People & Chefs

Chef Sanjay Bahl | Flavours And Flavours And Flavours of Patiala!

Indian fine-dining must be the new mantra in Dubai food radar – Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar at JW Marquis, Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor at the Melia Hotel, Options by Sanjeev Kapoor (with 2 branches already – in DWTC and Mövenpick Deira, Asha’s at Wafi and MOE with a launch of a new Menu (and I met the legend Asha Bhosle yesterday!), Amala at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray (also serving North Indian food), Amal in the Armani Hotel… and now Patiala in Souk Al Bahar, in Downtown Dubai. This is definitely a good sign for Indian Cuisine, taking it beyond what is popular internationally – the British Indian Cuisine – the Chicken Tikkas and the Butter Chickens!

As I enter Patiala, I am charmed by the elegance in the decor – with an unusually long rectangular shape for a restaurant and no bronze elephants or fluorescent colours in the decor to emphasise that Patiala serves Indian Cuisine. Not that I have anything against bronze or elephants or fluorescent colours, I am just against any stereotypes! I had attended the media launch of Patiala – shamelessly abandoning my fellow diners at the table even before the Main Course was served, to pick up the Z-Sisters from school. In-case, if you still haven’t seen my logo, do you see the two kids tagging along? That should explain why I’m always scurrying like a bunny! What I realised was – I just had to come back and talk to Chef Sanjay Bahl, who’s at the helm of the Patiala kitchen, warmth and affection oozing out of his smile. Very approachable and bursting with laughter at every little humour.

Chef Bahl, an award winning Chef with more than 25 years of global experience, is definitely not the tech-savvy young brigade of Chefs that I have met in the recent times (Chef Avijit Saha, Masterchef Sanjeev Kapoor, Chef David Miras or the Bohemian Chef in Kolkata – Chef Joy). But full of knowledge, wisdom and a huge passion for food. It’s not surprising then that he has fed so many celebrities and dignitaries, including the President of India. He was one of members who developed the global concept of TGKF (The Great Kabab Factory) for Radisson. Tweaking or adding the right Indian flavours to make Indian dishes palatable to the non-Indian diners has not been a new concept for him, as he has also been the Chef Indian Cuisine aboard Queen Elizabeth II or the QE2 as it was popularly known, during one of its World Cruises!

One thing that Chef Bahl insisted about Patiala (and of course, I tasted) was – authenticity, good taste, pure flavours and a great dining experience. Accompanied by the perfect wines served by the glass (only a few restaurants in Dubai do this). Being a wine connoisseur, Chef Bahl has had the experience of organising Wine Dinners and conducting International food fairs and events in India (Italian and Hungarian Food Promotion, the Indonesian Food Festival, the Sri Lankan Food festival). Wine pairing with Indian food is not taught in any culinary school, so my take is – one can trust the wine to complement the regional flavours of the dish that is being served, under such a spirited and able guidance.

Revelation – Patiala is not only about Patiala pegs… The name of the restaurant originates from the southeastern city of Punjab in North India with the same name – Patiala. Historically, Patiala, an erstwhile princely state in Punjab, is known for being a seat of India’s political and cultural aristocracy; boasts of royal architecture; one of the oldest forms of Hindustani classical music – the Patiala Gharana; and the first graduate college in North India, established in the mid-1800s. In popular culture, the city remains famous for its traditional turban (a type of headgear), paranda (a kind of tasseled tag for braiding hair), patiala salwar (a type of female trousers), jutti (a type of footwear) and Patiala peg (a measure of liquor and refers to a larger peg than the standard peg measure). Unfortunately, the popularity of the Patiala peg seems to have overwhelmed all the others!

