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The debate around maintaining the traditional style and form of a dish, pitted against the idea of ‘reinventing’ it with a modern, faux-Western philosophy is a battle that is mostly as pervasive as the perennial Delhi-Mumbai supremacy argument. Naturally, in such cases, there is no real right answer — in many cases, trying what is supposed to be a legendary dish at an iconic outlet can be downright disappointing. In others, a forcibly modernised take on a dish feels needless — something that many restaurants over the past few years have failed at horribly. Hint: dal-chawal in cutting chai glasses?

At the other end of things, though, some of India’s best chefs are creating incredible takes on our all-time favourites — a trend that is being increasingly spotted across many Delhi restaurants. In May this year, Delhi-native chef Tarun Sibal, who shot to fame with his Goa venture ‘Titlie’, opened doors to ‘Khikhi’ in Delhi’s Basant Lok. Naturally, Sibal helming the kitchen brings forth an anticipation of a theatrical yet sober, sensitive take on the traditions and nuances of classic Indian dishes.

Khikhi, happily enough, does not disappoint. The flagbearer of Sibal’s successful rendition of an omnipresent classic is Khikhi’s onion-anardana kulcha, smeared with zaatar-sumac butter. The innovation here is subtle—the magic lies in the humble Middle Eastern butter, which, interestingly enough, does not dilute the unadulterated joy of the grounded flavours of Punjab’s kulcha.

The entire menu at Khikhi is smeared with such subtle gems — take the chicken floss makhani, for instance, which is inspired by Delhi’s everyday favourite, the ubiquitous butter chicken. Sibal even picked up Jammu’s favourite cheese, kaladi, and paired it with a cheesy olive bread — a homage to Jammu’s kaladi kulcha.

But, here’s where Delhi comes into its own — standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a fine dining joints such as Khikhi are some of the city’s indomitable kulcha joints. Even today, you would be hard-pressed to find more soulful kulchas in the city than at the iconic Kulcha Junction — behind Purani Dilli’s Sis Ganj gurdwara. Towards South Delhi, Nauroji Nagar’s Kulcha King is another equally legendary place to savour the humble kulcha — pillowy, buttery, yet pliant.

It is, however, no surprise that Delhi has sustained its classics in a market of modern makeovers. Beyond the economic importance of these outlets, what’s important to note is that each of the old outlets today retains the soul of the food that they serve — and serves them with aplomb and consistency.

Perhaps this is what lends soul to the city’s food landscape, where diners all across the smorgasbord of economic segments offer chefs and small, by-the-road eateries alike the same goal — that of producing soulful renditions of dishes. As you go up the pricing ladder, there is obvious room for more creative renditions of our favourite dishes — the likes of Sibal are addressing this with their modernisation efforts of Indian cuisine.

I had such a taste a couple of years ago, too, away from Delhi — in ITC Grand Chola’s heavily-awarded restaurant, Avartana. While many items would stand out in Avartana’s tightly curated menu of reinvented Indian classics, the one that hits the home run is the rusty rasam — a traditional South-Indian soup served Martini-style. This distilled rasam is almost unbelievably light — showcasing part-wizard and part-chef Ajit Bangera’s skill and experience.

Back in Delhi, chef Vineet Bhatia opened doors to his new venture, Dhilli, nestled inside The Oberoi. Bhatia’s venture is his love letter to the city — which in itself can be called the bellwether for everything culinary in northern India. For instance, Bhatia picks up the classic dahi vadas like the ones you’d eat at Nataraj in Chandni Chowk and turns it into Chatak chenna chaat. The latter features yoghurt parfait, dahi bhalla ice cream, a sprinkle of boondi sev, and pomegranate bark.

A very similar offering also comes in the form of a ‘dehydrated’ construction of the dahi bhalla at Varq, yet another iconic Indian fine dining destination in The Taj Mahal, New Delhi. With a steadily rising repertoire of such instances and examples, it is clear that Delhi’s food landscape has matured in its attempt to modernise Indian food. No longer do the experiments feel forced, and the nuanced, deft touches of some of India’s top chefs only elevate the ever-present classic food joints that have defined some of our everyday favourites over decades.

Be it a purist, or an adventurist, it’s unlikely that you’d dislike either — and that is where every party comes out as a winner.

Vernika Awal
is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog ‘Delectable Reveries’ 

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