By Sourish Bhattacharyya
|Executive Chef Praveen Anand (with spectacles)|
at the kitchen of Dakshin at the Sheraton New
Delhi. At the extreme right is Velumurugan
Paul Raj, lead chef of the Dakshin in Delhi.
DAKSHIN, I believe, is one restaurant that can claim with justification to have contributed the most to our understanding of our vast national wealth of cuisines in the 25 years it has just completed. Having grown up in Delhi, where the majority used to believe 'South Indians' lived on a diet of idli-dosa-vada-sambhar, I was delighted to see Dakshin open its tastefully embellished doors and introduce us to the inventive regional kitchens of the south. Till Dakshin arrived at the Sheraton New Delhi in Saket, I had no idea about the distinctive kitchens of communities such as the Mudaliars or the Ravuthars, or how the temple food of Udupi tasted, nor was I aware of the depth of Mappila (or Moplah) cuisine.
I took the opportunity of the silver jubilee to call up Praveen Anand, Dakshin's brand custodian, walking encyclopaedia on southern cuisines and one of the most erudite chefs I have met in my career. A conversation with Chef Anand (actually, he's Executive Chef) is like going on a long drive through the by-lanes of history and contemporary culture. The Hyderabad-born master chef joined Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, where the first (and foremost) Dakshin opened in 1989, immediately after he graduated out of the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Chennai. That was in 1984, when the establishment on TTK Road was known as the Adyar Gate Hotel Holiday Inn. Its ownership changed a year later, with the Goyals, who were in the textiles business, acquiring the hotel and inviting ITC to run it for them.
The hotel's board of directors, according to the industry grapevine, was very keen initially to open a vegetarian thali restaurant named Mylapore (a dream that has finally found fruition at the ITC Grand Chola's Royal Vega restaurant, which needs a lot of tweaking, but that's another story!). ITC did not have a good experience with running vegetarian outlets, so Syed Habibur Rehman, who was then briefly the Area Director (South) before eventually becoming the boss of ITC Hotels, floated the idea of a restaurant that would showcase as much the lesser-known non-vegetarian fare of the southern states as the more common vegetarian dishes.
It was a brave (rash?) suggestion. A 'North Indian' hotel chain serving authentic 'South Indian' non-vegetarian dishes in Chennai, a city that is justifiably proud of its gastronomic lineage, was an idea that no one had dared to put to test. It was the era of established players such as Woodlands and Dasaprakash, and the only non-vegetarian restaurants were the Buhari Hotel on Mount Road, where Chicken 65 is said to have been invented, and Velu Military Hotel.
The idea of Dakshin was given final shape by the hotel's then general manager, Pawan Verma, who later rose to the position of Senior Executive Vice President, its executive chef, Uday Girme, who's now settled in New Zealand, and the food and beverage manager, Amit Mitra, who has moved on to Australia. Chef Anand, who was then all of 24 and a Continental chef, was roped in to create a menu from scratch.
It was nightmarish in the days when Chef Anand was doing the initial trials for the restaurant. No two persons would agree on any dish that he and his fledgling team would prepare. It was only when he prepared rasam with garlic one day, and got lambasted by a prominent industrialist's wife, that he figured out what he, being from Andhra, had failed to notice. The classical Aiyar-Iyengar divide was working against Dakshin's menu-in-the-making in those pre-opening days.
The lady who had got so upset over the rasam was an Iyengar and garlic did not agree with her taste buds because her caste rules forbade the use of onion and garlic. Chef Anand started visiting homes, cajoling housewives to part with their recipes, standardised them and put systems in place to ensure consistency in cooking. And, more importantly, instead of getting people to taste them and sit on judgement, he followed his instincts, tweaked the recipes that he had collected and prepared a menu.
