore traditional Rajput outfits and sometimes acted as though the good old days had never faded!
Which brings us to the food. Institutional food is rarely very good but I have many happy memories of the dishes that were made on special occasions. I remember the Rajasthani soola, cooked over an open fire (which bears no relation to the tandoori version they offer at hotels nowadays). Mostly, I recall the Rajasthani style of cooking, so different to the Punjabi-ised food that has now taken over institutional and commercial kitchens in India.
Some of those memories came back to me when I attended the Dine With Royalty event held at the Belgian embassy in Delhi. The event went on for several days and the food of the old princely states of India was served in elegant surroundings. But I went only for Sunday lunch because I was invited by Divija Singh who was involved with the food.
Divija is the daughter of VP Singh, who is currently the Governor of Punjab. But for me, there was a Mayo connection. Divija’s family is from the thikana of Badnore, a Rajasthan house with a strong Mayo connection. Divija’s uncle (and the Raja of Badnore, though he never uses the title) is Raghu Raj Singh, a Mayo old boy who came back to teach at the school purely out of love. (He was well-off enough not to need a Mayo salary.) Mr RRS, as we used to call him, is a much-loved figure for several generations of Mayo boys and I was delighted to see that he had come to Delhi specially for the event.
I sat in the Badnore tent and ate one of the best and most unusual meals I have had in a long time: classic Rajput cuisine with the specialities of the house. I sat with Governor VP Singh and Akali MP Naresh Gujral and we talked politics but as interesting as the conversation was, nothing could match the excellence of Badnore food. Afterwards Mr RRS explained to me why I had enjoyed the food so much. Over half the cooks at Mayo, he told me, had come from Badnore. So, in a sense, I had grown up on these flavours without ever realising it. And yes, institutional cooking only hints at the greatness of a cuisine. But once you get used to the flavours, these tastes stay with you.
From the traditions of medieval India to something entirely modern. Shortly after I ate at the Badnore table, I went back to Diya after a long gap. Diya is the Indian restaurant at the Gurgaon Leela and was best known for many years as the home of celebrity chef Kunal Kapoor. I had eaten there when Kunal was cooking and the food was terrific. But now that he has moved on I wondered what the Leela would do with the restaurant.
I needn’t have worried. Though the Leela group’s core competence is traditional Indian food (it has two outstanding chefs: Surender Mohan for North Indian and Purshottam for South Indian) it has a pulled off an impressive makeover of Diya as a modern Indian restaurant that does not deviate from authentic flavours.
I had an excellent prawn ghee roast with tamarind rice, an intense tomato and drumstick soup, Amritsari-style fried fish with a chhola roti, and a memorable nalli gosht on barley khichda with meat so tender that you could eat it with a spoon.
If you exclude the trendy places like Farzi Cafe, this is the best modern Indian food in Gurgaon. It is served without fuss or any pretension and there are no gimmicks. This is food cooked by talented chefs who are doing their best to try something new while staying true to their roots.
I have been writing a lot about London Indian food. In my other column, The Taste on hindustantimes.com, I took the slightly controversial line that the poncy Frenchified Indian food of celebrated upmarket London Indian restaurants now seemed boring. And last week, I wrote on these pages that despite the abusive reviews, I thought that the Indian-inspired food at Flavour Bastard, a new and determinedly unfancy restaurant in London was good.
Kricket, another Indian-inspired restaurant in London’s Soho has, unlike Flavour Bastard, received rave reviews from nearly every British critic. I decided to go after both Manish Mehrotra and Manu Chandra, two chefs I admire, praised it.
It is a small place run by two Brits and I didn’t see a single Indian in the kitchen which, I think, is great. You know that a cuisine has really taken off when people of various ethnicities feel comfortable cooking it: do you expect to see Italians in the kitchen every time you go for a pizza?
The food consists of small plates at reasonable prices and I ordered most of the menu. A dahi bhel was good but not particularly special, samphire pakoras were perfectly fried, a smoked baingan dish was more Middle Eastern than bharta-like. Lasooni scallops were brilliant if not overly Lasooni, and the Keralan Fried Chicken was excellent. The one dud dish was the grilled lamb neck. There was nothing wrong with the idea but the lamb was too tough.
And there was one other unusual Indian meal. Of all the airlines that operate out of the madhouse that is Heathrow, Virgin offers its Upper Class passengers the best check-in experience. You avoid the departure hall, drive to a separate area and a guy comes to your car, collects your bags and checks you in before fast-tracking you through security.
Virgin also has the one decent lounge at the airport where you can order, restaurant style, from a menu. I asked for the vegetable curry out of curiosity and was pleasantly surprised to receive a thali with rice, papad, pickles, pyaaz and an acceptable gravy-sabzi on a banana leaf. It was the sort of meal that Indian railways should be serving. But of course they don’t. Nor, sadly enough, do our own airlines.
It’s a long way from Badnore to London (via Gurgaon)! But that’s what my month has been like. I guess the lesson is that Indian food, if made well, always tastes good, no matter whether it comes from palace cooks or from Brits behind a counter in Soho!