Startled. Yes, that’s the adjective to pin the moment I saw executive chef Japvir Vohra walk out of the kitchen, in his hand a claw hammer and what looked like a charred weapon of mass destruction (WMD). One more step and the WMD became the closest approximation of an ostrich egg. Or, was it a burnt clay oval? An excavated stone? Minutes ago, in Chaandi, Hilton Jaipur’s tony restaurant, I was gawping at the silver
itr-daan (perfume holder) and samovar and the next, I was startled. Flummoxed, actually. In a moment, the chef’s affable smile and the restaurant’s turquoise linen trim had flattened the habdabs of a hammer and WMD.
“This is Hathoda-Maar chicken,” Chef Vohra began with the epithet. “The hammer is used to break open the thick wheat flour crust within which there is a hen and within the hen are two eggs, blanched almonds, cashews…” Wait. Is it the Matryoshka doll from the kitchen? Egg in the hen and hen in a leaf and leaf in the crust. I was still chewing on the recipe when the chef took the claw hammer and rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat the thick flour crust crumbled. Like a contemporary Caveman, chef Vohra halved the crust and ah! there lay the cooked hen; its aroma clogging the air, its flesh falling off the bones. Daintily.
By the kitchen, the calendar had flipped back decades when the local kings and chieftains indulged in culinary excellence and excess. Then the Hathoda Maar Chicken was probably called a Hathoda Maar Titar/Bater (partridge/quail). Now, chef Vohra marinates a hen, shuns the taro leaf for aluminium foil but still cooks it for 4-5 hours.
At Hilton Jaipur, the strangely-named dish is the not the only forgotten recipe that comes alive out of sepia, dog-eared almost-forgotten cookbooks of yore. There’s Kaifi Pulao from the kitchen of Gayatri Devi, the titular Rajmata of Jaipur, its recipe documented by Jaswant Singh Rathore, the nayab (chief of the kitchen) during her reign. Laden with black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, Kaifi Pulao is not an ordinary dish, it has
kasturi (perfume extracted from the gland of the male musk deer) and - roll a blunt - bhaang (marijuana). There is no Kaifi bhaang-hangover, but the flavours of this rare pulao are heady.
That afternoon in Hilton Jaipur’s kitchen, my food low-down was getting ‘forgotten’. Chef Vohra has been researching for two years, meeting locals, pouring over old cookbooks, stringing food lore and scrounging bazaars for local/forgotten ingredients and recipes. Before I could digest all the ‘forgotten’ information, the chef pulled out a millet flour dough, a gigantic rolling pin and a knife for the Khoba roti.
“The roti gets its name from Khoba, literally, pinch,” chef Vohra began the story and serrating the flattened dough. Traditionally, Khoba roti is what the locals packed for their long journeys. The serrated dough is cooked on one side, flipped and then pinched with fingers into concentric circles while it is still on the tawa. Burnt fingers are an imminent reality, the trick is to use both hands alternatively to daub it with ghee and pinch. Curious, I tried my hand at pinching and singed two fingers to learn a forgotten roti-pinching art.
jhajhariya Google ad?” chef Vohra brought me back from the ancient to the modern. “The ad about two old friends remembering jhajhariya, their favourite dessert?” I do not own a television and looked blankly/ignorantly at the chef who talked in detail of jhajhariya, a maize flour halwa/pudding that owes its origin to Jhajjhar, a town in Rajasthan.
In Hilton Jaipur’s Chaandi restaurant, I caught a breath to stare at all the food that chef Vohra had laid on the table. I forgot the silver
itr-daan, samovar and the turquoise trim. All I remembered was the ‘forgotten’ - the egg in the hen and the hen in the crust, the bhaang in the pulao, the pinching of Khoba, the pistachio in the jhajhariya and the egg yolk in the barfi.
That day in Hilton Jaipur, the ‘forgotten’ was abundant on my plate, I was full and everything else was poetry.
Hilton Jaipur’s executive chef Japvir Vohra holding the Hathoda-Maar chicken dish. Photo Credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Kaifi Pulao: A meat pulao with a dash of bhaang and musk. Photo Credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Made of millet flour, Khoba roti is what the travellers carried for long journeys. Photo Credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Hathoda-maar chicken: Marinated chicken is stuffed inside a salted wheat dough and cooked for 4-5 hours. Photo Credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Egg barfi, a dessert made of eggs, flour, sugar. Photo Credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Jhajhariya, a maize flour halwa. Photo Credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.