New Punjab Club (pictured above) made headlines last year when it became the first Punjabi restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star. While the restaurant celebrates the opulence of the post-colonial era – think plush leather banquettes, a gin trolley and hand-polished Damascus steel cutlery – the food is, at the very heart of it, simple and rustic. This culinary ethos reflects the humble agrarian roots of Punjab, a region comprising parts of northern India and eastern Pakistan. Blessed with fertile soil, inhabitants of the region have long made use of whatever the land has provided. At New Punjab Club, executive chef Palash Mitra and his team do the same by highlighting locally sourced fish and meats with spices that accentuate but never overshadow core flavours.
“The rest of India managed to do this slow-cooked curry thing but Punjabis just didn’t do it”
Aside from the simplicity of ingredients, cooking methods are also markedly unfussy. “The rest of India managed to do this slow-cooked curry thing but Punjabis just didn’t do it,” says Mitra, explaining that a history of invasions meant that there was little time for people to labour over complex, multi-step recipes. The culinary canon here is dominated by dishes that are quick to cook and easy to eat – dishes like kebabs, which are skewered and cooked over the high-intensity flames of a tandoor oven. Meanwhile, the presence of foreign influences – from nearby Central Asia, the Middle East, as well as from the west – add further layers to Punjab’s culinary landscape, resulting in a richness and diversity of flavours unlike any other cuisine on the subcontinent.
“There’s no bad time to eat a good samosa chaat,” says Mitra. Since it’s filled with potatoes and spices, the version served at New Punjab Club is more representative of the Indian side of Punjab (Pakistani samosas are more often filled with minced meat). It’s loaded with tamarind glaze, yoghurt, mint and pomegranate seeds to create a dish that’s deliciously sweet, spicy, tangy and crunchy.
This popular street food was created as a way to use up unsellable offcuts. It’s usually made with mutton or lamb, which would be minced and slow-cooked with spices. It’s most commonly eaten with pau – a sweet and fluffy bread roll that traces its origins to the Portuguese – since it’s cheaper and easier to make than tandoor-cooked naan. At New Punjab Club, it’s served with a rich, brioche-like milk bun.
Murgh tikka angar
This dish is made with local chicken, chosen specifically for its high fat content, which allows it to stay moist in the tandoor. The bird is brined in spices so that the flavours penetrate all through the meat. It’s served with a hummus-like chicken liver and fig chutney – a dish born during times of warfare. “Fighters had limited rations so they used every part of the animal,” says Mitra. The liver is cooked with figs because the fruit is very prevalent in the jungles, especially in the Pakistani side of Punjab.
Embodying the Punjabi philosophy of eating locally, the star of this dish is a firm-fleshed cobia that’s line-caught in Sai Kung. The fish is prepared in just a few steps. It’s first marinated with simple seasoning and then coated with a rub of yoghurt, chillies and carom seeds. It’s then cooked for just a few minutes until the flesh is moist and the skin is crisp. It’s simple but exceptional.