The Spice Route to the heart
Krishen Khanna enjoys a few delicious moments at The Imperial's restaurant The Spice Route in New Delhi. Photo: S. Arneja.
EVEN THE entrance is sumptuous. We enter through four temple pillars dating back to the 16th Century that lead into the larger seating area. Krishen and Renu Khanna and I had in the past, over the writing of a biography, shared several meals together. Usually the meal would be a light pasta with salad and chicken, or else, the dependable and delicious tastes of Punjabi cooking from the Khanna household kitchen at their home in Gurgaon. Or more commonly tikkas and canapes, eaten quickly over animated exchanges at openings at Delhi's art galleries - Krishen is a generous and easy mentor, one who guides rather than directs one's views into the labyrinths of Indian modernism, peppering history with anecdotes, all drawn from his aid and keen memory.
The Spice Route however, is an entirely different experience. Heady, sensory and, surprisingly, since we are in the Imperial Hotel, in the heart of commercial Delhi, restful. As we are seated, Rajeev Sethi's sensuous appreciation of space reveals itself in fragments, before settling into a pervasive whole. Spice Route took seven years in the making, from design to execution, and it is rated as one of the top 10 restaurants of its kind by Conde Nast. Certainly the overriding sensation within the restaurant is one of containment and colour. The primary impression is one of being awash with the saturated colours of the waters of coastal nations and cuisines. Jade green, the colours of the waters of the Indian Ocean, the rich green sap of coconut water and the pungent greens of basil and lime. Spice Route draws its cuisine from the ancient trade links between South and South-East Asia, from the Malabar coast through Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam.
The menu reflects the ease with which one can make these culinary combinations. When we order it is a blend of the pungent and the bland spices of this region. Krishen and Renu both choose the Tom Kha Kai, a spicy chicken and coconut milk soup, flavoured with lemon grass and galangel. In this age of a global cuisine, galangel is one of the few flavours that remains true and authentic to its own region. I settle for the more bland Vietnamese Pho Ga, a clear chicken soup with noodles delicate and herby, probably the staple of a farming community that could rely on the basics of meat and cereal, cooked in a soup cauldron. With our soup, we have for starters a sate Bali, chicken with a delicious peanut sauce, and a platter of sea food based starters.
For the main course Renu opts for a spicy rice with shrimps, not unlike a South-East Asian biryani, Krishen chooses a pomfret with herbs in a sauce. Both Krishen and Renu are light eaters and easy conversationalists. As we share our dishes the conversation spins around easily, from Krishen's last meeting with Husain, the varied interpretations of modernism that the Progressives have engaged in, to food allergies, herbs and the delicacy of the cuisine on hand. I suspect that from the very basic Pho Ga to the more sophisticated pomfret, we traverse so much of the culinary history of South and East Asia.
Chef Veena Arora's menu has a smooth and rich combination of textures and tastes. There is of course in South Asian and South-East Asian cuisines the movement from the hunter gatherer and the farming community to sophisticated courtly fare, as developed in the royal kitchens of Kerala, Thailand and Cambodia. Processes like steaming, sophistication in the development of utensils, and great attention to flavour enhances the sensuous appreciation of the food. Common to these cuisines is the substitution of the yogurt of the north with coconut milk and the use of basil and mint. Also important in this region is the way the herbs are chopped and added and the wonderful combinations of chilli, galangal, lemon and tamarind, that lend their pungent flavours.
The restaurant with its profusion of decorative detail marks the aestheticisation of cuisine, as much as the understanding of the Hindu belief in the three gunas, satvic, rajasic and tamasic and the objects of pursuit of life - of dharma, arth, kama and moksha. These principles are reflected in the Kerala mural painting tradition that vivifies the walls. Painted by a traditional painter from Guruvayur where the murals demonstrate the Krishna legends in luminous vegetal colours, these panels illustrate metamorphic images from the Kamasutra. The pursuit of moksha as salvation is painted on the ceiling and its heavy wooden beams. The association of food and nourishment with the perennial pursuit of fortune and wealth is depicted in replicas of scenes from various Thai temples.
The restaurant leads naturally into a lovely open courtyard with images in prayerful postures in relief from Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. In this combination of elements, the view of food as sacred is gently demonstrated. The Spice Route from the Malabar Coast to the Far East is complete.
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