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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Dal Bukhara

I call my husband at work. He’s a busy Wall-Street type, you know. The kind I used to be. Except he manages to stay loving and kind despite it, while I turned into a grumpy little ball with spines coming out of me in all directions. I think that’s called a hedgehog. Yes, most definitely I turned into a hedgehog. Is that where the term “hedge fund” comes from, I wonder?  Ok, ok, that’s a joke. I know full well what a “hedge” means, before some moralist hedge fund manager chirps up to correct me. A hedge is a shrub. Hee hee, just kidding.

Anyway, so I call my husband up at work. He hates when I call him at work. Many times he hangs up on me in mid sentence, but I don’t take it personally. I finish my sentence and then hang up too. There!

Now, what my husband hates even more than when I call him at work, is when I call him at work to ask him to solve mathematical puzzles – like “Hey, I had a question, what’s greater - 2/3 or 3/4”?

Then he hangs up on me straightaway. Not even the luxury of a mid-sentence hang up. Bam!

But I – persistent little creature that I am – call again. “Please help me,” I say, “I can’t proceed without this”
Fractions, you see, are not my forte.

So, loving and kind as he is, he tells me the answer – (It’s 3/4, if you’re curious). The key is to do it on the phone see, so I’m not physically there to witness his eyes roll. I like to think he’s doing it with love and kindness.

 “Really?” I exclaim. “Cool!”

He then goes into some mindless jargon about how I won’t need to call next time if I just spent some time working it out myself using lowest common denominations... blah blah.

And so I hang up on him.
Sweet Revenge.

Anyway, I get an email from him a few second later. Modern technology, I tell you! Can’t ever be left alone. Anyway, the email asks two questions – 1) Do you ask me these questions just to irritate me? 2) You went to Harvard?

Very pertinent.

No and Yes. Respectively.

On the first – no, my dearest, the love of my life, the beating pulse of my heart (and so on), now why would I (batting eyelashes for fantastic theatrical effect) ever do anything to irritate you?

And on the second. Uh. Hmm.Yeah. Though how I fooled those HBS committee people into giving me a place there is anyone’s guess. I’ve never really thought about it you know. But now – since I’ve been asked the (very pertinent) question, Now, is when I step back and analyze it. And I rather think I know the answer.

I think, my friends, that it’s down to that one elusive line at the bottom of my otherwise ho-hum resume that did it for me. The one line that declares that I have interned at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. And indeed, I have. I have interned at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. In the summer after I graduated University, with job in hand and three months of nothing to do, I decided to follow my only true passion (yes, food) and intern at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. (I’m sorry by the way for repeating the phrase “Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton” so many times. But it’s necessary for impact, you see. A thousand apologies.)

Now, tell me, how can anyone in their right mind deny a place to someone whose spent any time at all in the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton? I mean, granted that I never saw the venerated men on the HBS Admissions Committee ever in my life again. But still, I am SURE that deep inside their venerated hearts they were thinking: she has the secret to Dal Bukhara? To that creamy, buttery deliciousness worth Rs. 900 (plus tax) for a bowl? This deserves no further scrutiny. Let’s move on to the three-time Olympic gold medalist with a PhD in applied Maths and decide if he deserves a place.

So there. That’s the real story of how I got in. And proud of it, I am. For the three months that I spent in those kitchens was more hard work than my seven collective years in investment banking. And that’s the truth.

So when I hear people raising their eyebrows over the fairly recent “celebrity chef” trend, I just have this to say to them:

Try it for yourself. Just for a day. And if you can get through it, you’ll have shown your true mettle. And understand why chefs deserve every last bit of the hype they get.

For it is a job that is not only intensely demanding, mentally and creatively, but also requires tremendous physical resolve. Firstly, it is oppressively hot inside professional kitchens – the ovens are on, 24/7 and in the interest of hygiene, you have to wear the chefs’ hat and gown over your own clothes. I distinctly remember times when breathing was a struggle. And the hours are just killing. When I was there, there were two shifts, with some overlap between each. Lunch service ran from 12:30pm to 2:30pm and dinner service ran from 7:00 pm to midnight. I was only involved in dinner, thankfully. For my dinner shift, prep started at 11am every morning (yup, that’s right) and I was on my feet for the next 14 hours, sitting down only when the company car dropped me home at 1am every morning when the last of the orders had been taken out. And I was a lowly intern. I have no idea when the lunch people started their prep and I can only imagine the hours of those who were required to be there to supervise both shifts.  It’s back-breaking work.

