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New frontiers of delight

"I just can't sit at home doing nothing".

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Naina Balsavar Ahmad enjoys her meal at Maurya Sheraton's Bukhara restaurant.

IF IT is grace personified, it has to be Naina Balsavar Ahmad, the flawless beauty we saw on television in Lakme shampoo advertisements in the late `80s, the one we saw as Miss India in 1976. Naina truly befits her name: with those beautiful, magical, kohl rimmed eyes, unaffected smile and a friendly attitude towards one and all. She is at Maurya Sheraton's Bukhara Restaurant in New Delhi. The restaurant that specialises in cuisine of the nomadic tribes of North-West Frontier Provinces surprises you no end, from its ambience to menu. Its rock-finish walls, wooden pillars, copper cooking vessels hung near the wooden roof show the limited utensils used in these humble homes in the NWFP. The interesting part about the restaurant is its 25-year-old special menu that remains unchanged. All the food is cooked in clay ovens, the traditional tandoor. The menu appears written on a round-shaped, glossy slab of wood.

"Oh, that's marvellous," Naina seems to love the wooden menu. "I just love food. Get me anything that you people specialise in," she says. She remembers a fiasco that happened when she was newly married. She cooked for her politician husband Akbar Ahmad, with great care. "I prepared food for him but did not taste it.

When he had the first bite, I looked for a word of appreciation but it never came, till he finished. I was amazed. He asked me if I had tasted what I cooked, politely. Oh Gosh! It had no salt at all!"

She met Akbar at a common friend's party. She recalls, "He had been very polite and a little shy. We understood that we liked each other from the very first meeting. When a formal proposal came from his side, I had no reason to say no. It was so well understood," Naina's beautiful eyes droop like a newlywed coy bride. "I have four grown children now," she laughs to cover up the shyness looming large on her reddening cheeks. And religion in their case "was not a matter of concern. My family members were very liberal, and so were his."

The dim-lit cave-like ambience at the Bukhara by now plays an important part of the conversation, and the visitor gets to know that this restaurant boasts of playing host to innumerable crowned heads, Heads of State and VIPs from across the world. Even the U.S. First Lady, Hillary Clinton, ignoring security measures, insisted on dining at the Bukhara during her visit to Delhi a few years ago. Naina is presented with burrah kabab, tandoori pomfret, and Peshawari kabab - boneless cubes from the leg of lamb seasoned with chilli powder and royal cumin, marinated in a mixture of yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste and malt vinegar, skewered and chargrilled in the earthen oven. Naina relishes the Sikandari raan, which the chef explains is the whole leg of spring lamb, marinated in a mixture of malt vinegar, cinnamon and black cumin, braised in the marinade, skewered, and finished in the tandoor. She is also offered seekh kabab and dal Bukhara. Savouring tandoori naan khasta with malai kofta, tandoori jhinga and vegetarian platter with paneer tikkashe exclaims, "Mmmm, that's dreamy!"

She shares another dream, one that came true twice over: A wildlife resort she always wanted to possess. And now she possesses two, both around Naini Tal, where she contested against N.D. Tiwari long ago. These are Cedar Lodge at Ramgarh, located at 6500 feet overlooking the Himalaya peaks, and Corbett Riverside Resort, which is a kilometre from river Kosi and flanked by cliffs and forests.

Naina is a chef's delight, sporting as she is to try new tastes. She would not say `no' to food, and is ever ready to taste "something new". A glass of masala-lassi for good digestion is what she tries last. "Look, how much weight I have gained. It's only because of my being a great foodie," she says, recalling that during her preparation for Miss India, she had to be very careful about her diet and routine. "Fresh juices, light food are what we had to eat those days." And entered the contest "just like that". Those were the days before colour TV. "My folks at home gathered to see me on black and white television," she chuckles. She is now a jewellery designer, using Moghul patterns. These days one might also see her at some cosmetics shop, on a buying spree for her new venture, a beauty parlour.

"I just can't sit at home doing nothing. There is a lot to do in this world and we have only one life," she exclaims.



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