Dining Out

Delhi Celebrates India: The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali and the Birth of a New Food Republic

Posted: January 1, 2017 at 8:18 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

If there’s one trend that will define Delhi’s cosmopolitan palate in 2017, it is its growing openness to our wealth of regional cuisines

I GREW up in a Delhi where anyone from the South of the Vindhyas was a Madrasi who ate only idli-dosa-vada-sambar, where Biharis were the Harrys taking over Mukherjee Nagar, where Bongs spoke the national language with a strange accent and had fish cooked in mustard oil, and where English, at least in our lot, was the lingua franca, and those who were more comfortable with Hindi were condemned to the behenji tag (that was much before Hindi news anchors in sharp suits entered our lives through the boob tube).

We live in a very different Delhi today — a Delhi where the Purbias (from eastern UP and Bihar) enjoy the same clout as the Punjabis, where people who make politically incorrect jokes about those from other parts of the country are not exactly welcome in polite company, and where people’s palates (and minds) are opening up to a myriad of regional flavours. The ‘vernacs’ of yesterday are the new force in a city that has turned into India in a microcosm — so much so that the Delhi BJP is today headed by a former Bhojpuri actor, which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

All these thoughts swirled in my mind as I saw a queue form outside the newbie restaurant, The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali, which is the first in the city to unveil an all-vegetarian, 80-item menu drawn from kitchens across India. Next door, at Saravanah Bhawan, the queue was bigger and it has been the same story for many years. It wasn’t so not long ago.

There used to be a time when Anjan Chatterjee’s Oh! Calcutta and Delhi’s first and only Goan restaurant, Bernardo’s by Crescentia Scolt and Chris Fernandes, were novelties, and Sagar Ratna was the place where you went for a ‘South Indian’ if your palate wasn’t yet ready for Chidambaram. Today, the knowledgeable talk about single-estate coffees from Karnataka, vanilla from Kerala, yellowfin tuna from Andaman Sea, or nolen gur (date palm jaggery) and kasundi (mustard paste) from West Bengal.

Discerning Delhiites also comment at length on Facebook, and post pictures on Instagram, to commemorate their visits to Potbelly (Shahpur Jat and Bihar Bhavan; Bihari), Samovar and Matamal (Pamposh Enclave and Gurgaon respectively; Kashmiri), Rustom’s Bhonu (Adhchini; Parsi), Carnatic Cafe (New Friends Colony; Udupi), Sanadige (Malcha Marg; Coastal Cuisine), Punjab Grill and Made in Punjab (Select Citywalk, Saket, and Cyber Hub, Gurgaon; Traditional Punjabi), Yeti: The Himalayan Kitchen (M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-II), or City of Joy (Alaknanda; Bengali).

They wax eloquent about the river snails served at the Manipuri restaurant enigmatically named The Categorical Eat-Pham (Humayunpur); they go from one state bhawan to another in search of the ‘authentic’ (Andhra Bhawan remains the all-time favourite, but now there’s competition from Assam, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal); they patronise Anubhav Sapra’s Delhi Food Walks to discover the city’s street food; and they show up for curated meals organised by Facebook groups such as Shantanu Mahanta and Sonal Saxena’s Eat With India and Commeat (both promote home cooks and regional cuisines).

A PR-turned-food impresario and promoter of heritage cuisine, Osama Jalali obviously saw the change, as did his business partner, Vidur Kanodia, and together they have shown why it is possible to run a vegetarian restaurant without alcohol in what has traditionally been a non-vegetarian, alcohol-driven food market. The Masala Trail is living proof of the fact that the city is ready for a restaurant that serves only authentic regional favourites.

With two sari-draped auto-rickshaw frames embellishing the main wall, an old Lambretta scooter painted red and a hawker’s trolley hanging from the ceiling, and a wall panel stocked up with jars of old candies, Fatafats and Phantom sweet cigarettes, The Masala Trail oozes the colours and the vibrancy of the Indian street food experience. And the vibe gets heightened by the retro Hindi film numbers on the restaurant’s playlists.

The atmosphere gets you in the mood for the delightful variety on the menu. And the spread is as diverse as India — from the Tamatar Chaat of Banaras to Banana Pooris, a.k.a. Mangalore Banana Buns; from Sattu, the energy drink from Bihar that I have seen sustaining the rickshaw-pullers of Kolkata, to Panki, sheets of besan (chickpea flour) paste steamed in banana leaves (Swati Snacks in Mumbai owes its fame to this delicate preparation); from Chalukya Dosa, a.k.a. Mysore Masala Dosa, which gets its name from the Bangalore hotel where its most famous purveyor, Samrat Restaurant, is located, to Rajasthan’s Bajra Khichdi, Bihar’s Litti-Chokha and Kerala’s Idiyappam with Vegetable Stew. As many as 80 dishes packed into one colourful menu. That should give you 80 reasons to go back to The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali and set off on a culinary tour of India.

— This article first appeared in Mail Today on Sunday, January 1, 2017. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers