Updated: September 18, 2021 8:20:27 pm
By Mukesh Kumar
When President Ram Nath Kovind hosted a reception for India’s Olympic contingent recently, the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen had an opportunity to express gratitude to the sportspersons for making the nation proud. When we designed the menu, we kept in mind two key elements: accommodating the athletes’ dietary requirements and presenting before them an array of regional as well as international flavours. To ensure the meal was nutritious and wholesome, exotic vegetable tortilla wraps, well-complemented delicacies such as murgh hazarvi tikka and mushroom pies. The dessert was a combination of rava kesari and pistachio baklava, a fusion of classic Indo-Western symphonies. And how could we let them go without serving the traditional, highly nutritious Indian beverage, the Punjabi power drink, kesar badam lassi?
Serving the first table of the nation, we have to be acutely careful while planning the menus. At the Rashtrapati Bhavan events, the aim is to incorporate the vast and varied food cultures and showcase the diversity of India to the visiting dignitaries. The state banquet is an opportunity to give the visitors a sense of the vibrancy of India’s various cuisines. At the same time, food habits, likes and dislikes of the visiting dignitaries have to be considered too. Often, flavours and combinations of ingredients need a little tweaking to suit the preferences of the visiting guests, but it is equally important to ensure that the authenticity is not lost in the process.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen is in charge of nourishing the President and first family every day, catering to official guests, including heads of states, as well as private functions for the President and the first lady. There was a time when the Willingdons and the Mountbattens were served consommés, soufflés, steaks and other traditional European delicacies. Curiously, their kitchen operations were never headed by a European chef. The British entirely relied on their team of Indian cooks for the preparation of Western food.
The tradition of preparing and serving Western food in the state banquets was bound to change after Independence. In search of the most exquisite Indian dishes suitable for state banquets, the cooks turned to Mughlai cuisine for inspiration. In the 1960s, one of the first state banquets to feature Indian food on the menu offered a mix of both — Indian and Western cuisine. It started with French onion soup followed by biryani along with dum aloo and naan and concluded with a British style tutti-frutti dessert.
Over the years, awareness grew of the distinctive culinary traditions of the different regions of India. The first families also had a major role in transforming the culinary repertoire of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Major inputs started flowing in during the presidency of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77), when the first lady, Begum Abida Ahmed, encouraged cooks to excel in their craft and initiated briefings before every banquet. She made sure that the presidential kitchen offered the finest quality of Awadhi delicacies such as murgh nihari, dumpukht biryani and flaky sheermal breads to guests.
First lady Usha Narayanan (1997-2002) continued the legacy and took a great deal of interest in introducing south Indian dishes such as mini idlis and vadas in the menus, thereby challenging the dominance of north Indian and Northwest Frontier cuisines in banquets. The initiative had two outcomes. It not only introduced lighter entrée (mid-sized meals) options for proper balancing of menus but also contributed significantly in augmenting the Bhavan’s culinary collection. At a banquet, in honour of then president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, in July 2001, the dessert served was Kerala’s ada pradhaman, a coconut-jaggery-rice pudding, traditionally eaten during the harvest festival of Onam.
Such considerations about the various aspects of food spur the creativity of chefs. We had a taste of it recently. This year, a day before the “at-home” event, part of the Republic Day celebrations, the food-testing committee comprising senior officials suggested adding some twist to subz shami kebab to make it more tempting. We had to act fast to create something surprising and appealing. The foremost challenge was to deliver excellent zero-error service while meeting the timelines for the preparation and pick-up of meals. What came to the rescue was the advice of my mentor chefs during my initial days in the culinary career — the importance of flavours and food scents and the warmth they can add. After a small round of discussion and analysing different combinations of flavours and aromas, we decided to incorporate beetroot ki shami in the menu. It was an uncommon blend of ingredients but to our surprise, it came out as the most appreciated dish of the day.
Though the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen is committed to displaying rich and diverse Indian regional food culture in state banquets menus, a “modernist movement” has also been initiated for reinvention of local delicacies. The aim is to expand the possibilities of Indian cuisine by using modern cooking techniques, global influences and presentation styles to enhance the visual and sensorial aspects of the dishes while retaining their traditional essence. Smoked lentils and quinoa kebabs, kasundi fish tikka with beetroot hummus and gunpowder dhokla with raw papaya chutney are some of the dishes which have featured in the Rashtrapati Bhavan menus in recent times and they have been vastly appreciated by dignitaries.
(Mukesh Kumar is executive chef at the Rashtrapati Bhavan)
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