I must confess that I was never much of a salad person. The old kuchumber – chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumber – worked for me. I must also admit that I am a changed man. The difference that a freshly plucked sprig of basil – which grows in my back verandah – makes to a bowl of fresh veggies has turned me into a salad freak. It’s not just the flavour of the basil that does the trick, I believe. It’s also the fact that it is fresh, grows in my backyard, and is organic.
Now I know what the old aunt – who disapproved of modern contraptions such as a fridge in the old days – meant when she talked about fresh food. For it’s not just freshness of cooked food that tickles your palate; what adds to the taste is the freshness of the ingredients. And if there are no chemicals, the flavours magnify.
So, that explains why my young friend Abhishek Basu has been focusing on fresh and organic ingredients at The Park in New Delhi. I had a delicious meal the other day at the restaurant called Fire, and realised how difficult it is to curate a full menu, day after day, that features local dishes, cooked with local and organic ingredients. Because organic farming is still to take off in a big way in our country, it is not easy to source your ingredients if you are cooking on a large scale.
“People would promise, but not be able to deliver the ingredients,” Chef Basu says. “I finally found my farmers, but for the food to be completely organic and to be able to use the local produce, I have to make sure that I change my menu three times a year.”
I am not doing all the hard work, but I must say that it is worth it. For the new winter menu that he has created is superb. One, the dishes are those that people have grown up eating – but in different parts of the country. So there is the Singju salad of Manipur, and fish in a coconut based gravy of Malabar. It includes the juicy nalli nihari gosht of Old Delhi, and the Lahori chicken that you will find in the north. I had my winter favourite – aloo methi – and the bhatt ki dal of Uttarakhand.
There was too much food on my platter for one meal, so I could only taste some of the dishes. I loved the hot and spicy rasam and the salad – which consisted of shredded cabbage, lotus stem, coriander mixed with roasted gram flower and pigeon peas.
The platter of snacks was delicious. It consisted of crispy Hyderabadi lukmi (keema puffs), barbequed Kashmiri tujji chicken, gulnar ki tikki (prepared with fig, walnut, paneer, puffed amaranth, kale powder and tomatoes) and papad-crusted beetroot patties stuffed with coconut.
The thali came adorned with little bowls, all carrying regional favourites. I enjoyed the fresh aloo methi and the thick but light bhatt ki dal. The river sole was delectable, sweetly flavoured with coconut milk and raw mango. I have had way too much of chicken in the last few months, so I let the Lahori chicken be and concentrated instead on the dessert, which was stupendous. I enjoyed the chikoo cheese cake and the chocolate fondant immersed in a cup of south Indian filter coffee.
The prices at The Fire are pretty reasonable, if you consider the fact that it’s a luxury hotel. The salad was for ₹295 (before taxes), the vegetarian dishes on the platter were for ₹395 and the meat or chicken ones for ₹645.
The desserts are for ₹345, and the prices of the mains vary between ₹445 and ₹795 (the latter for the Pandhi pork curry).
Chef Basu offers us a delectable meal to beat the cold: it is regional, healthy – and ever so tasty.