Is there such a thing as club food? In Britain, the old Pall Mall clubs still do nursery food with some stodgy British classics (roast beef, bread and butter pudding, etc.), recognising that nobody really goes there for the food.
In India, however, club food has acquired a slightly mystical reputation as a legendary cuisine, that is now lost to us because of the ravages of time. This sounds wonderful but the truth is that club food in India - just as in England - was never very good. It was a slight improvement on boarding school food and because the clubs had their origins in the days of the Raj when Indians were not allowed to join up, a slight Empire touch to the cuisine remained because the old club servants who cooked for the Brits, then passed on their secrets to the next generation of staff who cooked for the Brown Sahibs who eagerly took the place of the departing Brits.
The problem with nostalgia about club food is that, too often we call it Anglo-Indian cuisine, thereby confusing it with the cuisine of the Anglo-Indian community. And even within Anglo-Indians, there were vast regional variations in what the community ate. This is only reasonable. Why should a Bengali-speaking Anglo-Indian in Calcutta eat the same food as an Anglo-Indian in Madras? Even when the dishes sounded the same, there were huge differences. For instance, the most famous Anglo-Indian dish is probably Country Captain and the recipe varies spectacularly from region to region - even the colour of the gravy ranges from greenish-yellow to dull brown.
But the food of the clubs was never Anglo-Indian in that sense. It was, nearly always, the food of that region, tarted up slightly and sometimes given a slightly 'Continental' touch.
Some clubs did have their own specialities. The Eggs/Toast Kejriwal from Bombay’s Willingdon is very much the dish de jour these days after Floyd Cardoz put it on The Bombay Canteen menu (and Namita Panjabi followed by including it on the bar menu at London’s hot new Chutney Mary). The Willingdon and other old-style clubs avoided Punjabi food and so, even the samosas were the crisp-patty cocktail samosas favoured by Bombay’s Bohra community, many of whose leading lights were made members when the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, opened the club in the hope that Indians and Brits could mingle. (The Bombay Gymkhana did not accept Indians till the 1940s and the notorious Breach Candy club kept most Indians out till the late 1970s.)
But other than the Willingdon’s specialities there were few distinctive club dishes. The dhansak at Bombay’s Ripon club was legendary - but the Ripon did not invent the dish. The Bengal Club did a terrific steak. But the dish was not invented in Calcutta. And so on.
Marut Sikka, the chef-restaurateur who must make crores from catering to high-society weddings and who owns Kainoosh in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, set himself an ambitious task when he set out to open the Delhi Club House at the new Sangam Cinema complex. Sikka wanted to create a restaurant that recreated the ambience of club land (without the frayed edges of today’s clubs) and served some of the best dishes from clubs all over India.
This sounds great and half of it was easy enough to do: the restaurant looks great. But the other half - the food - was harder to do. Wisely, Sikka steered clear of the Anglo-Indian trap and while there are 'Continental' dishes here (including the Bengal Club steak) the emphasis is on the great Indian dishes.
It is a formula that works well even though one suspects that many of the dishes have only the remotest connection to any club. For instance, a wonderful twice-cooked cheese soufflé is credited to the long-extinct Byculla Club but the recipe seems to be Sikka’s own. (Just as well – the dish is delicious!)
And there are modern twists. The pani puri (not exactly everyone’s idea of club food) is made with puris that have been air-fried.
The reason it all works is, perhaps, because Sikka has gone beyond club cooks and sourced original recipes. The Amritsar chhole, for instance, are straight from the street as are the chaat and chutneys in the paani puri.
I loved the restaurant. (You’ll find a review here.) But of one thing, there is no doubt. The food here is much better than at any club at any time!
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Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.
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