It’s not everyday I meet a famous Indian chef or run a recipe for a kebab which requires a silk thread wrapped around it before cooking.
The recipe is for Dorra Kebab, a skewered, well-spiced minced lamb kebab cocooned in a silk thread and cooked over coals, and is the signature dish of Ranveer Brar, one of India’s most celebrated chefs.
Well-known for his numerous TV shows and as a former judge on MasterChef India, I met him on a flying visit to Sydney last week at a function at Manjit’s restaurant sponsored by India Tourism and Indian Link.
With his rock star looks, impressive knowledge of food history and expertise in regional and global cuisines, he dazzled a group of foodies with a demonstration of the innovative ways in which he uses watermelon as a substitute for tuna: in sushi, as sashimi and also as a tartare.
“I used to think cooking with watermelon was very Western – all those marinated, grilled watermelon steaks,” he said.
“But when I visited Jaisalmer (Rajasthan, Wesern India) I realised the local people had been using it in their cooking for hundreds of years. They eat the red flesh and stir-fry the white part with Indian spices.”
To prepare the watermelon for the tartare, sushi and sashimi, he marinated fillets of watermelon flesh in a mixture of fresh ginger, salt and coriander stalks, then compressed it overnight in a vacuum bag before placing in a sous-vide pack for 3 hours at 65-72degC.
“When you remove it from the sous-vide, it’s soft yet firm like a tuna fillet.”
Brar was the youngest executive chef at the age of 25 to have ever worked with a five-star hotel in India, and for the past 20 years has represented Indian food across the globe, plus run a variety of restaurants in India and the United States.
Born in Lucknow, north India, he has always drawn inspiration from the city’s legendary street vendors. The son of a wealthy family, he ran away from home at the age of 17 and learned to cook from Ustad Munir Ahmed, one of Lucknow’s oldest kebab vendors.
His love for street food is evident in his signature dish, the Dorra Kebab, a long-forgotten appetiser and a dish he’s perfected over the years. It’s the only one on the menu of all his restaurants.
When I visited Bawarchi Tola (or Cooks’ Quarters) in Lucknow a few years ago, I remember being told by Jiggs Kalra, a well-known Indian food writer, that the famous galavati kebab was made with 160 ingredients and that the recipe remained a family secret. Whether this is true or something of an urban myth is much debated in India.
Chef Brar, on the other hand, was happy to part with his kebab recipe, which contains just 12 ingredients, most of which will be obscure to Westerners and which requires the skill of a kebab vendor to prepare and cook.
Lucknow is famous not just for its melt-in-the-mouth kebabs, but also for it cuisine. During the 18th century, when the city rose to greatness, the Nawabs, (Mogul princes) paid much attention to the refinement of their cuisine. They employed cooks who took pride in taste and texture, and encouraged a wide range of experimentation and innovation. They also delighted in playing tricks on guests by camouflaging the food. Powerful courts from all over India tried to woo away the Lucknow cooks.
Today it’s TV and the internet which lure a 21st century chef like Ranveer Brar away.
Recently he pioneered the first ever Twitter video show, which covers new destinations each season and explores their cuisines and cultures.
For someone who propounds the theory of cuisine being an extension of culture, he strongly believes that travel makes a good chef better.