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25.01.2018

Consider the tinda. Always on our dinner tables, never on restaurant menus. Dal makhani and butter chicken still reign supreme on north Indian restaurant menus - except, that is, in Curry Singh Kitchens, Reetika Gill’s restaurant tucked just out of sight of most Delhi diners in Gurgaon’s Sector 50.

Curry Singh has been operating very quietly for a while with a tiny outlet, five dishes on the menu, and Reetika’s desire to transform ‘eating out’ by reviving traditional Punjabi cooking one family recipe at a time. She wanted to return to “the staples we love to eat everyday” and do it with a focus on seasonal vegetables and sustainability. Most incredibly, she wanted to cook Punjabi food without cream or nuts (without which butter chicken as we know it wouldn’t exist).

Now, she’s planning to open up to catering events in Gurgaon in the near future, but don’t expect standard buffet staples. Relying on the seasons means that Reetika’s menu is constantly in flux – you’ll get mutton-stuffed karelas in the summer, methi aloo in the winter, and stuffed tindas in the spring, the most storied dish on her menu. These are Reetika’s surprise successes, and represent her entire culinary philosophy.

Curd On The Wire

“It’s such a versatile and interesting vegetable,” she tells us, completely unfazed by the fact that it is the least interesting vegetable most of us can think of. Inspired by tindas, she called the one person with the “best recipe” – Reetika’s 83-year-old aunt who learnt the recipe from her own mother decades ago. “So that makes it at least 100 years old,” she estimates. While the tinda will only return to her kitchen at springtime, the dahi chicken and methi she’s currently serving show how Reetika’s rhetoric matches her food. The chicken’s lack of cream goes entirely unnoticed and the methi is lightly spiced, allowing diners the rare pleasure of actually tasting the vegetable itself.

Her menu often depends on what catches her eye during daily vegetable shopping, but nothing goes out to other diners before she tests the recipe on her family - a tough crowd. “I belong to a family of chefs, we’re very particular about trying and testing our recipes,” explains Reetika. She isn’t joking: her father Manjit Singh Gill, was ITC’s corporate chef for decades and remains one of the biggest names in Indian cuisine; her twin sister Preetika is also an ITC chef.

Khet 2 Love U

Before a dish makes it out, Reetika experiments extensively, tweaking masala mixtures until she hits the right note. Her gregariousness switches to guardedness when we ask her what goes into her masalas, which makes us think we’ll never truly know the secret to her dahi chicken or the tinda stuffing. “Since we use minimal ingredients, the masala is the main thing.” Even her garam masala, although sparsely used, is a closely-kept secret that her trusted spice supplier can’t decipher. “I buy the spices myself and have them ground separately, then combine them in different quantities for each dish,” is all she’ll reveal.

CSK’s back-to-basics approach may be charming but it is also labour-intensive and somewhat constraining. Skilled cooks are hard to find and Reetika’s recipes don’t leave room for cheat-codes like extra fat or cream. Staying committed to seasonality also means that expanding the menu would be tough. “I really wonder how restaurants have 150-200 items on their menus without compromising on food quality, ingredient availability and hygiene,” she says.

Apart from her plans to expand into catering, her revivalist project is also growing in an entirely unexpected way – regulars are bringing her recipe books and ingredients to experiment with. Moved by how much her food reminded him of his late mother’s cooking, one man recently gave Reetika his mother’s meticulously maintained recipe book. Another brought her 15 kilos of lemons from his family’s farm in Punjab. When we meet, Reetika is busy pickling those lemons – she got the recipe from her aunt.

Getting there: Curry Singh Kitchen, DG 01, Arcadia 2, Sector 50, Gurgaon, call 9821595934 or leave a message on the Facebook page here.

This story was contributed by Nehmat Kaur, a culture writer based in Gurgaon and New Delhi.

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