Exploring North Indian cuisine beyond the butter chicken and dal makhani, with Pankaj Gupta

Journey with us as we unravel the nuances and diverse influences that shape the landscape of North Indian gastronomy

Update: 2024-04-30 05:05 GMT

For many, including a significant portion of Indian citizens, there's a prevailing misconception that North Indian cuisine revolves solely around the familiar and luscious flavours of Punjabi fare. However, the reality is far more nuanced and expansive. From the snow-capped peaks of Kashmir to the fertile plains of Uttar Pradesh and the vibrant streets of Haryana, North Indian cuisine encompasses a rich tapestry of flavours, ingredients, and culinary traditions, waiting to be explored.

In an attempt to understand the subtle and glaring differences of what constitutes North Indian cuisine we sat down with Pankaj Gupta, the visionary founder behind Oye Kake, Taftoon, and Cirqa. Beyond the glitz of commercialised favourites like chicken tikka and butter chicken, Pankaj Gupta delves into the lesser-known regional delicacies that form the backbone of North Indian gastronomy and offers the residents of Mumbai an opportunity to come and explore the variety of North Indian fare. Join us as we explore the untold stories and hidden gems of this vibrant culinary landscape, celebrating the authenticity and diversity of North Indian cuisine.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

1. What were some criteria you had in mind to ensure that Oye Kake and Taftoon stand out from other restaurants, given the competitive food scene?
So when we talk about standing out in the restaurant scene, especially with places like Oye Kake and Taftoon, we're diving deep into the heart of North Indian cuisine. What sets us apart is that we're offering our diners the real deal—the kind of food you'd find in North Indian homes. When I look at North Indian cuisine in the hospitality sector there is a clear divide between your commercial dishes like your butter chicken and chicken tikka masala and your authentic north Indian food that is prepared on a daily basis in North Indian homes. But with Oye Kake and Taftoon, we're flipping the script. Around 75% of what we serve is straight-up regional food, made just like it would be at home. We're keeping it real with minimal butter and slow cooking techniques. Another thing that makes us stand out is Oye Kake being a vegetarian joint. People often asked me how I could call Oye Kake an authentic Punjabi joint without featuring any meat dishes. But when I asked them to name five vegetarian and non-vegetarian Punjabi dishes each, they realised it was easier to list out vegetarian dishes. Breaking the myth that Punjabi food is all about the meat was a big part of our game. Plus, with Taftoon, we're not just focusing on just Punjab. North India is a lot more than that - there's UP, Delhi, Haryana, Kashmir, you name it. So, Taftoon is all about celebrating the entire northern belt of cuisine, all in one spot.

2. What challenges did you encounter while introducing lesser-known North Indian dishes to diners more familiar with mainstream Punjabi cuisine, and how did you handle them?
Oh boy, let me tell you, pleasing Indian diners is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome. Indians know what they want, and they're not shy about asking for it. So, imagine trying to shake things up at a North Indian restaurant. You've got families walking in, already dreaming of their usual buttery naans and creamy gravies. Now, you throw them a curveball like "how about some pir dhuan gosht instead of the usual rogan josh?" and suddenly, you're met with raised eyebrows and skeptical glances. So to this challenge we came up with an even better solution: storytelling. We've trained our servers to spin tales about every dish on the menu, so that the diner is acquainted with the dish before they order it and they also learn a little something about the North Indian cuisine. Plus, our menu reads like a storybook, complete with tales of culinary explorations. Still, some folks just want what they know, and that's okay. We'll happily serve up their old favourites. But approaching a diner and convincing them to try a dish they have never tasted or even heard of before shows that we are confident about what we bring to the table.

3. As someone deeply rooted in the F&B world, what do you think sets North Indian cuisine apart from other regional cuisines in India?
One thing that really sets North Indian cuisine apart is the bread, or rather the variety of it. Thanks to the Persians, Mughals, Turks and even the English, breads become a staple in the North. Meanwhile, if you head down South or East, their cuisine is very dependent on rice. Secondly, there's also the barbecue scene, or rather what they call the tandoor. Sure, the spices are more or less the same across the country, but it's the bread and barbecue that really give North Indian cuisine its unique flavour.

4. How do you engage with your diners to educate them about the diverse flavours and traditions of the Northern region?
To engage and educate our diners about what really entails North Indian cuisine, we've got this cool system where our servers are taught and given a great deal of food knowledge, which they can go and weave into a story to intrigue our customers. See, I have a liking for food history, so I'm always diving into the backstory of dishes. Then, I pass on all that information to my managers, who in turn pass it along to our servers. So when you sit down to eat at Taftoon, it's not just about ordering food—it's like flipping through a storybook. Our menu is packed with tales about where each dish comes from, why it's special, all that good and valuable information. And we know nobody likes a lecture, especially when all they want to do is enjoy a good hearty meal, so we keep it short, sweet, and to the point.

5. How do you stay innovative and adapt to changing consumer preferences in the ever-evolving food industry?
Staying ahead of the curve in the food business is tricky but essential. Customer tastes are always changing. So we're constantly tuning in to what our guests want. At Taftoon, for example, we're all about keeping it fresh with seasonal menus. Every time you step through our doors, there's a new surprise waiting for you. 'Cause let's face it, even the best restaurants can fade away if they're stuck in a rut. And India's got beautiful seasons and produce, so we make the most of it. When monsoon hits, we're frying up crispy treats and serving up chaats. Winter season is time for kebab festivals and so on. Plus, we love getting our customers in on the action with workshops. It's not just about serving food—it's about creating an experience. And when you nail that, you're always the talk of the town.

6. Can you share any upcoming trends or developments you're excited about, when it comes to the ever-changing food scenario of Mumbai?
You know, I believe Oye Kake and Taftoon will just keep doing their thing, but they will get more progressive and adaptive to keep up with changing times. But let's talk about the big picture here. There's this whole vegetarian revolution brewing, and I'm pumped to see where it takes us. India is home to so many incredible vegetarian ingredients and the western world is actually going gaga over concepts, all centred around ingredients like lentils and pulses that haven't even been explored to their full potential yet. And then there's this whole cross-cuisine trend that is taking the world by storm. Not your usual fusion of flavours, but think more in terms of Moroccan meets Iranian or Lebanese flavours mingling with North Indian spices. We are also going back to a time where we appreciate smaller eateries, where the customers tend to be the centre of attention at all times. It's all about those smaller, focused joints where you're not just another face in the crowd. And I definitely look forward to how these trends will shape the hospitality industry in our country.

7. Are there any new projects or concepts on the horizon that you're particularly excited about?
Alright, let me spill the tea on CIRQA, which has already been welcoming the crowds of Mumbai for the past six months. It’s a tribute to Bombay's crazy mishmash of cultures and flavours, and I guarantee you you'll find some really unique and mind-blowing dishes on the menu here. It's all about taking Bombay's signature spin on everything and turning it into deliciousness. CIRQA is a two-level concept, where on the first level you have the restaurant and on the second level you have a speakeasy bar, which we call c. 1960. And don't even get me started on our cocktails—think old-school vibes with a modern twist. It's all about redefining the cocktail game in India, paying homage to Bombay's glory days back in 1960.

And as long as we are talking about future plans, let me give you another heads up regarding a project that we have in the pipeline. We've got some big plans regarding a modern Irani joint and a South Indian cocktail bar.


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