In my 30-odd years of cooking, if there is one lesson I have learnt, it is this: never challenge a customer.
Some may agree with this, but there is another school of thought that believes otherwise.
Some chefs in so-called high places believe that a customer is out to get him i.e. that the customer is just someone who wants to prove that he is more knowledgeable than the ‘Creator’, that is, the chef!
Well, it is not true.
Or so I thought till this happened. . .
At nilgiri’s we change our menu every month, that’s right, every month and we have been doing this since we opened our doors way back in 1998.
It’s no mean task doing this!
Every single menu that is made goes through a process where the menu is checked for its right balance in terms of taste, colour, chilli level and its visual appeal.
Of course, as most of you will know by now, we also believe that there is no such thing as ‘authentic’ when it comes to Indian food though there are some classic dishes that shouldn’t be played around with.
Apart from that, the rules are simple.
Every dish must have its own character, name and an identity, if not it’s best called a ‘curry’!! We don’t have curries in my restaurant.
Again, and this is my mantra in an attempt to educate, Indian food is not curries.
Anyway, let’s get back to my story.
Some months ago we had a group of tourists who were visiting Sydney and decided to dine at my restaurant, excellent!
During that month we were doing food from the North-West Frontier and Kashmir.
Food from this region is one of my favourites, after Hyderabadi food of course!!
Anyway, we had some classics like gosht rogan josh (made with goat meat) followed by kadhai murgh, tsoont wangan, muj gard, and so on. . .
The orders are taken, the food served. All is going well, so far.
As a general practice, my waiters check on the diners at various points during their meal to see if everything is going well.
Table number 12 stops one of the waiters and says loud and clear so that every diner in my restaurant can hear, “This is not rogan josh!”
And he doesn’t stop at the rogan josh.
He continues, pointing at another dish saying, as loudly, “And this is no balti chicken, I want to speak to the manager!”
Firstly, there’s a slight problem here as we don’t have managers and secondly, all of my frontline staff are capable of taking decisions themselves as they’re highly trained competent individuals.
However, because this diner insisted on speaking to someone whom he thought was ‘higher’ than a ‘mere waiter’ my staff knew that the best bet was for me to face the music!
I approach the table smiling and ask, “Sir, how can I help?”
“This is rubbish.” comes the reply.
“What is it that you don’t like, Sir?”
Again, he points at the dish saying, “This is no balti chicken, it is too hot and there’s not enough coconut cream!”
“Okay.” I respond, “And the rogan josh?”
The man shifts in his seat and continues, pointing at the rogan josh accusingly, “It is too thin, it’s not like the ‘curry’ we get in. . .”
And it is here that my patience is tried and my knowledge, pardon me, won’t be held in check.
I am no spring chicken and I do know a thing or two about Indian food.
So, I mentally rolled up my sleeves and launched into my explanation.
I tried to explain that there is no coconut cream in balti chicken, which in India is called kadhai murgh, but no sooner had these words fallen from my mouth I realised that the guest was not one bit interested in what I was saying.
I wasn’t trying to justify myself, I was simply just trying to explain why the food served was the way it was!
Anyway, as became clear the other diners at the table were enjoying themselves thoroughly, eating their meal whilst this exchange was taking place, but not this man.
He was a tourist who had seen a little, heard a little and tasted a little of a cuisine that is over 1000 years old and from this small knowledge he felt he knew it all.
It was later revealed that he had only eaten Indian food in England and had never even been to India!
So, my point here is that Indian food is, indeed, very simple and its origin, history, and name are straightforward.
However, and this is what my guest wasn’t au fait with, sometimes the same dish may have more than one interpretation, or recipe.
So, let’s try and understand this in a little more detail, if you don’t mind.
Kadhai chicken in India originates from a region called Baltistan in the North-West Frontier region of the disputed territory of Kashmir. (However, let’s stick to food only and not get into the political issues here!)
The region is rugged and has a very extreme climate.
It is wedged in-between Kashmir, Tibet, Gilgit and China.
Very little is grown there due to its harsh climate, and so the food is a reflection of the region and its produce.
Most dishes are served either dry or semi-dry.
Rice is not commonly eaten and the staple starch is either roti or naan.
This dish is popular in England, as well, especially in Birmingham and is called ‘Balti chicken’.
For some go…fors..en reason beyond my understanding, coconut cream got added to this dish in some quirk of translation, perhaps more suited to the palate there.
Coconut is not even grown in Baltistan and I don’t think the natives of this region would ever add it to their food!
So, let’s take the other classic dish rogan josh:
This dish comes from Kashmir.
The two main communities who live here, the Muslims and the Kashmiri Pandits, eat meat (lamb and goat) and make this classic dish.
The Muslims add onions and garlic to the dish whereas the Pandits make it without onions and garlic.
Hence the Pandits’ dish is light and the sauce is thin to look at but by no means light to taste.
It is, in fact, extremely tasty and one does’t miss the onions at all!
In fact, the recipe that follows has been with me since 1981 and was given to me by my friend Chetan Kak’s mother when I was in Delhi training at The Oberois.
The dish is made with slightly fatty goat meat left on the bone to bring out the rogan which in Persian means ‘red oil’.
The recipe uses all the regular spices that go into the making of rogan josh, namely cassia (or cinnamon), green and black cardamoms, cloves and it then uses ground fennel seeds to add that unique flavour to the dish.
Instead of using onions and garlic, this recipe demands the use of asafoetida which is used to add the pungent onion and garlic taste to the meat without actually using them! Fresh ginger is replaced by dried ginger also called saunth.
Tomatoes get replaced by yoghurt which is beaten and added to prevent lumps.
The Kashmiri Pandits, I was told, also add a dried herb called rattan jot for the red colour along with Kashmiri chillies which are red and look flaming hot but are not hot to taste.
The meat is seared in a hot pan/pot with whole spices added before it is put on the dum for about an hour and a half, or till the rogan (oil) rises to the top of the dish! (To read about the man who first showed me how to make this dish, see the blog Ajoy Meets Mr Karir.)
Served with boiled rice, this is one of my favourite dishes and I have asked my son to add this to the “100 dishes to eat before I . . .” list!!
As I shook hands with this group of tourists as they left my restaurant, I realised that there are times when the customer ‘is always right’, times when this isn’t the case and times when education could go a long way, but for the peace of my staff and myself, the teacher needs to realise when his pupils are fully focused, staring out the window or 100% certain they know it all!
If all this talk of cooking is whetting your appetite, please come with me on a step-by-step version of a Kashmiri, Pandit-style rogan josh, by clicking rogan josh recipe.
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!