From the Pope to President Vladimir Putin, from Queen Elizabeth II to the President of Rwanda, theres no visiting dignitary who doesnt get treated like royalty at Hyderabad House, the palatial home that the Nizam built in Lutyenss Delhi for his wife, who, in a whimsical moment, decided not to live there because she didnt like the place.
Today, theres no one who wouldnt love to be in it. Nothing establishes your place in the Capitals pecking order more firmly than an invitation to Hyderabad House, tucked away since 1930 in one corner of the road that circles India Gate. State banquets, undoubtedly, are stuffy formalities where the food is bland because chillies and spices have to be toned down in deference to the palate of the guest of honour (like in the case of the President of Rwanda, who came and went unnoticed), and the conversation can be a pain if the guest next to you knows only his mother tongue. But all that notwithstanding, if you arent one of the 68 notables invited by the Prime Minister to join him and the VVIP visitor on the Long Table in the Banquet Hall occupying a part of the first floor of Hyderabad House, you might as well not exist .
Like Prince Arthurs Round Table, the Long Table is where the countrys new nobility converges off and on to be greeted by a 500-kilo statue of a five-headed Karthikeyan dating back to the Vijayanagara Empire; to eat out of fine bone china plates with sterling silver cutlery imported from England, to drink fruit juices out of crystal stemware, and to be served by white-gloved waiters dressed in black bandhgalas and trousers with gold lining (white is the dress code for the summer); and to re-assert the exclusivity of Indias most exclusive dining club.
For the Hyderabad House staff, drawn from the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), and supervised by the Chief of Protocol at Ministry of External Affairs, theres never a dull moment (there are even occasional rewards, like the rosaries that the Pope gifted each one of them as tokens of appreciation). They recall how Indira Gandhi overruled the chefs of Ashok, the ITDC hotel catering for Hyderabad House banquets, and insisted on serving mutton biryani with roasted turkey and chestnuts to the 103 heads of state or government attending the Non-Aligned Movements 1983 summit.
The combination, which pre-dated fusion cuisine much before it became fashionable, would have made culinary school deans choke on their soup, but the visitors loved it. Coincidentally, the MEA under Yashwant Sinha has asked ITDC to work out a fusion menu that integrates Indian spices into Western dishes. History does have a tendency to repeat itself.
Mrs G deviated from the norm once more by allowing alcohol (at state banquets you only get fresh fruit juices pomegranate and orange being the favourites) only for flambs so that her favourite, Baked Alaska, which was re-christened the Himalayan Surprise, could figure on the menu.
Rajiv Gandhi carried forward this tradition of innovation by insisting that chicken liver pat, the starter he liked most, be served with naan and not with garlic bread. That was the genesis of the baby naan, which is as much a cocktail-circuit regular today as the Page 3 fixtures you wake up to every morning.
Ashok chefs remember him very fondly for this invention, as much as they like to recall how he would succumb to his sweet tooth and ask for two or three helpings of dessert when Sonia Gandhi, who was very concerned about his weight, wasnt around. Rajiv Gandhi, in fact, broke the previously cast-iron rule of no guest asking for a second helping at state banquets, a rule his mother scrupulously followed.
Good banqueting, says former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, is an essential part of foreign policy, but getting a good banquet going can be logistical nightmare. Before disinvestments became the flavour of the season, the kitchens of Ashok used to be agog with stories like that of a chefs wife whod keep a candle burning at the family altar on state banquet days. Theres also the story of Roger Moncourt, the Frenchman who was Indira Gandhis favourite chef, losing his ITDC job because of a slip at one of the state banquets. Still, Hyderabad House its guardian angel is Rajiv Makin, who joined ITDC in 1972, opened the Delhi restaurant for it in Moscow in 1987 and even trained the staff at Jaypee Palace for the Agra Summit, remains the best advertisement for the discredited corporation. It shows the depth of talent that still exists within ITDC.
Nothing can go wrong at a state banquet, which explains why Ashoks Senior Executive Chef M S Gupta (who earned himself an invitation to the White House after cooking for President Bill Clinton) tastes each dish, making sure that the chillies dont dominate the spices, before clearing it for Hyderabad House. No wonder, he puts on a couple of kilos before each banquet (there were over 40 last year, so you can imagine his constant battle against the bulge), which is why he insists on going for a jog on the morning after, even though his wife keeps telling him that it may harm his knees. But the jog doesnt keep away the suspense and the agony Gupta has to endure for three additional days, till the Prime Ministers security staff disposes of the food samples that are lifted and sealed before each banquet.
