When I walked into Zest, Delhi’s newest restaurant that has fuelled a feeding frenzy among the chattering classes, I had made up my mind that I would only sample dishes from the Middle East, Chinese and Thai sections. Well, maybe I’d give the modern European and Italian sections a try, but I’d definitely steer clear of the Indian food. In my experience, restaurants that attempt more than one cuisine (remember the Mughlai, Chinese, Continental abomination of yesteryear that managed to fall between three stools?) always give the Indian section short shrift. It is as if Indian food has been tacked on to mollify the hicks who can’t think beyond butter chicken.
However, things changed rapidly with one glance at the menu. How could anyone resist charoli – wild almond kebab? Why, I didn’t even know that there was such an ingredient on the planet. It turned out that one of the chefs in the Indian section – there are six open kitchens, each catering to a different cuisine – was from Hyderabad and his grandfather, a cook in the Nizam’s court, more or less invented the dish.
Wild almonds are reportedly quite unlike their cultivated cousins in either taste or texture. They grow only on hillsides as opposed to flat land, and need to undergo pre-preparation before the actual cooking process begins: peeling, soaking and drying. So, is there any history of wild almonds being used as a central ingredient in any Indian cuisine at all? Chef Sheikh Arif Ahmed seems to think not. He credits his grandfather with creating a dish, more or less out of the top of his head. His inspiration was the wild almond trees that grew in the forest lands that his family owned.
I was told that wild almonds have a taste not unlike a combination between cashews and almonds. There was a studied silence when I asked where exactly chiroli or jangli badam come from – this is one trump card the restaurant intends to play very close to their chest! Apparently, you can’t use regular almonds instead, because their texture is too dry to form a kebab and they’re too heavy and filling. Then, there’s the problem of flavour: regular almonds aren’t packed with flavour the way their wild relatives are.
Taking off on the theme of nuts as an ingredient in Indian cooking, there are a couple of other avenues to be explored. One is the focam that every Goan looks forward to. They are fresh green cashew nuts that have yet to be dried. Their shelf-life is one or two days which is why I’ve never seen them outside Goa. The other is the bright green, packed-with-flavour pistachio that grows in Afghanistan and which is used by mithai walas to make the hideously expensive pista ki lauz. It’s not as if nuts have never been used in Indian cuisine: I’ve eaten a rich curry of cashew nuts in a curd-based gravy in Jaisalmer.
To say nothing of rich gravies formed with ground cashew nuts.