This Indian Restaurant Has a Whole Kitchen Just for Naan
At Baluchi in London, chef Arup Kumar Dasgupta has dedicated an entire kitchen and wine-pairing menu to rotis, parathas, kulchas, and other tandoor-baked Indian breads.
Well, slather me in ghee and bake me in a tandoor. Just when you thought there were no wine-pairing combinations or novelty rosé tasting experiences possibly left to explore, Indian restaurant Baluchi at The LaLit Hotel in Central London has taken us all by surprise and started pairing naan bread with wine. Naan!
"It's not new, it's old," shrugs head chef Arup Kumar Dasgupta. "You can trace naan- and wine-pairings back to Biblical times."
I cock my head to one side. "Really?"
I didn't remember hearing about Jesus in the curry house at Sunday School, but maybe it's one of the stories that appears in the Apocrypha.
"Bread and wine," says Dasgupta. "It's the oldest combination there is!"
Ah. Yeah, I guess that is pretty Biblical. Definitely ancient. And after I've tried all six naans on Dasgupta's dedicated "Naanery" menu, I can confirm: also extremely tasty.
Naanery is, of course, a made-up word—a play on the word "bakery." It's the name Baluchi gives to the entire kitchen it has dedicated to the making of rotis, parathas, kulchas, and other tandoor-baked Indian breads.
"These," says Dasgupta, in tones reminiscent of a Marks and Spencer advert, "are not ordinary naans. They are made to age-old recipes, some 400-years-old, passed down through the generations."
He spent several months travelling across different parts of India acquiring these recipes, before coming to London to create a naan bread menu that captures the best of the old and fits what Dasgupta politely describes as "a European palate."
In other words: lots of flavour, minimal heat.
"Naan is all bread. The word naan means bread," he explains.
Then it depends on what flour you use and how you make it as to whether it's roti or kulcha or something else.
"Kulcha are always stuffed with something," Dasgupta adds.
The first naan I sample is indeed stuffed porcini mushrooms and truffles, and also topped with pears, walnuts, and Roquefort cheese. If this is pandering to a European palate, I am totally on side.
Also on Dasgupta's Naanery menu is bakarkhani, a kind of aromatic, biscuity Kashmiri bread made with lots of saffron and a flaky sesame and pistachio variety called pheni paratha. Then there's the Besan roti, which looks like a more golden version of the traditional naan, and a triangle-shaped gilafi kulcha bread, topped with finely chopped sweet peppers and cheese. It tastes like an Indian version of the vegetarian pizzas I ate when I was a child.
To wash down this diverse selection of Indian breads, Dasgupta offers two wines: a European one or an Indian one.
"People often make faces when we tell them there's Indian wine," he laughs, obviously clocking the wrinkle in my nose. Undeterred, he pours me a glass of a 2013 Chenin Blanc from a vineyard in Nashik, central India. It's as good as the Riesling being offered as an alternative and Baluchi's sommelier tells me in no uncertain terms that he prefers the Indian wine. Not wanting to be a wine snob, I happily sip away while nibbling on a Besan roti.
So, Dasgupta has some fancy versions of naan and some novel wines from India, but is it really worth making such a song and dance about it?
"These naans take a lot of time to make. Almost two days to make the bakhar khani and the pheni paratha," he tells me. "The dough needs to rest for six to eight hours then you take it out, roll it, make rings, add a little ghee, and leave it again for another six to eight hours. They're all made by hand by one guy who's very dedicated. If he starts a batch today, he won't finish some of them until tomorrow."
Imam Khan, The Naanery's chef de cuisine, agrees that there is an art and a patience to making naan. It took him the best part of 11 years to master it.
"The first year, all I did was knead the dough," he says. "The next year, I moved on to rolling balls. Then I learned how to stuff them."
Khan gives me a quick demo of how he makes the truffle and porcini kulcha, flattening a ball of dough with his hand, dropping filling into it, creating a seal, flattening it out again, and then rolling it into a perfect round.
"How hard can it be?" I think and ask if I can have a go.
Both chefs laugh at my efforts. I overstuff my dough ball, overstretch it to close it shut, and squash it so that the filling oozes through the dough instead of sitting inside it like a case. Plus my rolling is less than round.
"When trainees start in India, they just knead the dough so they can get a feel for it," says Dasgupta. "It's not about speed. It's about precision. Then we let them near the tandoor."
It's probably wise—the tandoor oven can get as hot as 400 degrees Celsius. Expert naan-makers can gauge if it's at the right temperature just by putting their arms in.
Khan lifts the lid on his tandoor and invites me to pop my arm in to feel the heat, before laughing at me again, saying "That'll save you a wax!" The hairs on my arms are still there, but only just.
"If you don't burn, you don't learn," quips Dasgupta.
Traditionally, a clay tandoor is used to bake naan, but Dasgupta's recipes required something different: a specially made cast iron tandoor that cooks the breads more slowly and at a lower temperature.
"It's because they've got a large amount of ghee," he explains. "When you knead the dough it takes in the fat better if there's more of it, but if we cooked them in a traditional tandoor, it would smoke in the heat. A cast iron tandoor gives the pheni paratha and the Bakarkhani their more biscuity texture."
The naan are stuck to the inside walls of the tandoor with a little bit of water (kind of like the suction-held hanger for the razor you keep in the shower), and then taken out with a couple of long metal prongs—one with hooks on the end, the other with a scraper. Khan douses the finished naans in yet more ghee, and hands the plate to me with a selection of sweet chutneys.
Good things come to those who wait, and for this plate of gently spiced, stuffed, soft, and biscuity loveliness, glistening in more-ish clarified butter, I feel like I've waited more than the 48 hours it takes to make a pheni paratha. More than the 11 years it took Khan to train in naan-making. More than the 400 years of careful repetition that saw these recipes arrive in London.
I feel as if I've been waiting since Abraham first set a table to serve bread and wine to strangers in Genesis. No wonder naan is so bloody delicious.