Punjabi by Nature (Delhi, January 2016)

Punjabi by Nature: Tandoori Chicken
In my review of Dakshin yesterday I mentioned the rise in Delhi in the last decade and a half or so of what I called upper/middle class Indian restaurants: restaurants that filled the space between affordable places that were low on ambience and the super-expensive name restaurants in five star hotels. Much of this has coincided, as I noted last week, with the proliferation of restaurants specializing in regional cuisines. It is likely though that the restaurant that could be said to have led the way is one that serves the Punjabi cuisine most associated with Delhi—tandoori chicken, butter chicken, dal makhani etc.: Punjabi by Nature. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Punjabi by Nature is that it opened first in Noida and then expanded its empire to Delhi (and recently to Bangalore). V.S. Naipaul once claimed that nothing was created in the Caribbean, and most cultural imperialists in Delhi would tell you that nothing has ever originated in Noida—and I’m tempted to say that of the two only Naipaul was wrong. Certainly, when my family moved to Noida in the late 1980s we would never have dreamed that anything could ever be made there. Well, of course, we knew that there were lots of factories there (not to mention the T-Series empire plus a movie studio), and contemporary Delhi-ites know that Noida is a major industrial and business hub, but the thought of anything vaguely cultural coming to Delhi from Noida would have been crazy then and still feels surprising now; the flow was and is usually entirely reversed: imagine a restaurant opening in New Jersey and then dominating and influencing a huge segment of the restaurant industry in NYC.

But Punjabi by Nature opened in 1998 in Sector 18 in Noida (which was an even more unprepossessing location then than it is now) before expanding to Vasant Vihar, Connaught Place etc. It’s accordingly hard to resist viewing its rise as an allegory of the major changes in Indian socio-economic life in the wake of the liberalization of the Indian economy in the mid-1990s; changes that saw smaller cities and towns challenge the hegemony of the four major metros and which saw the non-Anglophone middle class take over national cultural narratives hitherto dominated by a small westernized elite. Of course, the first part of this allegory is a bit strained: Noida has never been anything but a suburb of Delhi (though when I was in college, and feeling strongly my distance from South Delhi, even that would have felt like an achievement); but the second part, I think, is true.

Punjabi food of this kind was once eaten largely in non-glamourous surroundings and was usually quite cheap. Punjabi by Nature, however, is decidedly upmarket, both in its decor and its prices (though stopping well short of five star levels on the second count). Despite slinging tandoori chicken, butter chicken and dal makhani, it is decidedly not the Punjabi restaurant of yore, the kind of urban “dhaba” once typified by Pandara Road mainstays, Gulati’s and Pindi (both of which have since also swanked up a bit)—the kind of establishment that people now going to Punjabi by Nature would have ended up at in 1991 if they wanted to eat this kind of food. And it’s also not the kind of establishment that anyone who still holds stereotypical views of Punjabis as garish and crass would expect: it is in fact a rather elegant restaurant with muted colours, modern art on the walls; in fact, its aesthetic is very much that of the five star hotel restaurant, and it’s far more attractive than Dakshin. (I should add that I’ve only eaten at the Noida original—I’ve no idea what the other branches look like. Please also keep in mind that all of this is only a sort of impressionistic survey from someone who has been visiting regularly in the last 23 years, as opposed to living here and studying the scene—it is entirely possible that some other restaurant (or restaurants) could be better exemplars of this trend.)

The food, however, is classic Punjabi restaurant food. That is to say, this is quintessential curry house food as has come to be identified with Indian food in the rest of the world. But if only your average curry house in the US could be as good as our lunch there early in this trip was! The kababs, naans and everything else coming out of the tandoors were very good (the naans were excellent—far better than the ones we ate at a later meal at the far more lauded Varq); the dal was excellent, as was the sarson da saag—you can’t go to Punjabi by Nature in the winter and not eat this classic Punjabi dish of pureed mustard (sarson) greens (saag) with makki di roti (corn rotis); and the mutton curry we got (the eponymous “Meat Punjabi by Nature”) was richly flavoured with no cream or nut paste in it. And that’s most of what we got (as we were eating an early lunch, and were still rather jet-lagged at the time of this meal, we passed on their notorious vodka-spiked gol gappas).

For pictures of the food and a few more comments on the food please launch the slideshow below.

Due to some confusion at home which had to be resolved we didn’t have time for sweets, which I deeply regret.

Service was very good despite opening with an annoyance. I asked our waiter if the malai tikka had cashew paste in the marinade (it often does and our older brat is allergic to cashews) and he insisted it did not. I had to keep at him to go ask in the kitchen and when he did, of course it did. But that was the one (potentially very) bad thing. He was otherwise attentive and took with very good humour my request that he put the food down on the table and let us serve ourselves at our leisure (it’s a Delhi sickness that waiters will serve you your food as it arrives and it’s always driven me crazy).

All of the above came to about $80 all-in. That might seem like a lot for two adults but please also note that the food seems like a lot (we took most of it home). With the appropriate number of people eating this would have been about $16/head, or less than you’d pay in the US for food about a third or half as good.

I’m certainly glad the regional food scene in Delhi has expanded considerably beyond this kind of food, but it’s also very comforting to know that such a good version of it is still around.

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