More than just an appetising welcome

Muzaffar Ali admiring the chef cook an appam on the Iyer's Trolly at Dakshin restaurant. Photo: S. Subramanium.  

MUZAFFAR ALI, a painter, film-maker, music composer, a person involved in Sufi thought, music and ideas, sums up his varied activities as not many aspects but one aspect, because he is a person who "feels things". People see themselves in him, he says and he sees himself in them, and his effort is to be as transparent as possible. This ability to reflect and be reflected brings us to the ancient concept of the `paatra' in Indian arts, where the Sanskrit word for performer is the same as for vessel or receptacle, and the artiste is a repository for the many rasas of life.

But here at Dakshin, Marriott WelcomHotel's restaurant featuring cuisine from South India, Muzaffar Ali and his designer wife Meera are about to savour rasas of a different kind, and the `paatras' are all laid out - gleaming silver - on the table, where Dakshin's smiling staff have prepared a luncheon experience redolent with the swaying palms and sea breezes of India's southern states - Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Every Delhiite would know about iddli and dosai, explains Manojit, attired in an immaculate cream dhoti with buttoned-up coat and angavastram, but aspect like Hyderabadi, Chettinad, Kerala and Karnataka cuisines are less familiar territory. Dakshin has tried to create a temple ambience, starting with a menu whose cover is made of carved wood that opens up like the double doors of a shrine. Artefacts like temple jewellery, oil lamps and other auspicious emblems enhance the d�cor.

Muzaffar Ali and Meera are no strangers to Dakshin. When it opened they were among the first to test it out, recalls Meera. And more recently, when they organised the Jahan-e-Khusro festival, Marriott WelcomHotel was one of the sponsors, putting up the out-of-town artistes.

But some of the details dished out by Manojit and his colleagues as they dish out specialty after specialty are new even to them. The plates lined with banana leaves are a reminder of traditional feasts in the South, where this disposable `crockery' is in ever-ready supply. Two little spoons are provided, but the idea is for people to enjoy the food with their hands, and to ensure hygiene, wet towels are provided before the service.

Dakshin has certainly pulled out all the stops. For starters there are drinks like rasam, Vasantha Neer (tender coconut water), and buttermilk -- Neer More - tempered with cumin, curry leaves, etc., a healthy lifeline as Delhi braces for the summer. There are appalams and other fried crisps to go with them and an array of chutneys, achars like mango pickle and gongura.

There is a choice of appetisers from the intriguingly named Iyer's trolley, a moveable stove set-up started by Chef Iyer who has since returned to Chennai, where mini banana dosai (rice flour with banana in the batter), mini uthapam and appam are made in front of the guests' eyes. In the main course are prawns, Kozhi Melagu Curry (chicken), the special lentil dish, Dal Dakshin in which arhar dal and tomato are present in equal measure, and appam with vegetable stew. Malabari parotha and steamed rice are also available. With so much and such scientific eating going on, the talk centres on India's artistry that extends into its detailed and varied culinary systems.

For dessert there is a choice of Vattalapam (caramel custard with jaggery), basundi (rabri), badam halwa and coconut payasam. These are all authentic dishes and Dakshin does not take credit for creating them, but only for serving them with style. When the quarter plates covered with perfectly circular banana leaves appear for dessert, Muzzaffar Ali can't resist the question: "Do you have a machine to cut these?" - but these are not produced in-house, he is informed.

Filter coffee is served, and the artistic duo drink it like Iyer veterans, making authentic use of the tumbler and accompanying dabra. Fragrant paan, and the meal is over.

Muzzafar Ali who recently made a short film, "India the Garden of Saints" has many projects up his sleeve including a new film on the poet Rumi. It is relevant as tolerance and peace loving people have to be highlighted in these times, he says. Though the script, musical treatment and the financing aspects will probably take a year, it is okay to disclose this, as "films are always dreams". But dreams are of many kinds. Some come in the warm afternoon sleep that follows a delicious meal, and Muzaffar Ali and Meera promise to do just that.