To a lot of us, the word ‘Rampuri’ evokes an entire era of Bollywood films where the floral-shirted, leering baddie with a mole would brandish the dreaded Rampuri chaku, a kind of largish switch-blade knife, much to the squealing dismay of the wide-eyed heroine and the recharged anger of the gruff hero, to create some of the most dramatic and iconic scenes of filmdom. Few other objects have attained such instant recognition, evoked such instant celluloid fear and invited such quick adoption and notoriety, prompting the government to finally ban the sale of the product!
Our small ‘Rampuri’ bought from a local fair used to be the source of unending entertainment too… of a slightly different kind! In our kiddies re-enactment of such dramatic scenes, (yes, we were filmy even then, so sue me!) instead of flicking open with a ‘clink-swoosh’ of the blade, the damn thing would always get stuck, making our designated baddie look comical rather than menacing, the rest of us collapsing in a heap of laughter…
So when it came to trying some specially curated dishes of the Rampuri cuisine at Palladium Hotel’s Sahib Room and Kipling Bar, you can imagine what frame of mind I was in. I half expected the knife on the table to be a switch-blade and pressed it gingerly. No, I did NOT expect the servers to be sporting a mole, stop already! And now that I have you at knife-point, let me tell you the fascinating story of the legendary, almost-lost Rampuri cuisine…
Quite like the Montmartre of Paris, Rampur – situated a short distance from its more distinguished and flamboyant cousin Lucknow – became an epicenter of free thinking and creativity around 200 years ago, promoting various forms of fine arts, including gourmet cooking, under the indulgent rule of the Nawabs. But perhaps the most exciting creation here was the Khansama Chunauti. Imagine today’s Masterchef series, but set in the royal courts of Rampur – large ornate halls with gilt pillar porticos and velvet drapes, where genteel chefs dressed in brocade Angrakhas and pearl necklaces stir giant slow-cooking Handis or Degs mounted high up over huge fires, while exchanging poetic pleasantries in chaste Urdu.
Sounds unreal, right? But that’s exactly what the annual gourmet cooking contest at Rampur was like, where renowned chefs from different kingdoms, primed for long arduous months by their respective heads of state, converged once a year to this Mecca of gourmet-dom, to face off in a battle of innovation, taste, presentation… and honour! Chefs were encouraged and handsomely rewarded (a few lost their heads too, literally!) for unique dishes, creative spice mixes, and evolved culinary techniques. The art was in the subtlety of flavours, derived from whole (khara) masalas, cinnamon, sandalwood, and a unique local yellow pepper. The beauty was in the varying textures arising from the use of raw papaya, fig, lotus seeds and banana flowers. A refined Rampuri cuisine evolved, distinct from the Mughlai or Awadhi cuisine that it borders on. But the Rampuri chefs had definitely not heard the adage ‘Sharing is Caring’, because the recipes for these signature dishes were guarded with life, and only passed down as legacy to the chef’s families, if at all! Almost 75% of the recipes are lost forever. The few that remain come from the original khansama’s descendants very reluctantly narrating them like stories, to a few patient and persistent modern day chefs who cared about this culinary heritage and have taken up the mission of reviving some of its past glory.
And that is how some of these prized heirloom recipes, gathered up by enterprising Chef Angad Rai and his team at Sahib Room, ended up resplendent on our dinner plates, waiting for us to relive a long gone era through our taste buds. And relive we did!
Laung Shorba, a fragrant Clove soup, got our palates tingling and ready. Then arrived a large platter of kebabs of which the Gular ke Kebab (Wild Figs Kebab), smoky Kathal ke Seekh (Jackfruit and Milk Seekh Kebab) and the poetic Tassavur–e-Paneer (Cottage Cheese with Pineapple) took our breath away, followed quickly by the tender n juicy Taat ke Gosht (Open Grilled Lamb with spices). In the mains, the Amla ka Salan (Poached Gooseberries in a Nuts-based curry) was outstanding – sour, tarty, nutty and spicy, it was just the perfect thing to mop up with the decadent Sheermal (bread made with saffron and milk), and a side bowl of the creamy and slurpy Dal-e-Mumtaz, made from 9 different lentils sourced from the region. The famous Dal Khichda and Taar Qorma, both standout signature dishes of Rampur, lived up to their reputation, but the Doodhiya Gosht Biryani (Lamb Biryani, slow-cooked in milk) was just sublime!
I really didn’t think my taste buds could take any more of this intense pampering, when our extremely helpful server, Aldrin, with a smile almost as sweet as the selection of desserts he was carrying, egged us on to finish with a flourish – Santra Ki Kulfi, infused with the goodness of fresh oranges, Sheer Berenj, a richer, nuttier Chawal Kheer, and the unputdownable Khubani ka Meetha, a hot Halwa made entirely from Apricot fruit!
If this was just a glimmer of the level of finesse, dedication, artistry and innovation that went into food, can you imagine the treasury of recipes that was once painstakingly developed and is almost entirely gone? And if this was just a small appetizer to what those royal feasts were like, can you imagine what it would be like to taste just ONE SPOON OF EVERY MASTERPIECE DISH that was specially created to please the refined palates of the gourmand Nawabs? Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?
So if you like a piece of glorious history in your food, and want to really thrill your taste buds, a long dinner over this long weekend is just what you need at the Sahib Room. You can throw down a few interesting cocktails like Gungadin and Mowgli, quirkily named after Rudyard Kipling and his endearing characters. Or slouch carelessly inside the huge cocoon chair. Or catch a glimpse of the ‘Sahib’ himself at his reserved spot at the oak bar 😉
The Rampuri Cuisine showcasing is on at the Sahib Room and Kipling Bar at Palladium Hotel till 10th April, 2015.