Shakahari at the JW Marriott Pune celebrated Indian vegetarian fare long before vegetables earned tags like ‘sexy’ in the new media. The restaurant used to serve a mix of Pan-Asian and Pan-Indian dishes before, so this move to return to the roots and specifically celebrate the diversity of India is definitely a step in the right direction. We drive from Mumbai to Pune to get a whiff of this royal experience first-hand.
Tall glass windows with red drapes on either side filter in ample sunlight that catch the steel thalis before us. The table setting is quite regal, something I’m not used to, with an ornamental sirtaj (a royal headpiece) used as a napkin ring; a nice touch, I admit. A chilled glass of Sangiovese is served. Floral notes, crisp and bright, it’s a safe pairing with Indian food.
The restaurant, we are told while we wait, shall serve a rotational thali menu highlighting the cuisines of several indigenous communities. The ones chosen for our meal today are Rajasthani with a few North Indian dishes. Other cuisines they will serve as thalis are Maharashtrian and South Indian.
Now Marwar cuisine is primarily vegetarian with a heavy hand on the ghee, dairy, lentils, grains and besan. Each of these elements, representative of the cuisine made an appearance on our menu. Ker sanger ka kofta made from dried berries and beans local to Rajasthan have a painstakingly long soaking period before they can be cooked. Maharaj Jai Kishen masterfully dunked these pickly koftas in a very light tomato gravy. Gram flour dumplings appeared twice during the meal- once cooked dum in a pulao, and the other in a yoghurt-based curry. Besan (roasted gram flour) was also used in a chilla, the genius Indian gram flour pancake currently taking the world by storm, which came studded with pomegranate seeds. Sweet churma crumble redolent with ghee, a crisp baati, and thick dal came together to make the Rajasthani dal baati churma– a textural knockout to spoon every single time. Our ride to the hotel, Mr. Kishore Singh Rajput pointed out several local establishments serving specialised Indian cuisines on our way here, including a Rajasthani restaurant which I’m told also does a good dal baati churma. Many of Pune’s little pockets turn out delightful, well-thought-out offerings, quite unlike some of the new restaurant openings in Mumbai.
The North Indian dishes served to us consist of paneer in a smokier-than-usual makhani gravy, a delicate morrel (gucchi) pulao, pindi choley and a real stunner Subz Makhmali Kofta. Imagine mildly spiced vegetable and cashew koftas bound with potato and paneer, which are then carefully added to a rich cardamom-scented gravy with a triple whammy of cream, khoya and white butter. The decadence oozes from this dish and a small portion with rotis, naan or kulcha is more than filling.
For dessert, we were led to a buffet-esque display with assorted sandesh, mango rabri, ice cream, kulfi, halwa, the list goes on. Lavish and overwhelming as it is, the thought put into designing each thali is so evident, that I cant help wonder why this personalisation doesn’t extend to the desserts too. A lychee gula rubbed shoulders somewhat hesitantly with a moong dal halwa and gulab jamun, because heck, I couldn’t make up my mind. The experience on the whole was a fabulous one, and I came out of it clutching a recipe so that was just perfect. Maharaj Jai Kishen obliged with the recipe of the Sabz Makhmali Kofte and I recreated it in my home kitchen last week. The only real tweak I made to it was adding some finely chopped dried khubani (dried apricots) to the kofte, which is a playful sweet contrast to the savoury vegetable mix.
Subz Makhmali Kofta
Yield 2 as a meal
Makhmal or velvet refers to the mouthfeel of this decadent dish. Soft vegetable and paneer balls dunked in an incredibly rich cashew and cardamom-scented gravy makes this dish worth laying out for a dinner with aficionados and gourmands. While not the easiest to make, the effort is well worth the reward. Serve with hot rotis, naan or kulchas.
For The Koftas: (makes 6 small koftas)
Carrots 2 tbsp
French beans 1 1/2 tbsp
Capsicum 1 1/2 tbsp
Cauliflower 2 tbsp
Potatoes 2 1/2 tbsp
Cashews 2 tsp
Dried apricots 1 tbsp
Green chilli 2 tsp
Salt 2 tsp
Ghee 2 tsp
Garam masala 1/2 tsp
Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp
Green Cardamom 2 pods, crushed
Bayleaf 1, torn
Cinnamon stick 1 whole, bruised
Paneer 2 tbsp, grated
Vegetable Oil for deep-frying
For The Gravy:
White Onion 2, small
Cashews 2 tbsp, finely chopped
Ghee 2 tsp
Green Cardamom 2 pods
Bay Leaf 1
Green chillies 2 tsp
White Pepper 1/2 tsp
Salt 1 tbsp
Fresh cream 1 1/2 tbsp
White Butter 1 1/2 tbsp
Khoya 1 tbsp
Start with the koftas first. In a chopper, blitz the carrots, french beans, potato, capsicum, cauliflower potatoes, cashews and apricot together till quite fine.
Heat the ghee in a kadai and when hot, add in the cinnamon stick, bayleaf, cardamom and sauté till fragrant. Add in the vegetables, green chillies, turmeric and salt and cook over a medium flame, let the the vegetables soften till cooked completely. Taste the mixture for salt and adjust. Take this mixture off the heat and crumble in the paneer and garam masala into the hot vegetable mixture and shape into balls using your hands. Pick out the whole spices as you go and discard.
In a deep kadai, heat the vegetable oil for deep-frying. Lower in the koftas two to three at a time taking care to not overcrowd the pan. When fried to a brown, take it out of the hot oil and drain the koftas on paper towels.
For the gravy, in a wide-mouthed kadai, heat the ghee till hot. Add in the cashews, green cardamom, chopped onions, bay leaf and chillies, plus a pinch of salt. Saute over a medium to medium-low heat till the onions are translucent and the spices are activated and aromatic.
Add in half of the water and increase the heat to high. Bring the mixture to a boil. Take the mixture off the heat, remove the bayleaf and any large cardamom pods, then grind everything together in a mixer grinder till you have a thin paste. You can double strain the gravy at this stage too if you like.
Return this paste to the heat in the same kadai, bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Add in the cream, butter, khoya, a bit more salt and white pepper and let this combine over low heat for a minute. Taste and adjust the seasonings, or optionally dilute the gravy with a bit more water to your liking and season as per taste. Add the koftas carefully and simmer the gravy for 5 more minutes over low heat. Take the pan off the heat and serve.
Sere with hot rotis, naan or kulchas.