And for those who think you just strut into the kitchen and show off your creative genius, think again. It is a long, hard road up. There is virtually no creative input in the initial years. You’re not there to invent your own stuff. You need to earn the right to do that. You’re there to learn and to perfect the menu that has survived the tests of time and has over the years, earned the restaurant the acclaim of being one of the best in Asia. You're there to deliver immaculate plate after immaculate plate, that's supposed to taste a specific expected way under the intense demands of a madly ticking clock. It’s about precision and it’s about practice and it’s about perfection.

So, while some have (quite rightfully) worked their way up to achieve fame, accumulate fortunes, and become ‘name brand’ chefs; the real hard work lies in the hands of those anonymous stirrers of pots who rarely venture out of the kitchen, but without whom, the show certainly wouldn't be on the road.

And so, while I have to thank many of the Senior chefs (whose names I don’t remember) for helping me witness, first-hand, the sheer brilliance behind some of Bukhara’s signature dishes – Sikandari Raan, Malai Kabab, Tandoori Jhinga and of course – the ever popular Dal Bukhara, there is one person (whose name I do remember) who I have to thank for really teaching me how to roll up my sleeves and COOK.

Govind Ram was a whole foot and a half shorter than me (making him about 4 foot 3), painfully thin, sporting a small thin moustache that made him look rather like a Bihari Charlie Chaplin. When he smiled, which he often did, he showed a surprisingly white, near perfect set of teeth that would make any toothpaste commercial maker beg him to model for them.

Now Govind was my real teacher.

You have to realize that my presence caused a great deal of hilarity in the kitchens – I’m not sure whether that was because it was the first time they had ever had an intern or because of the notion that I was doing this for fun, rather than for economic necessity or simply because  I was a 22 year old girl in a kitchen full of men – either way, it was difficult for them to take me seriously.

For the first several days, I was given nothing to do. Every person would ask me to “please sit” and I felt totally useless. Or worse – that I was just in peoples’ way; this annoying person for whom they had to stop their busy routine to exchange pleasantries. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided that if I wanted to learn, then I needed to do something about it. My strategy was to pick the most “approachable” looking individual, and beg them to give me work. Purely on account of Govind’s perfect smile, he was the chosen one.

And did I make the right choice.

Zaroor, Madam-ji” he replied with a shy smile, when I asked him whether he would teach me. It took me several weeks of explaining that I was neither ‘Madam’ nor ‘ji’ and that I had a name that I much preferred to either, that he reluctantly started calling me ‘Ami-ji.’

Every now and then, he would lapse into “Madam-ji” and then on account of the hawk-like stare I’d give him, he’d clap his hand to his mouth and shyly shake his head and say, in English - “oh sorry, Ami-ji”

And for the next three months, he taught me everything that was worth learning: How to pulp tomatoes and how to layer parathas, how to devein prawns and how to marinate malai kabab, how much spice is enough and how much is too much, the balance between andaz and precision, art and skill and science, how to make Paneer from scratch. And how to make the perfect Kali Dal.

And last but not least, this man taught me a far more valuable lesson than how to cook, he taught me to appreciate those who cook for us, to recognize what goes on in those unknown dark recesses behind the scenes, to understand the hard work that goes into that perfectly presented dish that’s brought out to the table, to realize how many hours it took to make what we finish off in value the absolute and undeniable reality that professional cooking is an art that not many have the nerve to attempt, let alone succeed in.

On the last day of my internship, Govind brought me food from home that his wife and he had cooked together, as a goodbye present to me. I still remember what they had cooked for me – perfectly made hot flaky parathas, spiced kala channa and chicken curry. Such is the generosity of a man who probably made less in a month than the hedgehogs make in a day. Food for thought. Quite literally.

I asked him then, what he wanted to become. What his ultimate goal was.
Bada chef banna hai, Madam-ji,” he said to me, valiantly. “Master chef.”
Then. “Sirf sapna hai Madam-ji” – it is just a dream

But it is precisely at these times in our lives – when we are motivated by goals that have deep significance, by dreams that need completion, that we are at our true best. And so it was with him.

