It felt honored to be attending the Chef’s studio along with KFB recently at Taj Bengal’s Mediterranean restaurant – Souk, that brings to the city an array of flavors from Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Turkey. General Manager K Mohanchandran was our gracious (and humorous) host while Executive Chef Sujan Mukherjee took us on a culinary journey across the region, with stories from countries I always wanted to visit, for sampling the food and heritage alike. The closest I had come to the real deal were the expat owned Turkish and Moroccan restaurants abroad, luckily there is a sizeable population of expats from this region found all over Europe and in the prominent cities of SE Asia, some of whom have opened up their own joints to dish out food from back home.
At Souk, we were served a selection of mezze items, grills, main course items and desserts from their main menu. We were told the menu is seasonal and changes twice a year (How I wish many more restaurants did that). Palates aptly initiated by a biteful of the classic watermelon feta salad, each course came beautifully arranged and accompanied by the Chef’s narration of his rendition and anecdotal trivia surrounding the dishes.
My high points of the meal were the ‘perfect’ hummus, the delicately seasoned prawn that was grilled to precision (seasoned with nothing but garlic and yoghurt), the truffle pilaf (earthy flavored from the truffle oil with a hint of sweet and sour from the barberries), the super-soft slow cooked lamb from the tagine (flavoured with preserved lemons), the rose petal icecream (secretly wishing for a slightly salty biscuit served with it) and the conservatively sweetened Baklava, the only one I have ever finished and savored in my entire life, thanks to the controlled sweetness. One feels cherished as a customer to see the kitchen put their mind into tweaking popular recipes like this one to suit local palate, and yet not taking away anything from the original flavours of the region.
Yet another example of this thoughtful tweaking was the moussaka – which, knowing how heavy it always is, I was planning to avoid. But my friends insisted I taste it to see how different it was from what I was expecting. Souk’s rendition of the classic moussaka was light, with thin aubergine slices and meat mixed with bulghur, and not overtly laden with cheese. We also learnt from the Chef that the middle-easterns love their Pasta as much as the Italians do, however the flavours are entirely different. We were lucky to sample some and I was completely bowled over by the flavors.
I sat there like a sponge, hungrily taking in the knowledge that came with his immense experience and exposure. I learnt, for example, that you don’t ‘have to have’ garlic while making hummus, the right proportion of chickpeas and good quality tahini does the trick. That a good kibbeh does not use any binder except the meat itself. That bell pepper can also be used as a seasoning agent, rather than a mere salad or stir-fry accompaniment we often subject it to. That perfection can be achieved with the perfect ingredients and loads of patience. That there are numerous ways to prepare the same dish and they could all still be equally authentic. That Mediterranean recipes are relatively more forgiving, where hearty meals are cooked and shared with love, and cooking is guided by taste and not by a rule book.