Sunday, April 10, 2011

Navratras thali at Pandara Road

The restaurants at Pandara Road have acquired a reputation for serving some of the best butter chicken in Delhi. It's the kind of Punjabi food that is viscerally satisfying - apart from the butter chicken, there are lots of rich creamy gravies, hot naans dripping with butter, soft paneer-saag, and other seasonal Punjabi specialties.

"Havemore" is right! This kind of Punjabi food is hard to resist!

Gulati - another Pandara Road favourite.

I went to Pandara Road this week looking for an artery-clogging Punjabi meal :) But instead of the usual fare, I found a specialty menu on offer at Gulati's.

The Navrata Thali at Gulati

All over India, Vasant/Chaitra Navratri or Navratras is being celebrated; marking the advent of warmer weather. As part of this festival, a special fast is observed for 9 days. Rice and wheat are forbidden; in fact, all grains are forbidden. All meat and seafood is banned. According to religious prescription, only one meal a day is allowed; and simple healthy food such as fruits, vegetables, milk etc are to be had. Even onions and garlic and sea salt are forbidden. I guess the idea is not only to give the digestive system a break; but also to draw attention away from food, towards more spiritual thoughts.

However - like the Indian legal system - there are several loopholes in the scriptural injunctions, and these have been cleverly twisted to suit all those who have no desire to suffer :)

For example, those who can't live without hot rotis and puris have discovered that flour made of sago, buckwheat and water-chestnuts are all allowed. Why? Because these are not grains, you see? Water chestnut is a fruit; so is buckwheat (technically speaking!). And sago is made from tapioca. That makes these flour subsitutes perfectly acceptable during the Navratras "fasting". Similarly, since sea salt is forbidden; the meal is cooked with rock salt, lending it a different taste. Green chillies are a fruit, so they're kosher too. Chillies can therefore be merrily used to produce spicy results; spiritual thoughts be damned! :)

For every fasting "rule" there is a workaround, a sort of cheat code, if you will! It is as if a wicked, but highly determined chef decided that he or she would beat the system. Over the years, with help of several clever chefs and their clever workarounds, a complex cuisine has grown around the restrictions of the Navratras diet.

Since I have never fasted for Navratri, I was curious enough to want to try the Navratri thali. It turned out to be quite a fancy meal!

Thali with 8 different dishes, accompanied by water-chestnut (singhada) puri and buckwheat (kuttu) roti; and a cucumber salad.

At the centre of the thali is a bowl with two dishes served together, which serves as the starting point for the meal. The yellow-coloured stuff is aloo-chaat; the potato was lovely and tangy with rock salt. It was served cold, garnished with coriander. Next to it is a fried dumpling made of sago (sabudana), served piping hot. Nice combo! There's a spicy green chutney that you can eat with this.

The three orangey-red gravies were pretty good too - one of them is pumpkin, the other is paneer, and the third is a kind of dal that I couldn't quite figure out. All three were cooked without onions or garlic, but they were quite tasty.

Lastly, the three white bowls - they had:
a) sago kheer
b) sago pulao (flavoured with cumin and green chilli) and
c) yoghurt raita with rock salt.
I loved the raita, and the pulao was pretty good too. I tasted the kheer, it was light and nice, but I didn't have much of an appetite really.

Buttermilk to finish off the meal

There was a glass of cold buttermilk, also seasoned with cumin and coriander, to round off the meal nicely. So instead of the kheer, I stuck to buttermilk.

For me, the most interesting part of this meal was discovering kuttu, or buckwheat. I had never seen buckwheat before. It is grown mostly in the hilly regions of North India.

Buckwheat roti (the black coloured stuff)

The buckwheat fruit has a single seed, sitting inside a hard outer skull. The skull may be green or dark brown, which is what makes the kuttu roti blackish looking. The buckwheat roti tastes nothing like a wheat roti. It is kinda starchy, and it has been cooked with a lot of ghee, so it is heavy as well.

As we walked out of the restaurant, I wondered why or how this nine-day Navratri fast originated. In the month of Chaitra (April), the season changes. The hotter summer days begin. Maybe it originated as a way to get the body acclimatised to the weather change? If anyone knows the answer, or has a better guess, please let me know. Meanwhile, if you want to taste this thali, head to Pandara Road!


Super Babe said...

That looks delicious! Thanks for sharing the wonderful pictures! A

And yes, buckwheat is really good - the only reason I know it is because here (in the US), Japanese food features it; you can find buckwheat noodles that are very tasty with a bit of soy sauce! :)

Divya Shankar said...

Nice article and very good description of the Navrathra Thali :) I have tasted Singara Puris - they are very yummy and go very well with aloo sabji. Aloo sabji with lot of cumin and dhaniya seeds taste great (even though it is devoid of onions)

Shobna said...

I love this fasting feast. Bet you didn't have dinner. The kuttu roti must have been crisp and spicy.

Deepa said...

Shobna it tasted like...kozhakattai maavu :) i.e. as non-crisp as it gets. No spice either.

Bombay Talkies said...

I just discovered your blog and am loving it! So much delicious looking food in this post. :)

In America we use buckwheat to make pancakes (they're more nutritious than those made with white flour). They're filling and really tasty. I'd love to try a buckwheat roti!