We board the train at Chintadripet. Desolate and dimly lit, the station looks like the perfect setting for a fight scene. Trains always make me think of ‘Bread-Omelette’. However, the only thing we find on the local trains are phone numbers, scrawled across the walls in thick red and black marker. After staring at the ‘call me’ messages fixedly, my colleague snaps open her chic Miu-Miu handbag and starts writing them down. I look at her with horror. “This has to be the worst way to find a boyfriend — ever,” I snap. She punches my arm angrily. “Of course I’m not going to date them,” she shudders. “But we should call all the numbers anyway. Think of what a great story it will make.” Ah. Investigative research. I finally agree to help. A crowd collects to watch. Ah Velachery. Always an adventure!
We’re headed to Chef Jugesh Arora’s new Tadka Talk. Racing out of the station, we take an auto and plunge into Velachery’s open drains, pungent cows and boisterous traffic. Then we stop on a quiet side street and walk into a restful space, flooded with natural light and the scent of fresh herbs. The interiors are quiet and calming, with clean lines and a restrained use of colour. But what cheers us up the most are the martini glasses filled with chilled ‘Ambi kiwi panna,’ a refreshing mix of raw mango, kiwi and cumin.
Tadka Talk offers vegetarian and vegan Punjabi food in a new avatar. Punjabi food, of course, has always been popular, with its cream-laden curries, ghee-drenched naans and meaty kebabs. However, the style of cooking that exploded in India is designed to appeal to mass market. It borrowed items from North West Frontier cuisine, lifted recipes from the roadside dhabas and sneaked in more spice, all to exaggerate flavours, colour and taste.
While this was a great way to introduce these flavours to the mass market, it also means that by now the heavy ‘Punjabi’ food we eat at most popular restaurants is very different from the food Punjabis eat at home. Chef Arora’s mission is to get back to his roots, rediscover the cuisine, and then reinterpret it for a contemporary audience looking for food that is light, healthy and stylish.
As we eat delicately grilled bhutte kebabs, where the natural sweetness of the corn is tempered by the fierce heat of green chillies, Chef Arora explains why he’s so determined to promote home-style cooking. “Punjabi food is never heavy,” he says, “We don’t use cream in our daily food. Most of our cooking is done in mustard oil. Everyone uses dal makhni as an example of heavy Punjabi food, because it’s full of white butter. But it’s actually from Afghanistan!” He adds that his wife, Deepa, has worked with him on the recipes. “It’s all typical home food, which we have made even lighter. Instead of frying, we use the tandoor and grill… We also use lot of fresh nutritious ingredients…” He holds up a tray of fragrant mustard. “It’s grown right here in the restaurant, takes about six days to sprout and we use it in our cooking. “
Our pillowy rectangles of paneer tikka are accompanied by a tangle of yellow, orange and red peppers scattered with sprigs of delicious fresh mustard. It’s followed by a flat spiced mushroom cappuccino, thin and afloat with cinnamon. Fortunately the meal bounces back with our main course. A steaming emerald-green Amritsari version of sarson da saag, blending mustard leaves with radish, spinach and dill leaves. It’s served with the traditional makki ki roti, a bowl of grated jaggery and home churned butter: dangerously delicious. “We might need to come to Velachery more often,” I whisper to my colleague.
Then the parathas arrive. Flaky and flecked with methi. We eat them with pindi channa, spiked with dried pomegranate. “Hmmm. Maybe we should come this side more often,” says the colleague, spooning up cool creamy raita flavoured with roasted cumin.
I know what the real lure is. She’s spotted dessert. Velvety phirni freckled with nuts. Blistering gulab jamus. And spongy rasmalai in saffron soaked milk.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some phone calls to make.
Tadka Talk is at Velacity by Purpletree, 6&7 Ramagiri Extension, Opposite TCS, Taramani Velachery Link Road. A meal for two is roughly Rs 500. Call 4321 3838 / 4321 3939.