Galauti Kababs melt me down, always… A team of ten Chefs have been flown in directly from North India, including Chef Arif (image below) with an ancestral heritage that I envy – his forefathers had been the creators of the famous Galauti Kabab or the Galawati Kabab. Galauti Kabab deserves a separate post of it’s own and I have enough material to write on this. I’ve been on my own trail in search of this special form of Kebab which practically melts in the mouth, lending the name Galawati or the one that melts. Galauti Kabab is minced meat round patty cooked over griddle, smoked with aromatic spices (traditionally, it can go upto 120 different spices!). Invented during the rule of Nawab Asaf ud Daula in Lucknow (another princely Indian city that gave birth to the Lucknowi or the Awadhi cuisine), the Galauti Kababs were made specially for him since he had weak teeth or was toothless… well, that’s the story that has been going around! I told Chef Bahl, that for a Kolkatan like me, North Indian cuisine doesn’t mean the Punjabi cuisine but essentially the Mughlai food cooked in the Awadhi style. This is because of the historical connection between Kolkata and Lucknow. In 1857 AD, after the Awadh kingdom (modern day Lucknow), was annexed by the British, the Nawab of Lucknow – Mohammed Wajid Ali Shah Bahadur (1822 AD-1887 AD) was exiled to Calcutta (today’s Kolkata). His passion for gourmet food traveled from Lucknow to Calcutta and was nurtured and garnished and fueled by his special Bawarchis or the Chefs of the Nawab. Hence, our penchant for Awadhi cuisine and not the Punjabi cuisine. A plate of Galouti Kebab (above) arrives specially at our table ‘Ek special Galauti lana inke liye/Please bring a plate of Galauti for her’. The result? I am completely sold on it. The Biryani or the Kababs are cooked in the authentic Awadhi style (more on Lucknowy or the Awadhi style of cooking), with the former cooked in the Dumpukht style where the dish is cooked on very low flame, mostly in sealed containers so that the meat cooks in it’s own juices (more on Dum Pukht). Quite naturally, I also had to meet Chef Arif (down below). After all, his great grandfather did the foodie mankind a huge favour by inventing the Galouti. If my great grand father had done such a feat, I wouldn’t be standing as humbly as him!

Chef Bahl talks about the signature dishes of Patiala as we are served – the Quail Kabab, which is a combination of Chicken Tikka and Tandoori Quail, dressed with sweet Dates, crushed Mango chutney and enhanced with red Apples (served in the manner of a Fruit Chaat); Chargrilled Chili Mint Prawns (below) where jumbo prawns have been marinated in a mix of spices and Chilli Mint paste and char-grilled; Zaveri Fish Tikka where Hamour is marinated in Fennel, Ginger, Aamchur/sun-dried mango powder and is cooked as Tikka Kababs (Note: Hamour falls under the ‘over-fished’ category and slowly many restaurants in Dubai are moving towards a sustainable fish menu) Patiala Murg Tikka (the cover picture above) where the spicy Chicken kebabs follow the recipe which has come down from the Chefs working in the royal kitchens; Murg Malai Kabab where the Chicken is chargrilled in a Cardamom and a Kesuri Methi marinade. The Menu boasts of a few royalty breads including the rare Bakarkhani, Sheermal, Taftaan, Kandhari Naan and Kesari Ulta Tawa Paratha etc. I did manage to taste all of these before I scooted out. For me, the winners were the Patiala Murg Tikka and Murg Malai Tikka! Previewing the menu at leisure later, my attention was caught by the Wagyu Naan Rolls in their Patiala Bites or the Snacks Menu. My question is – do we really need Wagyu for a beef that I’m assuming will be chargrilled with Indian spice? If it is a steak, yes. I’ll go for Wagyu. I’m talking from the point of view of the price factor but cannot comment further on it until and unless I taste it.  And can Bengali eyes ever overlook desserts? A Rabdi Fondue, where Rabdi is a a traditional Indian dessert where Milk is slow cooked (I’m just remembering a fabulous Rabdi Gulabjamun recipe on my blog that is a speciality of my Marwari friend) and Rose Petal Halwa, where dried Rose Petals are cooked with Milk, Cardamom and Pistachios. Well, if Cleopatra bathed in such a Rose Petal Halwa (sans the sugar) many years back, a modern day Cleopatra like me will probably drive to Patiala to taste it!

My tête-à-tête with Chef Sanjay Bahl…

Is there a lot of difference in the acceptability of Indian food amongst the Dubai diners? Is Patiala targeting all segments of diners, for example – the ones who would love to dig into their spicy Biryanis in Karama restaurants or is the food mild? Oh yes, our Menu will be loved by all diners. I have planned the Menu focusing on flavours of food and of different spices. It is not spicy or mild but tasty and flavorful. I am very confident that if the food is good, your restaurant will do well anywhere in the world.

I thought that the Patiala Menu is a mixture of Awadhi style of cooking and Panjabi style of cooking. Is there a distinctive Patiala style of cooking when it comes to Punjabi style of cooking? If I were to say what is the Patiala style of cooking, it is only honest and flavorful cooking. If I am serving you a Lamb Biryani, it will be made with the best Indian Lamb and nothing else. While the Butter Chicken and the Chicken Tikkas have been cooked in the Punjabi style, the Biryanis or the Galauti Kababs are cooked in the Awadhi style of cooking. I believe that the best flavors of Biryanis are in the Awadhi Biryanis. Here, the strong flavors of spice come out, instead of being simply spicy.

