Gurugram, April 17 (IANS) Biting into a "tandoori meat da chap" at the "Pind da swad" food festival at the Leela Ambience here was akin to being transported to the land of the five rivers; such were the flavours that came through.
"I grind the masalas myself and marinate the chops for 12 hours before they go into the tandoor," Chef Sweety Singh, who has collaborated with the hotel's Indian Master Chef Ajay Sahoo for the festival at the bright and airy Diya: Simply Indiya outlet, told IANS rather modestly.
"I've been cooking since I was 19 with masalas that have been with my family for generations," said Singh, who owns his own eatery in the city's old quarters and had no qualms in telling me that his father used to sell food from a "rehri" handcart in the tumultuous days after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
"In fact, my restaurant is right opposite where my father parked his rehri, just so I never lose sight of my humble beginnings," the portly Singh, who is in his late 40s, added.
"We roped in Sweety because of his immense expertise -- and, of course, for his masalas," explained Sahoo, who specially went to Amritsar for three days to learn about the authentic preparation of Punjabi food and to bring the flavours of Punjab to his kitchen at Diya.
"I spent six-seven hours in the Golden Temple's langar to get to the core of the Punjabi psyche," Sahoo added.
In the midst of this conversation, Ishita, the svelte restaurant manager, served up a rather interesting vodka-based cocktail.
Interesting, because it came in a glass lined with cucumber slices and contained finely pounded Hajmola, chaat masala, lime juice and cucumber cubes that set the taste buds tingling and was the perfect accompaniment for the lamb chop.
Before this, there was a crunchy tandoori malai broccoli marinated with cheese and spices and a beetroot tikki that was nothing to write home about -- but the mutton chop more than made up for it, the soft and juicy meat easily coming off the bone.
Another cocktail set the stage for the main course and Singh, with a flourish, offered quite a spread: Amritsar ma di makhan wali daal, Amritsari meat, Bhatinda chicken curry and jhinga masale de nal, accompanied by vadiya wale chawal and an Amritsari kulcha.
Why begin with the dal?
"There's not a drop of cream in this," Singh said with a tinge of pride.
Smooth on the throat, it tasted like dal makhni. How was that?
"It's slow-cooked overnight to balance the masalas and the flavour," Singh explained.
The spicy mutton curry and the chicken gave lie to the concept of not mixing flavours and quickly disappeared from the plate accompanied by the rice and the kulcha.
As for the prawns, it's rather unusual to find them spiced up and this only served to enhance the flavour of the meat.
"I don't use any puree in my cooking. It's always fresh tomatoes combined with onions and spices," Singh pointed out and proof of this was in the eating, as the full flavours of the meats and the dal resonated.
Being a light eater, one was rather stuffed after this spread but Singh insisted on the desert -- kulfi brought all the way from Amritsar. In a way, in fact, it actually revived my appetite.
One couldn't have asked for a more delectable culinary journey through Punjab.
What: 'Pind da swad' Punjabi food festival
Where: Leela Ambience, Gurugram
Timings: Daily for dinner - 6.30 pm to 11.30 pm; Weekends for lunch 12.30 pm to 3 pm
Cost for two: Rs 3,000 (without alcohol)
(Vishnu Makhijani's visit was at the invitation of Diya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)