Why did I think that Khan Chacha’s was better than Dum Pukht
Dum Pukht, Maurya Sheraton is one of Delhi’s finest. Khan Chacha’s at Khan Market is a tiny shop where you queue up and eat out of a paper plate. Dinner for one at Dum Pukht is easy $150. And a meal at Khan Chacha’s is $1.50. The only thing common to them is their reputation for exceptional kababs. So, of course, I had to try both.
Kababs hardly need any explanation. Staple of middle eastern cuisine, typically tender cuts of meats like lamb or beef are marinated, sometimes minced and then grilled in tandoor ovens. An excellent kabab should melt in your mouth, without feeling greasy, with a perfect poise between the meat and spice flavors. Not enough spice or too much spice, not enough fat or too much fat can damage the kabab irreparably.
We had booked an evening at Dum Pukht to celebrate a close friend’s birthday. Style of dum pukht cooking is slow oven cooking of meats, in sealed clay containers for eight to twelve hours. It is the slow and low temperature cooking that imparts the succulence. The spices used, like cinnamon, saffron, cardamom etc., are common to other regional Indian/Persian cooking. But by sealing the container, the volatile flavor components are sealed in, thus making the food scrumptiously flavorful.
I remember it as a beautiful summer night. We made some effort to look appropriately dressed for a fancy restaurant. At night, Maurya looks all gold and glittery. We walked through, what seemed like endless plush corridors, past the busy Bukhara, Bill Clinton’s favorite in Delhi, and arrived at Dum Pukht. It was practically empty. We started the evening with Glenlivet on the rocks. I was with close friends, looking forward to be fed by one of India’s finest chefs. It should have felt great. But, it had felt wrong. Although, the service staff looked smart in their starched Nawabi uniforms and turbans, too much attention from them was making me nervous. I almost wished I was at Bukhara instead which had looked equally interesting and had a lower waitstaff to customer ratio.
We ordered several dishes with focus on their kababs. In the end, waiting for the food had turned out to be far more exciting than the food itself. After my first bite of the kakori kabab, my disappointment had known no bounds. It did melt in my mouth but the drizzle of saffron had overwhelmed the flavor of the meat. Everything had turned out well but nothing was exceptional. I could taste saffron for the rest of the evening, in every dish – probably chef’s favorite. Sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad. Note to self – “Death by Chocolate” – good; “Death by Saffron” – bad. I guess at the back of my mind, if I was expecting to pay Thomas Keller or Alice Waters price tab, I was also demanding similar quality.
The trip to Khan Market had followed a few weeks later. Early rainstorms had cooled the summer afternoon. After meandering through the neighborhood, staring at Kushwant Singh’s bunglow, sifting through roadside shops, we eventually ended up at Khan Chacha’s. Chacha means uncle, specifically, father’s younger brother. It was drizzling still. We ordered a plateful of kababs. They were cooked a few feet from us giving off the intense aroma of spices and searing meat. They had turned out great – perfect doneness, beautifully charred, and fervently umami. And what spice balance! All I am sure of is this – it had less than 100 hundred spices and more than 10. Perfection such as this takes generations – probably, handed down from one chacha to his son and so on. Maybe the smell of earth in the rain laden air had combined with the savory flavors of roasting spices and meat to create a magical moment. Huddled under the thin plastic shade, wet from the rain, these kababs had tasted divine.
Some people claim that Khan market is named after Khan Chacha. It should be, if it is not. That is how good it is. If you are a vegetarian and decide to have one non-vegetarian meal in your life time, please make it a plateful of kababs at Khan Chacha’s. Tony, if you are out there somewhere taking notes, please write this down and don’t lose it.
Note to Self: Don’t be so out of touch with Delhi’s food scene.