The Rampuri flavour
R. K. ROSHNIR. K. ROSHNI
The Rampuri food festival at Mascot Hotel takes you on a voyage of discovery
IT WAS during spadework for a story that news of the Rampuri food festival at Mascot Hotel in the city came to us. Our first thought was: is the Rampur in question the one on the way to Nainital in Uttar Pradesh. It brought back memories of my first ever trip to a hill station nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. But for the life of me, I could not recall anyone speaking in exalted terms of Rampuri cuisine on that journey.
So, it was more out of curiosity than anything else that we decided to savour the taste of Rampuri food. And no, it was not a case of curiosity killed the cat. Our adventure turned out to be a fulfilling experience. Though with Chef Harsh Krishna Prasad at the helm of affairs, it was a foregone conclusion.
As we deliberated on what to order, we were joined by Chef Prasad, who has dedicated himself to reviving the art of Rampuri cooking. His job as a senior manager with Rampur distillery offered him a chance to learn this art from the "chefs who cooked for the nawabs". After 20 years at the distillery, he called it a day and devoted himself full-time to popularising Rampuri cuisine.
Chef Prasad told us that Rampuri cuisine bore the influence of other Indian cuisines such as Awadhi, Hyderabadi and Kashmiri. This amalgamation of various cuisines came about after 1857 when people from all cultures came and settled in Rampur for it was a safe haven under the British. Under their protection, Rampur became famous as a centre for arts and culture and developed a distinct cuisine.
Rampuri cuisine is characterised by its aroma and taste, achieved by the use of special herbs and spices. So, you may have a murgh shorba that is made by boiling chicken in spices for as long as 18 hours. Sounds tough? Well, cooking on a low flame for hours on end is what sets Rampuri cuisine apart. It is also known for its non-vegetarian dishes.
The menu for the festival changes every day and at least 30 different dishes are on offer. Chef Prasad would rather concentrate on some 15 dishes and do them well though.
Not a believer of the three-course or seven-course meal, he has adapted to changing dining etiquettes and has introduced the shorba as a starter. We could opt for either the murgh shorba or tomato shorba (for vegetarians).
For Chef Prasad, kababs are a category apart. He has mastered a mind-boggling 270 varieties of kabas. For the festival, he serves at least 10 different varieties of kababs each day. We opted for alu kabab, kele ka kabab, matar ka kabab (for veggies) and two non-vegetarian kababs.
Alu kababs we had heard of, but kele ka kabab and matar ka kabab made us realise how even not-so popular vegetables could be employed to make some lip-smacking kebabs. Crisp and soft, spicy but not overtly, the kababs must be tasted to get an idea of what we are talking about. And not one tasted similar to the other. This, of course, had been promised by Chef Prasad earlier in the evening. "One dish may be sweet owing to the use of a lot of onions in it. This hints at a Delhi influence. The other may be really hot, like Punjabi food."
Kababs over, we moved to the buffet that was laid out. Skipping the salads, we headed straight for the rice and the various subzis to go with it. There was matar biryani for the veggies and doodhiya biryani for non-vegetarians. Doodhiya biryani was nothing like one imagined. The mutton cooked in milk did not leave an aftertaste in the mouth. The biryani was neither too oily nor too dry; just right.
We decided to take small helpings of each of the dishes to get a better perspective of what Chef Prasad meant when he spoke of the dishes not tasting similar.
Chef H.K. Prasad
The excellent choley hinted at a Punjabi influence, while the Dum Aloo had a tangy edge to it. Chef Prasad said the flavour was derived from the tomato and curd used in the dish. "Curd sours faster here in Kerala and with luck, this dish should go down well with the Malayalis." We relished the baingan ka bharta, which was a departure from what usually passes for it in the city. While its distinct smoked flavour was absent, it was nonetheless good. A Punjabi dish originally, the Dal makhni here had just the right amount of spice. What probably may be a cause for concern is the white butter floating on top. Weight-watchers beware (if you can resist the aroma wafting through the air). The koftas in the paneer dish were absolutely splendid. The dish was also a testament to the genius of the chef. He had set out to make paneer butter masala but the paneer he managed to procure was not of the desired quality. So, out of the window went the plan to make paneer butter masala. What we had instead was paneer koftas, thanks to some quick-thinking on his part.
The fish used for the Machli dil wali was seer, a favourite of most Malayalis. It is quite different from the usual fish moilee and traditional fare that Keralites are used to. Taar gosh, a dish of mutton, was succulent and spicy.
But what's dinner without something sweet to top it all. Chef Prasad and his team had rustled up some ginger halwa on that day. The look of disbelief on our faces soon gave way to that of amazement. The pinch of ginger was somehow completely missing. The Ginger halwa only whetted our appetite for more. The Moong dal halwa was rich and tasty but nothing could beat Motiya. Somewhat similar to our payasam, it however contains cooked rice ground into a paste. The pista lends it an unmistakable flavour.
A gourmand's delight, the Rampuri food festival will be on till August 31.
Photos: S. Mahinsha
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