I have yet to meet a more superb North Indian cook, talented with the precise, resonant, yet subtle spicing that is required of such cuisine. I don’t know where he is now. Maybe he’s still there, in the Bukhara kitchen, de-seeding chillies meticulously or chopping tomatoes in precisely measured cubes. Or maybe he’s now a bada chef somewhere in the world. A Master Chef.

For Govind then, wherever you are, I hope your dreams have come true: This is Your Dal Bukhara:

By the way, he made me make it once, on a slow order day, all by myself. Not to serve customers, just to learn. And, being 22 and high-spirited, I did something against my better judgment. I experimented with a healthy version of Dal Makhani.


One word. Disaster.

My healthy Dal Makhani lacked spectacularly in flavour. I caught it in Govind’s expression in that narrow window between putting a spoonful in his mouth and expressing polite delight. It was Disappointment. With a capital D.

So then I had to beg him. First to admit that it was bad. Then to help me salvage it. Not a worthwhile use of time, I tell you. Just do it right the first time around. In hindsight, of course I realize that any self respecting Dal Bukhara lover knows that “Healthy Dal Makhani” is an oxymoron. One should not tamper with taking out the “makhan” from a dish that is called “makhani.” That is my considered opinion.

Anyway, this is precisely how he helped me salvage it - “Phikar math kariye, Madam-ji, bus khoob saara makhan aur malai daliye...” (Don’t worry, just add a whole lot of butter and cream) And when I hesitated – just for a tiny fraction of a second – before closing my eyes and dropping in half a stick of butter and 30 mls of heavy cream, he smiled and added, “arre, dariye math, pyaar se daaliye!” (Go on, don’t be afraid, add it with love!)

Here’s what you need:

In the cooker:
1/2 cup of whole black urad dal, soaked in water overnight
2 tbspn of red kidney beans (rajma), soaked in water overnight
2-inch piece of ginger
3 tbsps butter

For your tadka:
1 onion, diced
2 tomatoes, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 green chillies, slit
1 tbsps of oil
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste

To finish: (sigh)
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp cream

Soak the urad dal and rajma overnight in water. Drain the water in the morning and add the lentils to the pressure cooker. Add in butter, salt, half the ginger and enough water so there is at least ½ inch of water above the beans.  Pressure cook to three whistles.

This point here, requires some pause. One time when I made this dish, I skipped the pre-soaking part (impulse desire for Kali Dal, what can I say? And it took me 7 whistles on the cooker to get it right...). So you will need to use the failsafe Andaz to make sure you’re where you want to be. Which is – when you open the lid, the beans should be totally soft. Have a taste if you like – they should literally melt in your mouth. This means they are done. If there is still a bite to them, continue to cook on low heat until they are completely soft. If you are good and pre-soak, usually three whistles should do the trick.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a pan and add in the cumin seeds. When they begin to sputter, add the diced onion and sauté till golden. Add in remaining ginger, garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Now, add slit green chillies and tomatoes and cook the mixture on high heat. At this point, add in all the dry powders and continue cooking till the tomatoes are reduced to a pulp.
Once the dals have been pressure cooked, open the lid and add in the mixture you’ve just prepared above to the cooked dal, mixing well. Bring the dal to the boil again, adding the butter and cream. “Arre, dariye math, pyaar se daaliye!” Simmer on low heat for all the flavors to combine well.  
Taste-wise (rather unsurprisingly on account of all the generous amounts of "love" that this dish contains) it is mind boggling. Worth every last bit of the hype. Chef’s Promise.


  1. I have been enjoying your blog. You write about food just as I love to read and talk about it myself. I loved your account as an intern at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. I've become intrigued with this dish, even though I have never actually tried it. I am going to try your version, and I'm looking forward to it.

    1. Sorry for the late reply, but thanks for the lovely comments! I hope you will try it and let me know what you think :)

  2. One of the best recipes for dal bukhara I have ever come across. I have made this once - flinching at the cream and butter - but it does make all the difference. Pressure cooking the daal with butter is new for me - but it certainly made it for the texture and taste to absorb all the masala. Excellent write up too! Like you I am hoping Govind Ram ji is a Master Chef somewhere. He certainly is one in my eyes. Thanks.