The groundwork for a state banquet, were told by Chef Sudhir Sibal, who was posted at Hyderabad House from 1981 to 1997, begins with two menus, each taking into account the visiting dignitarys food habits and diet restrictions, being sent to the Prime Ministers Office for approval. Indira Gandhi micro-managed her banquets to the extent of deciding the seating plan and the colour scheme of the table linen and napkins (during spring, the Banquet Hall would come alive with the bright yellow of amaltas flowers in full bloom). Rajiv Gandhi made sure the visiting dignitary was greeted by his favourite flowers on the Long Table.
P V Narasimha Rao, besides green-lighting jal jeera as a pre-banquet drink, introduced the flavours of South India to the Hyderabad House menu baby dosas and utthapams regularly appeared on the Long Table, as did Kanjeevaram idlis stuffed with pickles. And when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to entertain Putin, a confirmed kebab lover, with North-West Frontier cuisine at the Panchavati at his official residence on 7, Race Course Road, he personally cleared the table layout a day before the December 3 dinner. No Prime Minister, however, has chosen to depart from the no-alcohol tradition, although G Parthasarathy, who as Rajiv Gandhis aide and as High Commissioner to Pakistan, has seen many state banquets, insists good diplomacy is a judicious mix of protocol and alcohol.
The beefless menu (and care is taken never to repeat a menu) is planned in five courses, starting with a cold melon or cucumber soup in the summer, or an almond and saffron soup, without a spot of flour used as thickening agent, in the winter.
Then come the entre, which without exception are two kinds of grilled fish or chicken from the more predictable chicken tikka and tangri kebab to the definitely more exotic patthar kebab, to the innovative til and zimikand kebab for the vegetarians; Vajpayees favourite, though, is fried fish with tartar sauce.
The main course, too, comes as a twosome one mutton and one chicken curry, both made with boneless meats, and vegetarians also get two dishes. The Hyderabad House repertoire encompasses delicacies like Chicken Rehana (boneless chicken cooked in a tomato and cashew gravy) and Mutton Hussainabadi (mutton and small potatoes cooked in a gravy of browned and raw onions) served with gilafi kulcha baked in an iron tandoor (a lot of milk and ghee goes into the kulchas dough, Gupta informs us).
The desserts follow, and they range from gajar halwa and jalebi accompanied by rabri to mango kulfi, served to President Bill Clinton in honour of his love for mangoes. Finally, theres tea or coffee to wash down this royal repast, the entire meal taking about an hour to 75 minutes to complete.
As soon as one of the two menus sent to the PMO gets the go-ahead (the current practice is to showcase the best of Indian cuisine in five courses; the PMO, in fact, is toying with the idea of introducing thalis at state banquets), the hotel purchases the raw material Sibal remembers how he sourced broccoli from Bangalore and Ooty, and orchids from Kerala for garnishes to go with desserts, during Rajiv Gandhis tenure. Then these are sent for clearance to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL). Even the water used for cooking and washing salads has to be CFSL-certified.
Once the approvals come, the ingredients and the water are sealed by Delhi Police, who are around when the food is cooked and then accompany the sealed hot containers an hour before the banquet either to Hyderabad House, or to 7, Race Course Road, where Rajiv Gandhi had started hosting thematic meals for visiting VVIPs, a practice continued by Vajpayee with Bukhara and Dumpukht food from the ITC Maurya Sheraton.
Once they reach Hyderabad House or 7, Race Course Road the containers are opened at the serving kitchen, and their contents arranged course-wise in identical portions. The kebabs, which are brought in marinated, are grilled or tandoor-cooked at the venue so that they can be served piping hot; the naans and rotis are also made fresh.
Each course is presented with clockwork precision, with all the guests being served and the crockery and silver being removed at the same time with nanosecond accuracy by 35 waiters whore trained in the very delicate art of noiseless service. Their arrivals and exits are coordinated by a Hyderabad House staffer who has perfected the art of giving guests enough time to eat and sit back for a chat between courses. And if conversation gets stuck because of language barriers, he makes sure the intervals between courses are reduced to minimise awkward spells of silence. A state banquet, after all, is hardly a party.