Executive chef of the ITC luxury hotel chain, Manjit Gill, with over three decades of culinary experience, is regarded as one of the most outstanding chefs in India. A Punjabi Sikh, his cooking is based on the tandoori cuisine of the North West frontier and Bukhara, which opened back in 1977, is consistently rated as one of the best restaurants, not just in the country, but in the world. In New Delhi it has been home to such guests as the Clintons, Vladamir Putin and Schwarzenegger but now, for the first time ever, the Bukhara concept has left the Indian capital and has been operating as a hugely popular pop-up in the Sheraton Hotel in Knightsbridge. Showcasing Manjit’s incredibly precise and refined take on Northern Indian street food, it is elevated it to something truly special. Here, he talks about what Indian food means to him and where he gets his inspiration from.
EM: The thing that struck me most at the demonstration was how much precision goes into the cooking at Bukhara. Is this something which sets you apart, or is it concept which is well understood on the Subcontinent?
MSG: Our cuisine is well defined in the Indian Gastronomy manuscripts, on many cultural and historical books and of course is well defined in Ayurveda. The concepts are very clear, for the Chefs it needs to be based on the books of wisdom (Vedas ) and they must understand the philosophy and practice in their kitchens. We understand the concept of Six Tastes and follow the same in our food preparations. The balancing of the tastes is an art. The theory of Six Tastes makes us different from other cuisine. The cuisine evolved on the philosophy of Wellness & Longevity.
EM: Following on, you’ve been credited with revolutionising Indian street food and elevating it to something befitting fine dining. Is this a fair reflection of your philosophy?
MG: The street food of India is diverse and has huge variety. Historically our eating out is mainly street food. We package the street foods, which are simple and straightforward with added value. There is no compromise on the basic taste.
EM: The menu hasn’t changed for 30 years! Have you ever been tempted to modernise or do you think that you shouldn’t change perfection?
MG: It is true, that the menu has never changed since opening. We believe that menu change is always as a result of feedback from diners. We have never had a guest comment on menu fatigue. People love the basic and tasty food. We believe in tradition and rituals and there is no need to change for the sake of modernisation.
EM: As well as studying in India, you’ve also studied in the US. How has this impacted on your cooking?
MG: By my studying in the US and attending various courses , seminars, workshops and congresses in other parts of the world, I’ve enhanced my knowledge, understanding of the culture and the people which has made me think deeper than just cooking.
EM: How much of your cooking is based on inspiration from the dishes you grew up with?
MG: In India lots of knowledge is shared by the elders on food and its values, seasonality and the emphasis on taste. This happens as routine, structurally or unstructurally. Even today we come across many experiences of food in the kitchens which we can relate to. This is always an inspiration and motivation to work.
EM: For those of us in this country who are predominantly used to a British interpretation of Bangladeshi cuisine, how much regionality actually exists in India?
MG: Food in India is very diverse.The regional cuisine is based on local flora and fauna, and on climate. All the regional food of India unifies with Gastronomic philosophy. Cuisine of Bangladesh is also part of the regional cuisine of the Indian sub-continent. It would be better if Bangladeshi restaurants presented their regional cuisine, which is delicious, instead of serving Pan Indian food, which has created the wrong image and perception.
EM: What has been your opinion on Indian cooking in this country?
MG: I have pride in all the chefs, and all others who are involved in cooking and serving Indian cuisine. I am happy they at least have brought the awareness about the flavours of spices. No doubt that some of the professional chefs from India have tried to give the flavours and taste closer to the reality of Indian cuisine. Before even locals understood the cuisine in ethnic form, the change started taking place; so called modernisation and presentaion. The taste and the flavours are the big compromise. The food should not be changed for the sake of creativity and presentation, which a diner cannot relate to.
EM: Apart from Bukhara, you also have Dum Pukht, Dakshin and Kebabs & Kurries. What is the ethos behind these?
MG: The objective and philosophy of ITC Hotels is to discover and fully research the food of various regions. We are the only hotel chain who runs branded cuisine restaurants. It’s not easy and needs a big commitment from each member of the organisation. We have Dum Pukht – grand cuisine of India inspired by the Awadh region, and perfected. The menu has a variety of gravy dishes, high quality rice preparation, and kebabs from the griddle. Dakshin is cuisine from the four states of Southern India – Tamil Nadu, Andhra Paedesh, Kerala and Karnataka. At Kebabs & Kurries the menu is based on the various methods of food preparations such as kebabs from Tandoori/Tawa/open charcoal grilling, and gravies such as Qorma/Qaliya/Do Piaza/Salan/rice and breads. We have other new concepts to create other brands in the pipeline.
EM: What do you think makes Indian food so special?
MG: Our cuisine evolved thousands of years back based on the philosophy of wellness and longevity. Our cuisine is deeply grounded with five elements, five senses, three humors, three strands, six savours and nine feelings. A right balance is the key ingredients of wholesome and freshly cooked food. A great deal of thought is invested in our scriptures, on how food and life are interlinked with each other. There are four essentials of cooking as per Vedic knowledge, which are: 1. The knowledge and understanding of the ingredients. 2. One must involve and participate in cooking. 3. The mind must be present in cooking, it needs high level of concentration 4. One must have good thoughts in mind while cooking. Food has this unique quality of absorbing from its surroundings. This gastronomic knowledge make us special.
EM: How do you see Indian cuisine developing in the future? Are you worried that Western influences could encroach upon culinary traditions?
MG: Indian cuisine in the future is going to be more original and traditional. Many people in various disciplines are working and discovering the goodness of Indian cuisine. Interest is increasing to understand the depth of Indian gastronomy. So, no, I am not worried at all that the Western gastronomy will influence the Indian Cuisine. I strongly believe that the knowledge of Indian Gastronomy is going to influence the many cuisines of the Western world. Indian cuisine evolved thousands of years back with the philosophy and contributed knowledge by the Saints, Medical practitioners (Vaid, Hakims) and Chefs. Trends keep coming as fashion, but traditions live on forever. One always has the memory of tradtions and not the fashion, and food lives in the memory.