Saturday, January 7, 2017

Savour The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali

I have always associated Osama Jalali with stellar non- vegetarian fare. He has certainly carved out a niche for himself for restoring and offering cuisines of Purani Dilli or the Mughal era or Shahjehanabad. A seasoned food writer , researcher, historian turned chef who  has reviewed more than 2000 restaurants was born and brought up in the by-lanes of Purani Dilli but his parental roots belong to a princely estate in Uttar Pradesh called Rampur, famous for its unique Rampuri cuisine. 

He has worked extensively on dying recipes. Another thing I absolutely admire and like about Osama Jalali is the way he gives very lavish and justifiable credit to the two important women in his life and career, his mother Ms. Nazish Jalali & wife Ms. Nazia Khan. I feel a truly modern and evolved man would do that and this facet of him really puts him up there in my eyes. Jalali’s travel as a family and the trio are known to specialize is curating regional food festivals across the globe.

Osama’s fascination for food was sparked at a very young age when he would watch his mother cook meals in huge  deghs for feasts organized at their home. His curiosity was rewarded with secret techniques used by the royal khansamas of Delhi and Rampur which further broadened his culinary vocabulary. Jalalis have cooked for various state heads and have been featured on numerous food shows on television. 

A Chaat Sundae anyone? Tower Chaat
Now that is the reason when I heard about The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali, I was a bit unsure of what to expect. But that is the mark of a genius chef. He can take any ingredient and make it his own. He can coax out those flavours and tastes, no matter what the challenge. Yet eating out for me pretty much means ordering non veg as I prefer home cooked vegetarian fare. However having traveled all over India, I have been acquainted with most regional foods and have a palate which is quite open to new experiences. 

India has such a vast and extensive history of vegetarianism, while the world is waking up to it now. I feel vegetarian food will be really big in future. One proof of that is that these days-I have recently become active on Instagram- and the moment I put up a vegetarian or vegan dish, within seconds there are a number of likes from fitness enthusiasts all over the world, many of whose profiles I am quite surprised by. So once again kudos to Osama for anticipating this trend and working on it. An integral part of Indian culture, 'street food' constitutes to approx. 45% of Indian food market share (ref. SMART advisors) and has a great appeal amongst people from all walks of life due to it’s ‘authentic’ vibe.

The moment you enter The Masala Trail, the huge size of the place hits you. It is quite a spacious restaurant with a high ceiling and seating on two levels with a very distinct feel in each section. The decor is quirky and fun, celebrating the ennui and energy of small town India with motifs of autorickshaws, thelewala, scooters and elephants. There is the almost nostalgic Keventers counter right inside which awakens the child in every Delhiite.
Pani puri

The table appointments were also rather rustic and I simply loved the brass glasses and rough and tough flatware, right from bronze thalis and wooden containers. We started with the quintessential Indian street food, pani puri, and the restaurant had me at the first bite. I haven't tasted such exquisite pani puri for a long long time. One may say what's the big deal but it was the best I have had for long, with perfect seasoning and presentation. 

Kanpuria Gadbad Chaat
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Next we tried an assortment of chaats such as Kanpuri Gadbad Chaat, Benarsi Tamatar ki Chaat and Tower Chaat. Each one of them was unique and so different. To be honest, living in Delhi I have been bored of the usual chaats for a while but these were all worth trying. Osama has really taken pains to bring you tastes from the very bylanes of interior India, the galis and mohallas right under one roof.

Madua ki Roti with Chokha and Chutney
Chalukya Dosa

Sarson Ka Saag and Makki ki Roti
Moving on to the main course, the menu is pretty extensive and I personally feel one visit cannot do justice to the stellar names that pop across. It is like a culinary Bharat Darshan. North and East and South and West of India is celebrated, courted and presented with utmost authenticity and honesty, staying true the cultural grain of our country. Each region is further divided into a Nashta or appetiser section and Khana or mains section. For mains we start with 'Madua Ki Roti and Chokha Chutney' from Bihar. The fluffy ragi puris are so fulfilling because of their earthy coarseness and the chokha and chutney compliment it perfectly with a strong mustard oil pungency.
Idiappam with Vegetable Stew
Amritsari Kulche Chhole

Then there was Makki ki Roti and Sarson ka Saag served with Gud and Butter. Being a punjabi, I have it at home often enough but this one passed the litmus test yet again. To get a fair taste of south, we tried the Chalukya Dosa and Idiappam with Stew which are heavenly. From West we tried the delicate Panki, a steamed rice flour preparation cooked in banana leaf. There was an extensive East section too that features the unique Chinese migrant cuisine of Kolkata besides the Bengali dishes, but that is for another day. You are really spoilt for choices here. We downed it all with the yum Keventers milk shakes. There are lovely sherbets and lassis and many unheard of drinks on offer if you are feeling more experimental, such as Jigar Thanda, Neer Mor and Bihari Namkeen Sattu or Kolkata Rose Sharbat.
Keventers Thick Shakes in Tutty Fruity and Chocolate

However dessert beaconed and going with the smorgasbord of tastes, we had to sample something. While Phirnee and Mung Dal Halwa were predictably what they should be, what really floored me was the Haji Ali Fruit Cream. Such a gem of a dish that conjures memories of your first visit to Mumbai when a trip to Haji Ali was essential. This is the real deal, creamy, flavourful, melt in the mouth and fruity and maybe a tad bit sinful but oh so satiating. 

In love with Haji Ali Fruit Cream!
This is one of those places where to say in Hindi style, your stomach is full but not your 'neeyat' or gluttony. One had to step out and go but I am sure I will be back soon, ideally doing justice to one region per visit and celebrating the diverse palate and taste of India, curated Osama Jalali style!