Coming to Galauti Kababs, I’m most excited that Chef Arif is in the team whose great grandfather had invented them. But I thought that was in the late 1700s and the early 18oos. What is Galauti Kabab? If you look at the word carefully, it can also be termed as Gilawat ke Kabab – Gilawat meaning melting. It is a process of cooking. There are 4-5 processes that are followed in making Galauti Kabab. So anything can be Galauti? No, not at all. Not everything will sustain the Gilawat process. For example, Fish. But the actual Galauti Kabab that is so popular in Lucknow, has more than 120 spices. Even Chef Arif hasn’t been parted (by his brother who’s secretive about the original recipe) with the exact proportions or the exact spices that go into the Galauti. But we’ve the know-how of the process. Processes make a lot of difference to the texture and the flavor of food. Why do we first put oil in the pan in Indian Cooking? Because in Indian cooking, the flavors have to be added first – the Tadka. Otherwise, it’s the same spices that go into Moroccan cooking or Spanish cooking. But they taste different because of the different processes. I know how to analyse each process and the flavors that will be enhanced/decreased as each process of cooking takes place. I can cook any dish in the Mneu without a drop of oil and it will still retain all it’s flavors. Because I am aware of each process. But what about home cooking? Our Mums and Grandmums didn’t know all these processes but still their cooking has stood all test of time. They have all been following these processes without knowing that they are following some set processes.

Regarding your Fish Menu, it still has Hamour in it’s Menu (Hamour being the most overfished in the UAE waters). Of late, a lot of Chefs have stopped using Caviar. We are not flying in fish, for example Salmon. Yes, we are still using Hamour because my guests want it. But probably, I’ll be looking into this gradually. But we are only cooking fresh fish. What about sourcing your fresh fruits and vegetables from local organic farms? We are doing that. Right now, my only intention is to serve honest food to my diners, that have been cooked honestly with natural ingredients. And I’m happy that we have diners from different nationalities – Emiratis, Japanese, Germans, French. I am slightly curious about your French diners as they themselves have such a chic culture of gastronomy. Did they like the food? Oh yes! They loved it. And why not? Food has to taste good and that’s the basic ground-rule. In-fact, the restaurant has a huge repeat footfall of diners. I design the menu in such a way that there is a crescendo to the taste – I slowly introduce each spice and once the diner is used to that, I introduce him to the next level of spice.

I’ve always been curious about the wine matching in an Indian Menu. This hasn’t been taught in an Indian culinary school. So how do you go about it? You have to understand wine. I want people to understand that Indian Cuisine is not only about spice or Indian food is not only spicy food. It’s all about the flavors. I have organised Wine Dinners accompanying Indian Cuisine in a wine-matured city like Bangalore. I have sat down with each and every wine, picked up the flavors after noting down the regional and grape-varietals in each wine and matched them to the taste of individual Indian dishes. There is no broad classification of matching wine to the Indian Menu. Each spice level or the flavor of a dish has to be understood and matched individually.

What about Indian Wines? (The subject of Indian Wines have off late caught my fancy as FooDiva, in one of her reviews, mentioned loving her Dindori Reserve Shiraz from the Sula vineyard in India. So I am on my own quest to find out whether the Dubai restaurants have started keeping Indian Wines and how good they are compared to the other wines. The Patiala Wine List is  quite impressive and does include Sula Brut in Sparkling, Sula Sauvignon Blanc as well as Sula Shiraz). Indian wines are doing well. But the tastes will definitely vary. The grapes grown in Nasik Valleys taste different from the ones growing in the French Vineyards. India has started producing wines only recently, maybe 10-15 years. We do have the best of the Cabernets and Merlots. But there has been a lot of home-grown liquor brands who have been there for a long time in Indian markets but hadn’t been marketed outside. Do you think that Indian Wines are at par with other wines? Do you think that they can catch up with the rest of the world? Now Chilean wines or Argentinian wines are doing so well. Yes, they are very good. But to catch up with the rest of the world, there are many factors that have roles to play – from marketing to the Wine drinkers  getting used to the taste of Indian wines. Are you a wine-man or a whiskey-man? I’d assume it’s the latter, considering that you are from Punjab? I prefer my Cabernets and Merlots. (Our chat leads to a sugary, syrupy Indian Red Wine that used to flood the market, once upon a time – Golkunda Ruby Red. Does anyone remember that? Ahh, nostalgia…)

