When Arun Sundararaj joined the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi as its new executive chef in 2015, many people told him about all the wonderful experiences they’ve had at the hotel. They were particularly keen, he recalls, on talking to him about Machan, one of the first all-day cafés in the city, established in 1978.
“They would start getting nostalgic about all the times they spent here, the first dates, the romantic meetings, and I realised that almost everyone had a very emotional attachment to this place,” he says. Which is why, when the management first started planning a makeover for the hotel, including Machan, Sundararaj knew that they would have to tread very carefully. “We couldn’t just make changes for the sake of change; everything had to be carefully thought through,” he says.
After being closed for about a year, Machan reopened in October in a new avatar that is, unofficially, being called Machan 3.0. When it opened in 1978, the café stuck closely to the inspiration behind its name — a machan is a viewing platform erected on a tree, usually for viewing or hunting wildlife — and so decor elements included cane furniture and hurricane lamps.
When it underwent a makeover in the ’90s, the result was a slightly stodgy look which didn’t quite go with the youthful vibes that the hotel had carefully cultivated for the eatery since its inception. The latest avatar is an attempt to infuse a certain contemporary freshness in the decor, while still retaining a strong link to the original jungle theme, as reflected in, for instance, the foliage patterns on the wallpaper and the rattan partitions.
The food and beverages, too, nod to the past. The three principles that defined the menu redesign, says Sundararaj, were nostalgia, relevance and the theme, ‘forests of the world’. “There are some things that you’ll always find in Machan, such as the murgh tikka lababdar and the keema pav. These are things that I was told will always be expected,” he explains.
These classics then had to be made relevant. “The base elements would remain the same, but we would have better ingredients and adapt it to today. For example, the typical club sandwich, which is cut into two pieces and served, is difficult to eat. You’ll find that the ham is always falling out of the side, when you try to take a bite. It makes a mess and puts people off. So we simply cut it into three pieces, which makes each one easier to handle,” he says.
Finally, the ‘forests of the world’ theme was incorporated in the food by doing a lot of research and picking up elements that the team could work with. For example, the Mukundara khad murgh is inspired by the ‘khad’ style of cooking, which was once popular among soldiers and hunters in the western parts of the country: a pit would be dug in the ground, coals would be lit and the meat then placed inside the pit and covered up to cook. This style imparted a unique, smoky flavour to the meat, which Sundararaj has replicated using the modern conveniences of the Machan kitchen.
There’s still plenty on the menu for the old hands who want to come to Machan and reminisce about their youth, including, Sundararaj says, their popular tiramisu which has been renamed You Made My Date. “The next time someone comes and tells me about the date on which they ended up meeting their future wife, this is what I’ll be serving them,” he says.