The dahi kebab owes its origins to Jodha Bai, declares author-diplomat Pawan Verma, looking dapper in a chef’s hat and a brown apron, as he mixes hung curd, cheese, crumbs and spices. At the Mughal kitchen of Emperor Akbar, she requested the khansamas to rustle up something vegetarian, and the result was this delectable dish, elaborates the erudite former Member of Parliament, describing how from there the dahi kebab travelled to Awadhi cuisine and became part of it.

We are inside the kitchen of Machan, the much-loved wildlife themed coffee shop of the Taj Mansingh, which went through its third make over last year. Machan, when it started out, had a very jungle safari feel to it in a very cosy way. The wildlife connect still remains with gorgeous junglescapes and bamboo work but the restaurant has pivoted towards a sustainability theme, and it shows both in its upscaled decor — which brings the lush greens inside through its large windows — and the menu, with its focus on organic local produce inspired by the forests. Of course, old favourites such as the Kona coffee and Bull’s Eye dessert remain on the menu.

Kitchen confidential

It’s rather bold of a hotel to allow guests inside the chaotic precincts of its action-packed kitchens — but the pandemic has forced hospitality chains to get creative in order to tempt people to walk in through their doors. Machan’s ‘Cooking up a Tale’ series is one such attempt. The iconic hotel at the heart of Delhi has taken the unusual step of opening up its kitchen to amateurs.

To start with, the Taj has started organising a noted personality to do a culinary jugalbandi with its brilliant executive chef Arun Sundararaj, followed by a leisurely meal replete with good stories. Soon, the idea is to offer this experience to the general public. If you love rustling up dishes and want to entertain your family and friends, showing off your culinary prowess, then you can literally cook up a tale at the Machan. The chefs at the Taj will give you a tutorial and share some secret tips during this cooking odyssey.

Egged on by our charming host for the afternoon Ambereen Khan, chef Sundararaj takes the lead in the kitchen efficiently rustling up a delectable looking fruit salad — it’s more like a fruit chaat actually but elevated to a dish of exquisite beauty and refinement.


New course: Author-diplomat Pawan Verma is amply aided by his son-in-law Sid Mathur as they try their hand at making dahi kebab


The theatrics begin when Verma takes over the pots and pans, assisted by his son-in-law Sid Mathur. To be frank, Verma does not look too sure-footed in the kitchen and is content to direct others on the preparation of the dahi kebab, keeping a running commentary going on the ethnicity and origins of the dish and the innovations he is bringing to it. The new touch he has added is to introduce finely chopped betel leaves into the dish. Also, instead of besan, roasted gram flour is used to coat the mixture before it is fried. Soon amidst much banter, the kebabs are made and we repair to the restaurant to enjoy a merry repast, filled with nostalgic touches.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Machan was Delhi’s favourite go-to place for conversations and coffee — especially at midnight. The Capital’s first 24-hour restaurant was where people congregated after parties, or after a late-night movie or graveyard shifts. On Friday, that convivial chatter was in evidence as Verma cooked up a tale — both culinary and literary at the table!

While his culinary skills did seem a bit questionable — even his wife looked amused at the sight of him in the kitchen — Verma held his own on the literary front, presenting the table with his latest book, The Great Hindu Civilisation . Stories flowed.

Rooftop refurbishment


Top view: The Chambers has been given a real contemporary refurbish


It’s not just the Machan that has been re-imagined. Or which is throwing its kitchens open — the kitchen on the rooftop floor of the hotel has added some informal seating and members of Taj’s elite business club The Chambers can enjoy a meal with a ringside view to its preparation, as well as a spectacular view of Lutyens Delhi. A lot of the backroom areas and passages around The Chambers, and Longchamps — the rooftop events venue, have been opened up, and it’s a thrilling experience to get a view of the innards of a hotel. It also dispels myths that the underbelly of a hotel is not all that posh.

The Chambers has been given a real contemporary refurbish — complete with a cigar lounge and a branded whiskey bar, and a glass elevator that takes you up and down from Albero, the stylish new restaurant with a modern gourmet menu open only to members. One of the seven meeting rooms here has been designed by Italian luxury brand Steffano Ricci, and with its plush burgundy furnishings and spectacular views of Rashtrapati Bhawan and North and South Block, it gives you a feeling of quiet power.

While the lobby has been subtly transformed into a graceful reception area, a big change at the hotel has been the introduction of luxury residences — offering guests the option of staying a year and more in two bedroom or single bedroom apartment sets with living, dining and kitchen spaces. No doubt inspiration came from Dr Dadi Balsara, the businessman who stayed 36 years in a luxury suite at the Taj Mansingh — though this is very much a recognition of consumer choices today.

The renovation of Taj Mansingh, which first opened its doors in 1978 and very soon became a loved landmark, is a ₹250 crore project that is taking place bit by bit. The revamp was announced in November, 2018, when Taj celebrated its 40th birthday in joyous fashion — after all, it was also the end of an extremely anxious period for the hotel as the NDMC municipality kept the suspense going on its lease renewal, even calling for an auction.

When the Taj management said it would not shut the hotel, but do the renovation area by area, eyebrows were raised. Wouldn’t guests be discomfited. But the hotel has used the pandemic period well to re-imagine and reinvent the business of hospitality.