A Chef in Jaipur Transforms Our Attitude Towards Indian Food

Fried pappadam with a mango sauce for the sliced vegetables.

Fried pappadam with a mango sauce for the sliced vegetables.

By Jean and Peter Richards

Indian was never on our list of favorite cuisines until we met the talented young chef at Cinnamon in Jaipur. Niranjan Nayak transformed our impression of his country’s food.

Nayak applies his considerable talents at Cinnamon, a 34-seat restaurant tucked away on the mezzanine of the sprawling and beautiful 18th century Jai Mahal Palace hotel.

From the moment a selection of pickles was set before us to be scooped with crisp roasted pappadam we knew this Indian experience would be different. Garlic clove pickle burst with flavor, papaya with well-tempered sweetness and mint perfectly balanced coriander in a classic green chutney.

Fried pappadam accompanied a mango dipping sauce for beet, cucumber and carrot sticks sliced thickly so that each could hold its own for flavor against the fruit.

The richness of a chicken broth was offset with just the right measure of spice.

We never did order entrées that evening because two appetizers were more than enough –

Royal Hara Bahara

Royal Hara Bahara

Royal Hara Bahara, four dense, pan fried patties of spinach and green peas with roasted gram flour, yogurt and almonds (650 INR) and Sikandari Raan, an ancient roasted lamb dish served with a creamy and garlicky sauce (1100 INR), was as complex in ingredient as in flavor. Together, they constituted a feast.

We were savoring slices of a frozen dessert called kulfi and  a scoop of cinnamon ice cream when Chef Nayak appeared at our table. He is 24, from the East Coast state of  Orissa, has been cooking for nine years, has a radiant smile, a gentle voice and he beams when appreciated. It was almost hard to believe that a man so young could cook with such finesse.

Sikandari Raan

Sikandari Raan

That night’s bill, including a glass of a fresh and pleasant local sauvignon blanc, Sula, was 4061 INR or about $65.

We promptly made a reservation for the next evening.

Chef had carefully considered the options he proposed: marinated and grilled tiger prawn (1350 INR) followed by spiced and grilled chunks of sole (1100 INR). Each was beautifully prepared and light on the palate.

Cinnamon-5

For the entrées, Chef divided plates with a spicy traditional melt-in-the-mouth lamb Laal Maas (750 INR) and a lighter and contrasting Dhaniya Murgh (750 INR), a nugget of chicken in a creamy coriander-onion sauce enlivened with cashew, ginger and garlic paste. Both were superb.

Subtle saffron milk dumplings rounded out this fine meal for which the bill with wine and water was 7000 INR or $112 for a meal worthy of a top table in any current culinary capital.

Laal Maas

Laal Maas

Cinnamon presents itself as “inspired by the two spheres of cooking — Punjab and the Moghul India, connected by what is called the cinnamon-saffron link” and claims to re-define Indian food using “only the freshest ingredients and authentic herbs and spices to provide a modern twist to traditional Indian cuisine.”

After decades of eating around the world, the words “modern twist” would be enough to cause us to flee most restaurants. We still don’t know enough about Indian food to know how Chef Nayak may have modernized traditional dishes. We will not be surprised to hear wonderful things of him in years to come. It will be a pleasure to say, “Ah, but we knew him when he was young and transformed our appreciation of Indian food.”

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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