HOWLING WINDS, STEEP RAVINES, endless stretches of land, limitless potential for camaraderie.
A setting familiar to those who once journeyed through the uncharted landscapes of the historic North West Frontier. An atmosphere revived by an iconic restaurant in the Indian capital.
Here, for decades, the flames and glowing coals lighting up the interiors of its hallowed clay tandoors have recreated the campfires of kinship that lit up enchanting nights in the North West Frontier. Bukhara at New Delhi's ITC Maurya has kept alive the flame of Frontier traditions, pioneering culinary marvels that have often been imitated, but never been matched. Today, like every day, the open kitchen frames the movements of chefs who move with focus and precision from one stage of food preparation to the next, against the backdrop of skewers, each neatly ranged one next to the other, creating an abacus of vegetables and meats.
At this celebrated altar of cooking, you would think the finished skewers were pulled out of thin air. In fact they are pulled out of tandoors built into the counter. This fact is betrayed only by shield-style lids that cover their opening on the surface. The concealed, clay tandoors are the work horses of this open kitchen. They are also a tribute to a shared regional heritage. A product of the Indus Valley Civilization, the tandoor is emblematic of the culinary traditions of a region stretching from Western to Southern Asia. Its wide appeal has a lot to do with its uncommon versatility. Its distinct ginger jar-shape means that it doesn’t stop at just grilling – it also cooks, smokes, bakes and griddles and it is not unusual to see it being recruited for more than a few of these duties at once.
Yet there’s more to valorizing the power of the tandoor that just putting it to work, and Bukhara has mastered the art. Ahead of the day’s dinner, Chef Manjit Gill, Corporate Chef, ITC Hotels, takes time out to explain the patience it took the first team to hit upon the right mix of ingredients for each of their tandoor masterpieces. Testament to the perfection of those original formulations, is that the menu has never had to be changed since it premiered 35 years ago. He reveals – “the art of tandoori cooking is maintaining the temperatures of the tandoor; one has to always keep looking at the kebabs in the tandoor. You can’t just leave them”. There is also the matter of keeping a hawk eye on the ingredients and precise proportions, which means not budging on the provenance of the spices or the cuts of meat or the demanding marination techniques.
All of Bukhara’s headlining signature dishes – from the tandoori breads to the ever-popular Sikandari Raan (spring lamb) – are prepared in the hold of the tandoor and while they’re nearly always paired up, they require few other backup players. There is however one quiet showstopper of a gravy that every visitor in the know, will ask for by name. Dal Bukhara – a slow-cooked preparation of black lentils, accounts for the sole simmering pot in Bukhara’s kitchen. It is reputedly never taken off the fire and has, over the decades, taken on the status of a legend among legends.
Ten-time winner of the Times Food Award, four-time winner of the Restaurant Magazine’s Best Indian Restaurant in the World and three-time winner of the Miele Asia Award, Bukhara has most recently been named Best Restaurant in India 2014 by S.Pellegrino. In its 35th year of keeping alive the flame and flavours of the North West Frontier, Bukhara invites regulars and newcomers to a taste of the Globe’s Finest Indian Cuisine and an experience of a lifetime.