Written by Achint Raj Carol
The delicate local flavours, vast pan-Indian culinary repertoire and distinctively conceptualised service patterns of the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen have an extremely rich and interesting history. The journey dates back to 1931 when the Viceroy House was the epicentre of British colonial power and the palace-cum-home of Lord Irwin. It was run on the same lines as Buckingham Palace, where household and hospitality operations were managed by a colossal team of about 500 employees, comprising cooks, bakers, patissiers, khansamas (traditional cooks), butlers, utility workers, florists, sanitation workers, laundry and so on. The building had full-fledged culinary operations with kitchen, confectionary, larder and scullery sections.
These were well complemented with a wine cellar, linen rooms, glass and china rooms. Back in those days, the menus were predominantly based on French cuisine with delicacies such as turtle consommé, butter soft filet mignons and stuffed quails. The British rejected Indian food and considered pre-plated meats with vegetables as accompaniments, topped with different sauces, to be more elegant. Presentation was the most important feature of viceregal food. Mohd. Sirajuddin, a retired chief storekeeper, remembers how the cooks were trained to cut up, marinate and bake a whole fish before reassembling it on a serving platter to look as though the fish was still whole. He also recalls the rigorous training imparted by French chefs to confectioners to teach them to play with caramelised and spun sugar for creating lip-smacking desserts for formal banquets.
During the 1950s and ’60s, as India walked onto the global stage, the Rashtrapati Bhavan was a window to showcase Indian food to the world. Initially, the food continued to be Anglicised-French in style, but gradually, pre-plated meals were replaced with traditional Indian thalis. International customs such as raising the toast were still followed but with a twist, as bubbling champagne made way for colourful, thirst-quenching sherbets.
Till the mid ’60s, hardly any Indian food was cooked in the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchens but just as the aroma of Indian spices cannot be restrained or resisted, the decision-makers could not hold back on Indian delicacies for too long. They secured a place on banquet menus, when heads of states visited. It all began in March 1963, when the meal served to Fazil Küçük, vice president of Cyprus, began with almond soup and continental entrée, but the main course was a veritable Indian feast of tandoori chicken, nargisi kofta, chaman matar, Raisina pulao and naan. In the late 1960s, the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchens got a well-deserved section of Indian sweets. By the late ’70s, Indian food was firmly established on the menu. Consommés were replaced with shorbas, fried fish with kebabs, steaks with koftas and, last but not the least, soufflés and custards with badam kheer and kulfis.
Shafiullah, the master cook, identified by President Rajendra Prasad during his visit to the Nizam of Hyderabad, introduced traditional Awadhi dishes such as kachche gosht ki biryani and qormas to the Rashtrapati Bhavan culinary repertoire. People credit Shafiullah with introducing the Punjabi tandoor, a novelty in those days. The tandoor complemented the Mughlai cuisine well and made it a great combination to grace banquet menus through the 1970s and ’80s.
During the 1990s, awareness about regional cuisines grew. It was president R Venkataraman who made the south Indian idlis and utthapam a regular item on the Rashtrapati Bhavan menu. Initially, it was considered to be too humble to be served in banquets. Little did people know that some day the popularity of these regional Indian delicacies will establish Indian cuisine on the global map and bring Michelin stars to Indian chefs. The journey, which started with Mughlai and tandoori preparations, has now arrived at a stage where regional cuisine is proving to be an effective mode of food diplomacy, even as we celebrate our ancient heritage on the dining table.
Today, menus are carefully drafted. Signature dishes such as dal Raisina have created their own niche and attract media attention whenever incorporated in menus. The peculiarity of the menus crafted here lies in the fact that it reflects a perfect blend of Indian traditional dishes merged delicately with great food presentation. For instance, pre-plated tandoori crevette served on a bed of raw papaya salad, complemented with mint and sweet ’n’ sour chilli sauce was widely appreciated when served during a state banquet recently. At every banquet, the colour scheme of table linen, flower themes and on-table dottings of small eats and beverages are carefully chosen to match the colours of the guest nation’s flag. On March 25, the combination of red, white and blue linen complemented the flower theme as an honour to President Donald Trump. Highlights of the meal for the US president included Cajun-spiced tandoori salmon, a pre-plated dessert of hazelnut pie with salty caramel sauce and malpua rabri roll — a perfect example of East-West symphony.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan staff frequently undergo residential training at the premier culinary and hospitality institutes in India. The executive chef here is a member of the Club des Chefs de Chefs (CCC), that brings together chefs of the heads of state from across the world. CCC organises its annual general-assembly meet in a member nation and is received by the head of state. In 2016, for the first time, India hosted the event.
Achint Raj Caroli, additional comptroller of President’s household, is in-charge of hospitality at the Rashtrapati Bhavan