In the Mughal sultanat, dining was an elaborate and meticulous process. A runner or dastarkhan, which also means banquet, was spread out on the carpeted floors, along with cushions. Royalty was served in gold and silver crockery, studded with precious stones. Sherbet arrived in a katora (bowl), followed by the main courses, and concluded with paan (betel leaf) served in a casket called paandaan.
Such a ritual may not be feasible today. But good food needs tableware to match. And restaurateurs and chefs understand the significance of parosna (serving) in Indian cuisine.
Food consultant and restaurateur Marut Sikka paid extra attention to tableware when he set up Kainoosh in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. “Indians generally don’t pre-plate food like in Italian or French cuisine. So the bartan (vessel) is of critical importance,” he says.
Art on a plate: Jalebis at Varq; and (right) Kainoosh’s frosted glass and brass thali. Photographs by Divya Babu/Mint
Chef Hemant Oberoi of the Taj group thought it so critical to have the right tableware that he decided to go contemporary with Varq, the Indian eatery at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi. “Though our plating is a complete diversion from how food is eaten and served in India, we’ve still taken cues from our cuisine only. We don’t want to toss in everything together and mix up flavours. So we separate the salty from the bitter from the sour,” says Oberoi. Varq serves dishes in bone china manufactured by Bauscher, designed especially for Varq by Thomas Keller, chef and owner of the much awarded California restaurant, French Laundry. So you’ll see a jalebi standing vertically on a white porcelain plate, or Ganderi kebabs served in tall glasses.
Kebab shots: Varq finds creative, new ways to serve Indian food.
At Kainoosh, the food is served in a traditional thali, with a few variations. Instead of steel or copper, the plate is made of frosted glass, with six katoris (bowls) of tinned brass. “Katoris are a must with Indian food. An array of katoris with different foods serves the purpose of neutralizing and breaking food fatigue,” says Sikka.
There are differently shaped katoris for different foods. The shallow ones are for food that needs better display, such as a shank of lamb or stuffed karela (bitter gourd); deeper and narrower ones are used for liquid foods such as dal or yogurt.
Lounge food columnist Pamela Timms marvels at what colourful linen can do for a table. “Indian food tends to look the same colour, like all dals, curries, sambhar, etc. So it’s a good idea to set tableware off against vibrant tablecloths and napkins.” Also, she recommends glazed earthenware crockery that’s made in Auroville. “The hammered steel trays you find in Old Delhi can be used as rice trays or to serve some dry snacks,” she adds.