TWO hundred and forty km from Faridabad, in Uttar Pradesh, is a dry, hot and dusty town called Rampur. The place is mostly like any other town in the country; in fact, there are eight Rampurs in India.
So far, so good. But what were a couple of chefs from Mumbai’s hoity-toity JW Marriott doing there about a month ago? We know Rampur has its associations—ubiquitous Indian town, home to Rampuri chaakus... but maybe Ajay Chopra, chef de cuisine at Marriott’s Indian restaurant, Saffron, knew better.
Chopra was born and brought up in Faridabad, quite oblivious of the Rampur in his vicinity. But a trip with friends from Delhi to Nainital, in March this year, got him thinking.
‘‘I found out about Rampur only when we stopped there for a meal,’’ says Chopra. While his friends enjoyed the kebabs and taftan rotis, Chopra discovered the unique nature of the spices. ‘‘That meal made me realise how much there is to unravel in Indian cuisine.”
The man for the job was sous chef J Gopal. ‘‘My first impression was that it’s a typical north Indian town. Only after 10 days did I get a feel of its culture and uniqueness,’’ says Gopal.
Rampur’s food is primarily Muslim, simply because Muslims form the majority. The Mughal influence is evident in the use of nuts, saffron, garam masala and rose petals. And the spices used are those found in most Indian kitchens. ‘‘But what makes the cuisine stand out is its unique blend of spices,’’ says Gopal. While the dishes in Rampur are common to Mughlai cuisine, there are certain nuances that set them apart. For instance, the Rampuri Chaat Masala has more ginger compared to the Delhi Chaat Masala; the Rampuri Korma—unlike regular ones with a white gravy rich in cashewnuts—is characterised by a red gravy.
The colour is due to the tomatoes, an essential ingredient, slightly sour and plucked a few days before maturity. ‘‘Rampuris also love deep frying kebabs. They reserve their tandoors for breads,’’ says Gopal.
According to the chef, the kebabs in Rampur are chunkier in comparison to standard kebabs. And though predominantly meat eaters, Rampur’s vegetarian Shammi—made of yam and colocassia—used to be a big draw at royal banquets.
When dawn breaks in the town with the namaaz, food carts are a common sight near mosques. Gopal got in line one morning. ‘‘An ideal day begins with nihari and sheermal (bread made with saffron-flavoured dough) for breakfast,’’ he says. The difference between a regular nihari and its Rampuri version is that the latter is often thickened with roasted flour and desi ghee to enhance its wholesomeness.
While carts acquainted Gopal with local flavours, it was the history of the town that intrigued him most. ‘‘We all know about the Rampuri chaaku. But I also found out that it originated from the days when the town was a Mughal artillery base.’’
Gopal’s brush with Rampuri royalty happened when he met Begum Noorhunisa, a descendant of the Nadir Shah Ali family. The family recipes, which the queen shared with Gopal, have made it into the festival menu.
(The festival, which ends Aug 29, will kick off a series, a tribute to the Salute States of India such as Mewar, Jodhpur, Bhopal and Raigarh)