This year, rediscover India’s forgotten recipes as Diya, at The Leela Ambience Gurugram, brings to you Gharana, an exclusive compilation of monthly set menus that feature age-old recipes nurtured by some of the most ingenious home-chefs across the country. By Rashima Nagpal
“I hope you enjoy this Gharana–ghar ka khana,” says Ashish Bhasin (Executive Chef, The Leela Ambience Gurugram) as we sit down for a special dinner at Diya, the Indian specialty restaurant at The Leela Ambience Gurugram.
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The dinner turns out to be extraordinary for reasons more than food. It is a table full of suave-looking couples in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. The careers on the table are also diverse. Think a pair of wedding planners, an actor, CEOs, a professor, analysts, and homemakers. These are all well-travelled people. Some of whom have lived abroad for more than half their lives, before they returned home, to India—I discover.
At any other corporate dinner, especially one which involves a long refectory table, the odds of getting to know the people on the far end of the table are meager, let alone knowing their life stories. But when your host for the evening is Varun Chibber (General Manager, The Leela Ambience Gurugram), be rest assured that you will go back home with stories to tell. While he indulges me in tales from his own travels, including a three-year managerial stint in the Maldives and a 28-day cruise through the Danube with his son, Chibber makes sure everyone on the table knows everyone before we get to the business of eating.
Coming to the food—it is an assortment of recipes from Delhi 6. Recipes that have been learnt, practised, and preserved by a nonchalant 66-year-old, Mrs Ahmed, the star of the evening. She started to learn cooking 45 years ago, after getting married into a Delhi 6 household that celebrates food. “For six years, for thirty days every year, my father-in-law made me in-charge of the ramzan [Ramadan] kitchen. That’s how I learnt cooking.” She has her old diary full of recipes to refer to even today. Twenty years ago, she thought of reaching the hearts of people outside her home, and started Mrs Ahmed’s Kitchen, a catering service for small gatherings. Today, with the help of her daughter-in-law, she also conducts pop-ups at her home in Gurugram. “But when I have to prepare a lot of food, I cook from our haveli in Old Delhi. There is no space constraint there.” As much as Mrs Ahmed enjoys keeping people happy with her food, she still doesn’t like the idea of ‘commercialising’ it.
Her thoughts reflect in the food in front of me. Think bharwan litchi (litchi stuffed with cottage cheese and peppers, cooked in clay oven), shami kebab (lamb patty cooked with lentils and grounded spices), baingan ki buhani (smoked aubergine mixed with hung curd and jeera three ways), yakhni dum biriyani (fragrant rice preparation with lamb, saffron, and rose water), and mildly sweet taftan (Kashmiri bread). True to Awadhi cuisine, each preparation is uniquely rich. But a homely flavour is common to them all.
Mrs Ahmed is one of the home chefs that the team at The Leela Ambience Gurugram has collaborated with, to run the Gharana series at their restaurant Diya this year. One tip she has for anybody who aspires to be a cook: “Learn to fry your onions the right way.”