Chef Talk: How Gurpreet Singh brought his grandma's pickles to Punjab Grill
“Food is memories.” If you have watched the Om Puri and Helen Mirren-starrer film, The Foot Journey, you will know what we mean. For those of you who haven’t, here's a little story for you to understand the context.
As a small boy, Gurpreet Singh enjoyed eating pickles prepared by his grandmother. Looking back, a jar of pickles was not just about fruit or vegetable preserves coated with spice mixes. His love for the Indian achaar got him to reinvent the same in his kitchen at Punjab Grill. The fine dining chain of Punjabi restaurants located across the country, as well as in Singapore, believes in making its own pickles, marinades and spice mixes, all thanks to Chef Gurmeet’s vivid food memories from his childhood.
In a conversation with the Brand Chef of Punjab Grill, we discover his love for experimenting with recipes, and why Indian food still has a long way to go.
When and how did your journey with Punjab Grill start?
It’s been close to five years now that I joined Punjab Grill as the Corporate Chef. The brand was expanding during that time with plans to open outlets in Singapore, Bangalore and Mumbai. I was hired to take the brand to places. The journey has been fulfilling and filled with loads of excitement.
Punjabi food is all about heirloom recipes and traditional cooking techniques. What is the biggest challenge when you give it a contemporary twist?
The biggest challenge would be not compromising the taste over looks! Indian food is robust and full of flavours, and toning it down for a contemporary look is the easiest goof-up to make.
Most of us grow up with distinct food memories from our childhood. Do you have any memory that has stayed with you and maybe inspires you in the kitchen?
Lots. I grew up in a joint family and relished pickles and preserves made by my grandma. In fact, many Indian restaurants have been practicing commercial cooking inspired by rustic, country-style cooking. At Punjab Grill, we have started making our own pickles, marinades and spice mixes.
Did you always want to become a chef?
Not really. I was not born to become a chef, though I liked experimenting with food. I always wanted to do something creative and out of the ordinary. After completing my course in hotel management, I kept an open mind and ended up pursuing a profession that has now become my passion.
Many restaurants today are calling themselves 'modern Indian' and using molecular gastronomy as a technique or concept to present food. How do you differentiate the food served at Punjab Grill from the rest?
I am happy doing a ‘Chakhna menu’ rather than doing ‘Indian tapas’. There's so much about Indian cuisine that is yet to be explored before blindly replicating the West.
Most Indian fine dining restaurants serve either Punjabi or a mix of South Indian cuisine. Why is rest of India so under-represented?
Both these regions have diversity and a distinct style of cooking. Also, the menu mix is large and widely acceptable. Dishes such as grilled meats and fresh breads from the tandoor have always been a guaranteed hit. But that said, people now are ready to experiment other kinds of regional food, and one can find Parsi, Kashmiri restaurants doing very well.
How easy or difficult it is to set shop in foreign shores for a cuisine that is deeply rooted in tradition?
To be honest, it’s not that difficult if your food is good. In the global market, people are open to experimentation and trying out cuisines from around the world. People abroad have shown us great amount of love and accepted our food and services in every part of the world where we exist.
Being a chef also means to be an all-rounder in the kitchen. How does an ideal day look like?
Busy. There is a lot of action from organising the kitchen to meeting guests. It’s pretty exciting.
Menu creation forms an integral part in running a restaurant. How do you go about performing the same?
I love doing seasonal menus. It starts from going to the vegetable market, talking to meat vendors, sourcing the ingredients, experimenting, detailing and finally serving it on the plate.
According to you, what will be the biggest highlights or trends in Indian food and dining in 2015?
Eating fresh and healthy food.
What are your favourite Indian restaurants in India and abroad and why?
Gaggan of course! They have the best Margaritas and their cocktails have a personalised touch. I also have some nice memories at Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent. Their dishes are modern, and yet packed with loads of flavours.
How do you spend your time when you are not thinking and cooking food?
I love to grow fresh herbs in my kitchen garden. I also enjoy going on biking trips.
Recipe for Mutton Pickle
500 gm boneless mutton (leg portion), cut into small pieces
750 ml mustard oil
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
5 tbsp onion paste
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
4 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp black pepper powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
5 whole dry red chilli
1/4 tsp hing
1/2 cup vinegar
Salt to taste
1. Heat oil in a heavy bottom pan. And crackle the whole spices in it.
2. Add ginger and garlic paste and fry till it is lightly browned. Then add onion paste and cook until brown. Add turmeric powder, red chilli powder, black pepper powder, coriander powder and fennel seeds. Cook on low heat for a minute.
3. Add the mutton pieces, stir and mix well with the spices. Add little water and salt to taste. Simmer and cook the meat till well cooked. Add oil and fry meat till lightly brown.
4. Heat oil in a pan. Add curry leaves, whole red chilli, hing and cook for a minute. Add to the meat, fry and mix in well. Then add vinegar and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Take off the stove and cool.
5. Put the pickle in a sterilised container. Start using pickle after a day or two of preparing it. Refrigerate after a day outside. All the masalas will settle into the meat by then.
1. Always use a dry utensil for cooking and storing pickle.
2. Use more oil while making the pickle as it acts as a preservative. So, it’s good if some oil floats on top of the pickle bottle.
3. By frying the meat well, you can store the pickle for a longer time.