By the time Dakshin was launched after four to five months of food trials, Chef Anand had lined up a repertoire of 45-60 recipes. "My background in Continental cooking helped me standardise recipes and processes and establish exacting standards," he said to me. "My challenge was to share this knowledge with my chefs, who were extremely talented, but uneducated and resistant to change." It took a Moplah food festival steered by Ummi Abdulla, the foremost exponent of the cuisine and author of Malabar Muslim Cookery (Orient Longman; 1993), to give Dakshin the direction that it eventually took. It set Chef Anand off on his constant peregrinations in search of regional variations and he says he couldn't have done it without the support of his hotel's owners.
From Jiggs Kalra, who was then advising ITC, Chef Anand learnt about how different dishes required different cuts of meat. At a wedding uniting two mill-owning families of Chettinad in Sivaganga district, he met the famous 'America' Natesan, who had earned his sobriquet because he was much in demand among the NRIs. Natesan let him into the many secrets of the prosperous Nattukotai Chettiyar community's cuisine, which goes far beyond the Chettinad chicken that we all know about. Likewise, on a visit to a wedding at Pudukkottai district, Chef Anand was introduced to the use of Everest masalas in Chettinad cookery.
Chef Anand owes his passion for research to Chennai's most prolific chronicler, S. Muthiah, whose column Madras Miscellany in The Hindu has a humongous following. The chef once tested his aadi kummayam, a "sweet delicacy" made with rice, moong and urad dals and jaggery, on Muthiah, but the chronicler wasn't impressed. He invited the chef over to his home, served him a perfect aadi kummayam and introduced him to the treasure trove of manuscripts housed in the Roja Muthiah Research Library, one of the world's finest private libraries of Tamil publications with more than 300,000 items listed in its catalogues.
It was at this library, Chef Anand discovered the Sanskrit culinary treatise, Pakadarpanam, attributed to King Nala of the legend of Nala-Damayanti and stumbled upon what he considers to be the oldest recipe for a biryani, where the rice is cooked in stock made with game birds and infused with flowers and herbs, and then prepared meat is added to it. The problem with this recipe book is that it doesn't have weights and measures. Chef Anand, as a result, has had to create recipes out of ingredients mentioned and descriptions given in the book.
Another noted resident of Chennai, K.S. Padmanabhan, founder of East West Books (now known as Westland, after its acquisition by the Tatas), whose wife Chandra is a noted cookbook writer, introduced Chef Anand to the first Tamil cookbook, Hindu Pakasastra, a compilation of vegetarian recipes by T.K. Ramachandra Rau, first published in 1891 and then two more times, once in honour of King George V and Queen Mary, who were visiting India in 1911. Just five of the recipes had onions and one of them -- vengaya payasam, or kheer made with onions, somewhat like Lucknow's garlic kheer -- is a star of the Dakshin repertoire.
Not all of Chef Anand's recipes owe their origin to books. He mastered the art making a fluffy idli, for instance, at a Chettiyar wedding in the hotel, where he learnt that the trick is to use IR20 short grain rice and add mashed boiled rice to the batter. Trainees at his kitchen also have been rich sources of information. Chef Anand makes it a point to quiz them about what they eat at home and how it is cooked, ferreting out recipes and secrets from them.
One such trainee was a young man named Satya, who joined the Dakshin kitchen after a stint with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). By gaining access to information in the possession of the ASI, Satya, who's now in London, helped his boss recreate the recipes of the Vijayanagara Empire. Chef Anand also dug into the descriptions of markets and everyday food left behind by the contemporary travellers Domingo Paes and Fernao Nunes, read up Edgar Thurston's Castes and Tribes of Southern India, and spent long hours in the kitchens of Anand Gajapathi Raju of the Vizianagaram royal family, whose ancestors were the feudatories of the Vijayanagara kings.
Dakshin under Anand's leadership not only serves good, approachable food, but also keeps introducing its regulars to the culinary jewels of the south far beyond the stereotypes. It is as much a culinary museum as a restaurant that no one has been able to recreate.