Folk Food Is The Newest Luxury: Kapil Chopra’s The Postcard Hotels Show How It’s To Be Done. Plus: Mithai Goes Upmarket. Plus: First Lady of Concept Restaurants.
SOME YEARS AGO, Karan Singh, a hotelier I hold in great esteem, said to me that luxury is no longer about the kind of room or the bed that your top dollars get; instead, it’s all about the experience that you are served. Having put Jaisalmer on the luxury destinations map with Suryagarh and Bikaner with Narendra Bhawan, Singh should know.
This nugget of wisdom came back to me when I was listening to Kapil Chopra outlining his vision for his new venture, The Postcard Hotels. Chopra was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug while still serving as president of The Oberoi Group, when he launched the restaurant concierge service EazyDiner. Food and beverage is at the centre of The Postcard experience, yet its face is neither an expat chef, nor a homegrown boy with fancy tattoos and a record of internships at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Having launched itself with three Goa hotels (and one in coastal Karnataka), The Postcard opted to tap local talent and discovered Anju from Moira, a village in North Goa famous for a variety of bananas that carries its name (the long, tusk-shaped Moidechim Kellim was introduced in the region by the Franciscan fathers in the 1600s).
Anju cooks the way she does at home — she buys fresh seasonal ingredients every morning and prepares local delicacies for her guests, including the Moira banana fritters. The thought behind such an offering is that you can’t impress world travellers with physical luxury — unless maybe you provide them with gold bathroom fittings (commode included), like cash-strapped Pakistan had to do for the visiting Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud — for they have been there, done that. In all likelihood, they may have more expensive physical luxuries back home, but digging freshly cooked meals made with locally sourced seasonal ingredients (what we now call ‘folk food’) in a boutique luxury hotel is not an experience you can have many times in your life. Today, in a time-poor world, experiences are luxuries, not physical accoutrements.
Take croissants, for instance. It’s hard to get them right in India, for the flour may not have the appropriate gluten content, the butter may have too much salt in it, and the pH value of the water used may differ dramatically from place to place. Most importantly, croissants aren’t native to India, so bakers don’t have any reference point to judge whether or not they are getting it right. What Chopra therefore did at The Postcard hotels was to make the poi the centrepiece of the bread basket. You may have travelled around the world, but you are not likely to have poi anywhere outside Goa.
“The bread basket needs to be reinvented in India,” says Chopra, pointing to the wealth of breads in the country. In the same spirit, the welcome cocktail at the Goa hotels is triple distilled feni (the famous cashew liquor that you cannot, by law, have outside Goa) spiked with fresh green chillies, a squeeze of lemon and soda. Likewise, at Trasi near Kundapur in the Udupi district of Karnataka, where The Postcard has its fourth hotel, commercially farmed fish is a no-no. The guests are served only the fresh catch of the day sourced from the fisherfolk in the village by the Arabian Sea.
A couple of (or maybe three) decades back in Spain, Ferran Adria brought olive oil back into the centre of the table, edging out butter, which chefs of Adria’s generation used heartily, inspired of course by the French. What they lost was a healthy, flavourful cooking medium, but thanks to master chefs such as Adria, olive oil is back — and how! If all hotels operating in India follow in the footsteps of The Postcard and adopt hyper local cuisines, and the most capable local home cooks, they can unleash a gastronomic revolution the like of which India is yet to see on its soil. Folk food needs a leg up in the same way as luxury has got to be re-defined.K
Chatterati Rediscovers Mithai As It Goes Upscale
SID MATHUR was a banker when he decided to chuck up his job in London and return home to join the team of Riyaaz Amlani as his food and beverage brains trust. He could have happily done that only, rolling out one successful Smoke House Deli or Social after another, but Mathur was itching to create a luxury mithai brand with his stamp of originality — no colours or essences, organic sugar, home-made khoya, hand-picked cow’s milk ghee, and a commitment not to recycle leftovers. For the past three years, he has been working on Khoya, which garnered much attention after it found a place in the gift hamper at Koffee with Karan, and then after celebrated chef Manish Mehrotra splashed one of Khoya’s designer boxes made with food-grade paper on Instagram and declared the brand to be the answer to Laduree.
Not long ago, I was surprised by a yoga guru who said India had more than 670 varieties of sweets made with just about every ingredient you could imagine — having had Salma Husain’s gulab jamuns made with mutton mince (keema), the number did not surprise me. Yet, we take them for granted, and don’t celebrate this treasure the way it should be. Our posh hotels and fancy restaurants don’t celebrate our own dessert tradition, our weddings, too, are not famous for showcasing creativity in this department, and in everyday conversations, whenever we talk about sinful indulgence, we refer to chocolate (thank God for Mysore chocolate catching the world’s fancy!) and macrons, which have become an obsession for Indian pastry chefs ever since Pierre Herme visited India.
Indian mithai badly needs a brand ambassador — and Sid Mathur looks eminently qualified to be one. Khoya sells 2,000-3,000 boxes a month (during Diwali, the number goes up to 5,000), making traditional sweets made in the traditional way, from barfis and laddoos to pista ki lauj, fashionable all over again. Khoya boxes are sought after as party giveaways or as accompaniments to childbirth announcements; they have replaced chocolates as corporate gift items of brands such as Lexus and Cartier; and they have made an appearance in one of the Ambani pre-wedding events at Udaipur (thanks to Abhishek Bachchan taking home a Koffee with Karan hamper and discovering Khoya, alerting his mother Jaya Bachchan, and she in turn bringing it to the notice of Nita Ambani). By raising its cachet, Khoya has done a big favour to Indian mithai.
The First Lady of Concept Restaurants
BACK IN THE 1990s, Janti Dugal was the go-to Thai food caterer (those were the days when Thai food was considered exotic), but she made her mark — behind the scenes — with Mamagoto, which is today the flagship brand of Kabir Suri and Rahul Khanna’s company, Azure Hospitality. Mamagoto made comfort food fashionable all over again at a time when restaurateurs, inspired by chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, were foraying into haute dining.
At Mamagoto, Dugal stuck to her zone of familiarity, South-East Asia, having grown up in Indonesia before marriage brought her to Delhi. Her next foray, Sly Granny, first in Bangalore and then in Khan Market, New Delhi, saw her move to a global cuisine that would appeal to the millennial generation in an arty setting redolent of nostalgia.
Anyone else would have taken a long break after Sly Granny, celebrated the accolades and hear the cash registers ring. Dugal, however, is back with Hotel Delmaar at the Select Citywalk, Saket, which is yet another restaurant that dives into nostalgia and recreates the tea room of a colonial hotel. Classics such as Prawn Cocktail, Tuna Nicoise Salad, Fish Meuniere, Chicken a la Kiev, Shepherd’s Pie and Crepes Suzette are made to perfection by chefs from a generation that grew up when these dishes had gone out of fashion. They share the spotlight with flatbreads, pastas and risottos and dishes with North African influences. At Hotel Delmaar, nostalgia meets good food and friendly, competent service.
Where: S-14, 2nd Floor, Select Citywalk, New Delhi.
Timings: 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Call: +91 9650701647; 011-41008660
Liquor: Licence awaited.
Cost of Meal for Two: Rs 1,600+ (without alcohol)
This edition of my fortnightly column, Fortune Cookie, first appeared in Mail Today on Sunday, February 24, 2019. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.