Kababs etc.: Raas, Punjab Grill (Delhi, January 2014)

This is my penultimate food report of our recent Delhi trip. And this may be the first one that covers food generally very familiar to the majority of my readership in the US and Europe: what in India is roughly known as “Mughlai” food–though what relationship many of the dishes that fall under that umbrella have to actual Mughal royal cuisine is not very clear. These days Mughlai refers to a pastiche of cooking styles and dishes from the the nawabi cuisine of Awadh, and that of Punjab and what used to be called the Northwest Frontier (Pakistan, Afghanistan)–and the Muslim food of Hyderabad is often thrown in for good measure as well. The names of many of the most famous dishes will be instantly recognizable: butter chicken, malai kofta, shami kabab, naan, korma etc.

This is the food, rich with cream and nut pastes, that has over the last 50-60 years been imported to their new homes by South Asian immigrants all over the world–well, by new homes I mean the restaurants opened by immigrants around the world, very little of this food is actually cooked in the average home. While more regionally specific food has made some inroads in the US (and more so in the UK–the Michelin starred Quilon, for instance, focuses on south-western coastal food) this cuisine remains more or less synonymous with Indian food. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something inauthentic about this state of affairs–this remains the dominant restaurant food of most of North India as well–though, of course, there it sits in a very different kind of context and very few over-large claims are ever made for it.

In the US there is not very much separating crappy curry houses from places pretending not to be crappy curry houses and both kinds float uneasily on a sea of cashew paste and cream. At one end of the continuum pre-fabricated sauces are the norm while more cooking happens at the other, but there’s not as wide a gulf separating them as there is, for example, between Olive Garden’ish Italian food and more serious Italian restaurants. As Theseus noted in his review of the India’s Taj Mahal Tandoori Gandhi Grill in downtown Athens, “the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them”. I’m not saying there aren’t any exceptions but they’re few and far between.

I don’t eat too much of this stuff when I go “home” these days either; partly because I want to focus on the things I absolutely can’t get (decent versions of) in the US, and partly for reasons having to do with my lipid profile. This is heavy food in India as well. However, kababs and other things that come out of the tandoors in most places in India are far superior to what’s available in the US–in the US the process of making kababs and other grilled meats seems to focus more on the application of red food colouring as it does on anything else. And of course, in India no one ever asks you if you want your dal maakhni “mild, medium or spicy”. So, I don’t avoid it entirely.

On this trip we ate in this rough genre at two places. First up, dinner at Raas, a relatively new restaurant in the execrable Hauz Khas Village (it’s hard to tell which is more annoying, the version of “the Village” that existed in the early 1990s or the current version) and then lunch at Punjab Grill at the rather glitzy Ambience mall in Gurgaon (complete with a BMW showroom). Punjab Grill was the brainchild of the redoubtable Jiggs Kalra, and there are branches all over India now (and at least one swanky international outpost in Singapore) but I believe he is no longer involved. Raas is billed as an Indian-Pakistani restaurant–as to whether there is anything Pakistani about the alleged Pakistani dishes other than place names attached to them, I don’t know.

Click on the first thumbnail below to launch a slideshow. Details and comments on the dishes are contained in the captions.

Just one more Delhi food report to go.

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