This Indian Restaurant Is an Epicenter of Tandoor Cooking
How often does a dream really come true? In my case, it just did.
After 15 years of yearning, I finally got to visit Bukhara, which many consider the best restaurant in India. I say that as an Indian food devotee, with over 100 subcontinental cookbooks and even more hours spent on the cooking techniques. And Bukhara, at the ITC Maurya in Delhi, always came up in my research as a must-try.
This restaurant is a veritable epicenter of tandoor culture, and in an act of smoky purity serves only the holy trinity of that iconic hearth oven: kebab, roti and dal. No rice, no curries, no chicken tikka masala.
Bukhara opened in 1978 and was an instant hit, inspiring hundreds of imitations. In New York City alone, the name has taken on a Ray's Pizza-like mystique and ubiquity. Bukhara has a certain magic that's hard to put your finger on and everyone at ITC is set on preserving it—the menu hasn't changed since the 70's and renovations to the restaurant are treated as if it were the Taj Mahal. (In one now-legendary story, the chairman of the company shockingly ordered all the renovations to be reversed before reopening after a long construction project.) "It is in fact our Taj Mahal," one manager affirms. "If you come to India, you must visit the one in Agra and then ours—Bukhara."
"Good luck to those fusion people," executive chef J.P. Singh says with a smile as he deftly moves skewers around in the tandoor. His hat reads "Every Creation a Masterpiece" and he's been here since 1991. "Authentic Indian food must not be forgotten; we are preserving it." The craft and care taken with the kebabs here make my dad's burnt backyard kebabs look like something child's play. Take the prawns, for instance. They're huge. The entire staff of the hotel knows that each one must be at least 80 grams. The preparation is ritualistic and painstaking. They're first coated with lime, salt and ginger-garlic paste, left to sit then gently squeezed and enveloped in thick yogurt, chickpea flour, garam masala and a few other things they wouldn't let me see. After getting pierced with leg-length skewers and quickly seared in the tandoor oven, they're left to rest and basted with rich, creamy Amul butter from Gujarat. Then, they're caramelized in a second tandoori blast that's over 750 degrees. And no, that's not all. To finish, the prawns are lavishly sprinkled with a green housemade tandoori masala, spiked with sulfurous black salt and green mango powder. The taste is extraordinary.
Rustic elegance is the theme here. Long wooden tables abound; each diner sits on a stool and dons the de rigueur plaid bib. "The concept is focused on the joy of eating as a group," Singh says. "It creates cohesiveness in the family to pull the bread apart together." The bread he's speaking of is most often the Naan Bukhara, a five-foot airy disc that produces gasps of astonishment at the table. Tearing the bread and dipping it in the creamy, spiced black lentil dal is another must. The dal comes to the table with a lump of butter melting and sinking into its middle. Singh calls it "the world's longest-cooking dal" in a claim that would be hard to dispute: It never stops simmering over glowing charcoal, day and night.
"Eating with your hands is a way to get to know your food better," Singh explains. "It's like giving it a handshake." Even though a lot of India eats with their hands, it isn't the norm in high-end restaurants, so they make a big point of eschewing silverware at the table. (They get a big kick out this since it seems like 99 percent of all worldwide bigwigs have eaten here—an estimate proven by the photo-lined walls.) But it works. There's something about eating with your hands that makes the food taste better.
Eating here is something everyone should venture to do, but you don't need to rush. "Nothing here will ever change," says Singh. "This original cuisine is long-lasting."
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