In Which the Mad Hatter Goes Blind For Food - Event Review - Renaissance Royal Punjab Food Festival

So a friend called me to participate in a blind taste test event at the Renaissance, Mumbai. It was a part of the promotions of their Royal Punjab Food Festival, at Nawab Saheb. I was a bit reluctant, because a part of me felt that I was going to fail the test, and hence lose my street cred as a foodie, and look like a bit of an idiot doing that. But curiosity put up a convincing case, and there I was, sitting at the Chef’s Table, hosted by the gregarious Anuja Deora and Executive Chef Sandeep Pande, surrounded by other food lovers, about to bite into a rather extensive and authentic spread of Punjabi cuisine.

The first thing that caught our fancy were the personalized menu cards, and a single rose, waiting for everyone in attendance. As a beaming Anuja showed us to our tables, we took in the relaxed ambience of the restaurant, and chatted up among ourselves. It was then Chef Pande’s turn to take us through a brief history of Punjabi cuisine. I was delighted to know that I knew a lot about Punjabi food, having grown up in Uttar Pradesh, surrounded by Sikh and Punjabi neighbours and friends.

To sum up briefly, Punjabi food is way more than the well known tandoori staples. The original cuisine has little use for tomatoes and cream, now so extensively used by Punjabi restaurants across the country. Real Punjabi food isn’t always drowned in a tomato gravy. It is, in fact, rich with subtle flavours, such as cloves and cardamoms. Many, authentic Punajbi recipes don’t use tomatoes at all, opting rather for yoghurt, which gives a light, perceptible, but not overwhelming tangy flavour to a gravy. There is an extensive use, though, of dairy in the cuisine, with most dishes using one or several milk based products in the cooking.

Armed with this knowledge, we sat down to enjoy some really refreshing rose lassi, and an excellent fish kebab (Nawabi Machchi Di Seekh). Kukkad Tikka and Paneer Tikka were impressive, but the fish was definitely a winner, with a hint of carom seeds, binding the flavours of the fish really well. I downed my starters with a Paantini, a fabulous offshoot of Martini, made with vodka, sambuca (Italian anise-flavored liquor), gulkand (sweet preserve of rose petals) and betel leaf.

Now it was time for the real deal. We all were blindfolded and assisted, as we ate small spoonfuls of a dish with anonymous ingredients. We took in the textures. We took in the aromas. We took in the taste. The plates were cleared before we could see again. And then began the test. We wrote down possible ingredients on a sheet of paper, and mine resembled an essay. Much leg pulling followed.

Here, I’d like to digress a bit. Even though this was my first blind taste event, I truly believe that food must indulge all senses. I am usually seen raising a spoonful of every dish to my nose, smelling it, and taking in its aroma before I let my taste buds take over. My brother has had a history of “looking” at the food before deciding whether he wants to eat it. We would always attract unappreciative glares from old aunts and other diners, but this is an essential part of how we experience food. Engaging more than one sense does wonders for the taste of food, and that day, at the Renaissance, I managed to take this relationship to the next level.

Even though the experience was brief, I thoroughly enjoyed the mutton dish served to us, and even managed to guess most of the right ingredients. Amrita Rana of Lifekirecipe.com, and Kumar Jhuremalani of Pet Pujaris were the other winners that night.

Post the blind tasting session, we continued our meal, enjoying one course of goodness after another. The dinner ended on a sweet note, with an extensive and sinful spread of desserts. Since this was the Royal Punjab experience, Renaissance went all out to make us feel like royalty. This is what we came home with.

The Royal Punjab food festival is now over, but the Chef assured us that many more such experiences and food festivals are coming our way in the next year. Going by what we ate at this festival, that’s great news for this city’s food lovers. But my biggest take away from the event – Don’t shovel spoonfuls of food into your mouth. Experience it. See it, smell it, and then let your senses linger on its essence. Your love for food will find a new high. 

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