India is returning to its spicy roots, discovers editor in chief Michael Mchugh, while traveling recently to the Rambagh Palace.
Rambagh Palace was once the home of the local maharajah in Jaipur. Now, it’s in the care of the Taj hotel group, part of The Leading Hotels. Within the palace is one of the most beautiful restaurants I have ever eaten in, and I sit down to talk with executive sous-chef Indranil Nag. He tells me that the palace kitchen is returning to many traditional flavours and recipes, as Rambagh’s well-travelled guests expect Indian cuisine to have strong, spicy flavours. India boasts approximately 45 types of cuisine.
Originally from Calcutta, Nag has had a career with the Taj hotels across India and has worked at Rambagh for three years. “To be able to cook the best food is what I enjoy,” Nag says. “I love to cook using many ingredients – traditional to modern Indian cuisine using many ingredients, gravies, meats, and vegetables. The heart of Indian cuisine is making a good gravy.”
Traditional Indian cuisine uses mainly gravy-based sauces served on platters or in bowls. But today, this trend is being modernised – dishes use ingredients in a different way, giving the food a complete makeover, including the way you present it.
The palace restaurants source all their ingredients from the palace’s own gardens and vegetable markets at Chomu 80 kilometres away. The palace gardens grow lettuce, basil and other herbs, celery, cabbages, and cauliflower. “We look at traditional recipes and menus that were at the palace more than 25 years ago,” says Nag. “We speak with the chefs that worked in the palace in the ’70s and ’80s, gather information from them, and implement new menus. They had limited ingredients then; we have a greater range of ingredients. We try many things and research food in the kitchen.”
“[The food] has to be authentic; the difference is in the spice. Many European guests … love the authentic spices and love to try Indian food.”
Inspired by and cooking cuisines from all across India, Nag’s menus and dishes can be surprising. “Some Indian cuisines make dishes that you don’t even have to chew,” he says. “Hence, the gravies and the use of a lot of vegetable fat and nuts, which give them a rich texture. The meat is always off the bone or minced. The food just melts in the mouth.”
So, when he’s not at the palace, what sort of curry does Nag make at home? “It’s an onion-and-tomato-based curry that uses ginger and garlic,” he says. “Heat oil in a pan, put in some whole spices – say, cardamom and cinnamon – and add sliced onions, depending on whether you want a light gravy. Add tomatoes, ginger, and garlic paste, and cook until water comes out of the tomatoes. Add any spices you like, such as turmeric, coriander, and red chilli powder. Add water, cover, and cook for half an hour. The base gravy is ready; just add salt or red chillies if you want more taste. Then you can add chicken or fish pieces straightaway and cook. That is the basic Indian gravy that mostIndian homes cook.” I have to admit, most of the Indian food I have eaten in the country seems to feature a version of this very gravy. Delicious!