The Masters of Spice

Exploring the rich culinary world of India at ITC Hotels

It was deceptively simple. Fresh green peas with tiny cherry tomatoes, delicate fenugreek leaves and a subtle flavouring of garam masala. The Sagar Methi Mattar looked slightly spartan but was delectable. It was the finest dish on an already superlative dining platter served at Royal Vega. The platter is the Ritu Khasa, the seasonal thali (an Indian set meal). Ritu, Sanskrit for season, rules the dynamics of the Indian subcontinent and here, it rules the kitchen.

Not just because Royal Vega uses only the best seasonally available produce, but philosophically too; in the principle of Ayurvedic balance, the dosha (constitution) of the body is affected by the delicate interplay of ritu and ingredients. Eat right and eat well, therefore live well. Here, that is interpreted through recipes curated from the royal kitchens of India, mythology distilled into seven silver bowls on a silver platter.

The Paneer Khasa – tomato-flavoured cottage cheese in tomato gravy – is sumptuous. The Amrudi Dakh – baked guava filled with grapes, pine nuts and khoya (milk cheese) – is marvellous. The accompanying Angakarhi  – a flat bread pinched in a concentric circle – is exquisite. The setting, based on opulent royal dining chambers, is tremendous. The reputation of Royal Vega as one of the finest vegetarian restaurants in India, if not the world, precedes it; and the actual experience exceeds the lofty praise.

Think of Indian food and images of samosa, tikka and tandoori appear. A tangy chaat on a Hyderabad roadside or a warm nankhatai biscuit in a Delhi bazaar is known to many, but there is finesse to Indian cuisine that doesn’t often reach public perception.

It is this finesse that India’s ITC Hotels wants to move to the forefront. This task is entrusted to executive corporate chef Manjit Gill and his cadre across the hotel chain’s network, to bring the immense scope of Indian food together and elevate it. And to answer the question – what is Indian fine dining?

Three cities and five properties under Starwood’s The Luxury Collection brand are the foundation for the answer. At ITC Gardenia in Bengaluru, K&K (Kebabs and Kurries) brings the might of the Mughal north to the south, including its signature velvety Dal Bukhara (lentil stew) and an astounding Gosht Dum Pukht Briyani, where every grain of rice is moist with lamb essence. At the regal ITC Windsor, also in Bengaluru, the flavours of the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka mingle at Dakshin. The various chutneys, Dakshin Yera (masala-coated fried prawns) and Elaneer Payasam (coconut kernels in cardamom-coconut milk) deserve their own spotlight.

North to New Delhi, India’s sprawling capital, and the well-established ITC Maurya. This is the home of Bukhara, the award-winning tandoori restaurant named six times by Miele Guide as one of Asia’s top 20 restaurants. Well-deservedly. Tandoori cooking is a true celebration of the natural flavours of meat, enhanced by a special concoction of spice marinades – lamb, chicken, beef and even seafood at its primal best. A short drive then takes one to ITC Grand Bharat, the chain’s latest property, also in New Delhi. The India Room at this sprawling golf resort unites European classics inspired by India’s colonial past, with Greek, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all making an appearance. A reflection, perhaps, that modern India is as much a product of heritage stretching millennia as it is of more recent colonial influences.

Finally to Chennai, Gateway to the South, at the imposing ITC Grand Chola. In this impressive setting, the robust tandoori and kebab of India’s north-west once again make an appearance at Peshwari, a spin-off restaurant of Bukhara, along with a Naan Bukhara the size of a table. At Cafe Mercara Express, the French influences of Pondicherry reveal themselves in a puyabaise, an adaptation of bouillabaisse using ghee and coconut milk. The Madras Pavilion serves a smorgasbord of delicacies from all corners of India, including a silky mulligatawny soup. And, of course, Royal Vega; the majestic culmination of an epicurean journey through India.

So what is Indian fine dining like? It is a revelation, a realisation that Indian cuisine – or more accurately cuisine of the Indian lands – can be refined, polished and sophisticated. It is exactly what that small silver bowl of green peas was – striking, surprising and utterly superb.

ITC Hotels

The Luxury Collection

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