Sunday, 18 May 2014

Delhi's Most Sought-After Dhaba Owner Sweety Singh Lays Out A Treat at Five-Star Dhaba

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

ESSENTIAL BITES
WHEN: On till 1 June 2014
WHERE: Dhaba at The Claridges, Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi
TIMINGS: 7:00 TO 11.30 P.M. (Dinner Only)
HOW MUCH: Rs 2,600 (non-veg) and Rs 1,800 (veg) plus taxes per person. Alcohol extra.
For reservations, please contact: +91 11 39555082/5083.
Or email: dhaba.mgr@claridges.com.

HARJINDER SINGH owes his fame to Manjit Gill, the doyen of Indian chefs, and his trade name 'Sweety' to the impish humour of Gautam Anand, one of the leading lights of ITC Hotels, but his distinctive cooking style is the gift of his God-given talent to extract swaad (umami) without smothering preparations with tomato puree, full-fat cream and butter, the standard taste enhancers employed by restaurants claiming to offer "authentic" pre-Partition Punjabi cuisine.
Dhabas work on tight margins, Sweety Singh explained in Punjabi, his bushy beard as animated as his bright eyes, so they cannot afford to use any of the aforementioned enemies of the arteries. We were at Dhaba at The Claridges, where Sweety Singh was serving me a meal I won't forget in a hurry -- what struck me was the simplicity and the freedom from full-fat cream. The hotel's executive chef, Neeraj Tyagi, the man who's singularly responsible for the dramatic turnaround of Sevilla, agreed with me.
Harjinder 'Sweety' Singh of Kake
di Hatti Punjabi Khana has a
God- gifted talent for cooking
no-fuss dhaba food
The food has to be fresh and cooked without fuss, Sweety said, when I asked him about the style he had inherited from his father, Santokh Singh, who started by selling Maa Ki Dal and Mutton Curry (Kadhi and Baigan Bharta on the strictly vegetarian Tuesdays) from the back of a bicycle in 1956. It is this addictive simplicity that had impressed Gill, who's the corporate chef of ITC Hotels, back in 1995. That was when Gill had his first meal at Sweety's Kake Di Hatti Punjabi Khana at Tikona Market on Asaf Ali Road in the shadow of Delite Cinema.
It was Gill who gave Sweety his first break -- a dhaba food festival in 1998 at the Park Sheraton in challenging Chennai. Since then, there's been no looking back. If Harjinder Singh could succeed in Chennai, the rest of the country was his oyster. He became the ambassador of Punjabi street cuisine across the south and was gifted the persona of Sweety Singh by Gautam Anand when he was general manager of the Kakatiya Sheraton (ITC Kakatiya).
Today, Sweety Singh has a thick folder of testimonials from ITC hotels, but his food festivals have many other claimants, not the least of them being The Claridges. And he can savour the day when he shocked his teachers by saying he was dropping out of school to join his father at their family dhaba. "I kept failing in English and I wasn't good in the other subjects as well," he reminisced, as I struggled to decide whether the Nalli Meat Saag De Naal (Rs 1,295) was the stand-out dish, or the Kukkad Dahi Wala (Rs 1,295). I had to agree with Sweety that he took the right decision at the right time.
Among my many favourites are Sweety's juicy
Macchi Di Seekhan, or sole fish seekh kebabs,
which are an entirely welcome way of eating fish
Starting with the Macchi Di Seekhan (juicy sole seekh kebabs; Rs 1,195), the minimalism of the Jeere De Naal Tandoori Kukkad (Rs 995 for a half portion) and the happy marriage of textures and flavours in the Chukandar de Kebab (Rs 745), Sweety kept us asking for more, and more! Apart from the two gravy dishes already salivated upon, he insisted we have his flavourful Amritsari Meat Tari Wala (Rs 1,295), Sarson da Saag, which transforms into something other-worldly with a blob of white butter (Rs 845), and Malai Wale Tinde (Rs 845), which makes even the humble vegetable taste special. Then came the absolutely delectable Chukandar da Halwa (Rs 395), which is my dream dish of the year, and Kesari Kheer (Rs 395) -- words fail me as I try hard to describe my feelings at the end of this gastronomic experience.
Sweety Singh is a sweet man with a gifted hand. He's also a humble man. He credits his cooking skills entirely to his father. "When his eyesight was failing because of health issues," Sweety remembers, "he could tell the cooks how much masala to add just by smelling the vapours coming out of the dishes being prepared." Some talents are heaven-sent. Cooking is one of them.