Dhaba on my thali: Chef Tikka Singh's honest-to-goodness flavours at Punjabi festival

Chef Tikka Manpreet Singh delivers on his promise of authentic Punjabi food, served with dollops of ghee and a whole lot of hearty banter.
Chef Tikka Manpreet Singh
Chef Tikka Manpreet Singh

The in-house music system at The Coffee Place, the all-day diner at Ramada Plaza Chennai, Guindy appears to be on loop, set to the energetic strains of new-age bhangra, for the next few weeks. The reason is simple: Chef Tikka Manpreet Singh is in town, and he’s here with the promise of serving up the most authentic Punjabi food you’ve ever tasted.

Chef Tikka is a towering figure, who speaks of Punjab with that particular sense of earthy gumption and hearty fortitude that comes from endless hours of chewing on sugarcane, and loud, carefree crooning of folk songs through green paddy fields of the heartland.

The chef’s food, meanwhile, is better than his promise — and more than likely to leave you in full-blooded, chest-thumping bouts of prolonged belching and uncontrollable salivating.

Pickles & papads
To get the essentials right, Chef Tikka begins by telling us just what we need to know: all the spices used at the ongoing Punjabi Dhaba Festival are home-pounded and brought in directly from up North, along with heaps of fresh ingredients, a selection of masala papads (ones you’re not likely to find around here), and an assortment of lip-smacking pickles (raw mango, red chilli, carrot, lime and more).

For an added touch, you get to soak in some spiffed-up countryside décor, and specially designed liveries that lean towards traditional Punjabi attire. As Sandeep Bhatnagar, General Manager, Ramada Plaza Chennai, Guindy affirms, "This festival has been meticulously planned with utmost attention to every detail."

The festival’s timing isn’t random either, as the winter season is known to bring out the best in Punjabi feasts, not to forget the large-hearted celebrations, and unending helpings of rajma chawal (kidney beans and rice). Above all, there are gallons of lassi (yogurt-based drink) and chaas (buttermilk) to go around until next spring. At the chef’s beckoning, we started our meal with a pour of lassi, which works just as well as an appetiser as it does at the end of a meal.

As for the rest of the meal, all of it really went down like a dream song sequence of flying dupattas and rainbows in the sky — but that’s just us saying that our expectations were well and truly satiated, and rather generously so, which happens to be another enduring Punjabi attribute.

Rotis, ghee and lassi 
While the festival is laid out as a buffet, we were given the privilege of a curated meal, starting with a platter of fried starters, with choices of kebabs of paneer, chicken (tangdi) and Amritsari Fish.

The thali itself, with a miscellany of spicy curries, basketfuls of tandoori rotis and other breads (don’t miss the excellent makki di roti, made from corn meal) gets us all warmed up, and tucking in like peckish birds at feeding time.

The chef explains that he has retained the oily aspect of many of his curries, and why not — there’s nothing like pure ghee (clarified butter) to get your salivary ducts on full flow.

The spice factor, on the other hand, isn’t as amped up as you’d expect in Chettinad or Hyderabadi cuisine, but there’s still a good amount of heat in some of the dishes, to have you whistling through your teeth between mouthfuls, and reaching out for another gulp of lassi.

The top picks among the preparations, as recommended by the chef, include the Punjabi Chole and Chaap Masaledar, apart from the variations of chicken and meat curries. Across the board, the flavours reach out to the back of your palate, with a heady mix of sweet, sour and savoury fare that hits the spot as being nothing too far from homemade food.

You might even imagine a tiffin carrier experience, like the food was actually coming straight from the kitchens of your favourite Punjabi friend’s home. The only downside — there is no charpai around to lay back in, once you’re done!

The Punjabi Dhaba Festival is on until December 2. Lunch, 12.30 pm-3 pm. Unlimited dinner buffet, 7.30 pm-11 pm. `999 + taxes. 

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