A Taste of the Pind

Chef Harangad Singh's pop-up at Dhaba in The Claridges New Delhi recreates not just the dishes that came from the community kitchens but tales too.

By Madhulika Dash

Punjab. The land of generosity, grace, vibrant culture, colour and valour. A few reasons why Punjab occupies such a prime place in our heart – of course, food is also a big reason. The flavours and taste can easily fit into the definition of “fits all”. Such is the charm and instant addiction of their food that globally the introduction of Indian food begins with one that was originated in Punjab – erstwhile or present irrespective.

But what gives the food its unforgettable, almost addictive flavours? Three reasons, says cuisine specialist Chef Harangad Singh, “Punjab has always been at the cusp of cultural influences, given that it was a point of entrance not just for traders, immigrants but also invaders in the history. This made it a rich epicenter to a lot of new influences, techniques and of course spices and their work. Two, its geographical location and climate that makes its produce rich; and last not the least, the Pind culture – which, in retrospection, I think has been at the foundation of our colourful culture and food.”

Chefs On the Roll:  (L to R) Chef Mahavir, Chef Harangad Singh and Chef Vivek Rana, Executive Chef, The Claridges

In fact, he cotinues, “even when villages are turning into towns and towns into urban cities, the essence of pind, a concept that today is more known as community or neighbourhood, continues to be one of the major influence while growing up. In fact, every Punjabi's palate is designed by the pind the family belongs to. After all, it is the pind that has shaped not just the affable, all-welcoming nature, the sense of brotherhood and the food.”

And by that, adds the Mohali-born, “I don't mean the way a dal is made or the use of spices or even the serving style, but nuances like how the masala is used to even the ingredient varietal differed. Take for instance the spice mixes. While the state of Punjab till Amritsar is fond of using whole spices, beyond the Golden city till Lahore, once the second capital and culinry hub of the Patiala State, they prefer using the powder. Likewise is the case of the wet and dry marination and the use of a particular flavourant.”

While the creations of such nitty gritties that lend the flavour character of each of the region was the doing of the pind, which had another fascinating concept called the sanja chulah – where the neighbourhood came to cook rotis on the tandoor and socialise giving heart the sense of belonging – that proved to be the epicenter of innovation. It was in fact in these community cooking places, says  Chef Singh, “that was created on behest of Guru Nanak that much of Punjab's cuisine evolved and adopted. And the beauty was that even when each Pind had their unique styles of making the same thing, they were open to new exchanges. One of the reasons that helped pollinate Punjabi food and flavours to the rest of the country with ease.”

The fact that each of the Pind believed in self sustainability and hence devised their menu to showcase produce they could grow, breed and garner with ease proved to the biggest ace in their culinary armour. Exposed to the trading route was another benefit that the Pind enjoyed immensely, explains the culinary specialist, “as we were the first ones to know of what was trending on the trade route and were quick to adopt, thus turning into trendsetters who were responsible for introducing quite a few ingredients and dishes that today are an integral part of the Indian food ledger. Chickpea for instance. Murg Tandoor is another. Amritsari Machchi, which has a brethern in Lahore' wheat and carrot through Kada Prasad and Gajrela and of course the iconic kulche, parathe and batura.” And, adds Chef Singh, “facilitated the unforgottable butter chicken.”

But these were the stories that is all too familair, The food of Pind that build one of India's most prosperous empire was much more remains an little known aspect to those outside the state, and a lot of them slowly disappearing. Like the Meat Chawal that was designed as a means to repurpose leftover and soon became a standard tiffin for most of us. Or the Dudh Jalebi that marked not just the season change but was this grandmother's trick to instantly put you in a happy mood before a big day. I remember how often I would have it even as a budding chef because of the many lores of it being an appetite builder. The Atte Ka Halwa, which is perhaps the finest showcase of the quality of wheat that grows in Punjab and also how simple dishes are the most comforting, and my personal favourite as Ghutwa Palak Wadi and Khatta Murg Sirka Pyaaz – two very indigeneous Pind innovation that is today considered to be the finest in functional food,” recalls Chef Singh, who rates the tandoor style Baigan Bharta as one of the best way to taste the oldest vegetable known to civilisation. Traditionally, he says, “it was these medium size baigan thrown in the chulah post cooking. They would slow cook on the dying ambers, and those globes of deliciousness with that smoky aftertaste would be perked up with pyaaz that would smashed with hand and mustard oil. In our place, it would often be the pickle oil that would add the zing and make it one of the gourmet meal for the road.

The menu, which almost reads like one from a well-put together restaurant, isn't just a loving ode to the different Pinds that have been a part of Chef Singh's life but also dishes that have helped built him as a chef and cuisine specialist in the past few years.  Examples of his travel within the Patiala empire is the Tawe Ali Champaan, which is a griddle braised champaran showcasing how coarsely ground spices could add multi-tude of flavours, and Patialvi Channa Dal Te Subji De Seekh, which uses high flame roasted channa dal to add that element of crunch to a vegetarian kebab. Little wonder it was once on the must-eat list of day travellers between Amristar and Lahore.

These dishes and stories are worth telling and that, concludes the owner of Parat, “is among the many reasons that I chose to do a pop-up on the same. And gladly, I found home with Dhaba, which under the ageis of  Chef Vivek Rana, Executive Chef, The Claridges, is all about telling the stories, untold through food.”