Are you using techniques like Molecular Gastronomy (my current obsession on studying about this subject which I describe as food under surgery)? No, for the food that I serve, there is no need for Molecular Gastronomy. But what is Molecular Gastronomy? It started as a quest to break down food to the last molecule, in terms of flavors. And it started with the intention of enhancing flavours or identifying the uniqueness in each flavor, so that it could be reproduced elsewhere. So we are coming back to flavors. And as a Chef, I’m always looking for flavors.

Is your kitchen following green policy? Yes. The traditional Indian equipments that we use, for example, the Tandoor, can be as energy-efficient as can be (A tandoor is a cylindrical clay oven used in cooking and baking. Traditionally, the heat for a Tandoor is generated by a charcoal or wood fire, burning within the tandoor itself, thus exposing the food to live-fire, radiant heat cooking, and hot-air, convection cooking, and smoking by the fat and food juices that drip on to the charcoal. Read more on Tandoor). My focus is to bring in naturally flavored, tasty food. I don’t need to add flavor enhancers or any artificial additives.

What is your favourite Khana/meal? I love Ghar-ka-Khana/home cooked meal. And I’m mostly eating vegetarian food. I rarely eat meat or non-vegetarian food outside. I have a lot of vegetarian items in my Menu as well. But I do remember that once in I had Paella in one of the Spanish restaurants and the taste is still stuck to my memory. (I put in the question of the horsemeat scandal which seems to devastate him as an ethical professional working in the food industry) I rarely let my kid eat outside because I’m skeptical about the meat that is being used.

What do you contribute to the change in the mindset of the Indian people, regarding the profession of a Chef? Sanjeev Kapoor (my interview with the Masterchef himself)? When I started my career in 1987, I myself had doubts about the profession that I had taken up and I even asked a senior Chef during my induction – ‘Am I doing the correct thing?’. Actually even before that when I started my college in 1984, I wasn’t even aware that a subject like Hotel Management exists! But studying in the best culinary school at that time – the Oberoi School of Hotel Management (Chef Bahl is one of the first graduates of this culinary training school in India) and working in one of the biggest hotels probably changed my own perspective. As the Indian economy opened up or more Indian hotels came up and Indian Chefs started getting more attention in the international culinary world (Indian Chefs earning the Michelin etc), there has been a lot of change in the perspective. People started understanding Food better and they started applying Food better. As an Indian Chef, your efforts are accepted. There is a forum, Indian Culinary Forum or the ICF (Chef Bahl is a founding member of the ICF). We are sharing our ideas at this Chefs’ Forum. We were the first ones to have organised Charity dinners with Celebrities. And now Celebrity dinners are an everyday affair, aren’t they? (He bursts out laughing)

Do you think that the international acceptance of Indian Cuisine has come because of the British’s love for the Indian Cuisine – the Chicken Tikkas and the Butter Chicken? There’s so much to Indian food than Chicken Tikka and Chicken Butter Masala. I came across a gentleman once, who very rightly explained why Indian Cuisine hadn’t become popular worldwide, in an easy manner. ‘When you, the Indian Chefs do your food, it’s so complicated and elaborate that most people get scared’. It’s so true. However, a new genre of Indian Chefs are making a lot of difference, focusing on flavours. For example, Atul Kochar. He talks about Prawns marinated with Mustard and enhanced with other ingredients, all explicitly explained so that the diner can understand what the dish is. (I’ve rarely come across a Chef talking about another Chef in such a positive light, more so when Atul Kochar’s Rang Mahal is in the same segment that Patiala is positioning itself in. This only highlights Chef Bahl’s confidence and belief in his own kitchen).

Do you think that there has been a change in the cooking techniques over the years? Do you update yourself on the different changes and trends on the subject of food? Yes, every day. I don’t read recipe books but I read on Food as a subject. It is for my own personal growth. I operate in a very different way. In the sense? I am completely hands on. Even if I have been handling 20 hotels and taking up the an administrative role, I’ll still find time to get into the kitchen. I’ve been working in the kitchen for too long to get away from it and so something else. I have always wanted to be a teacher in my life. Had I not been a Chef I’d have become a teacher for sure. But you are a teacher. A Chef cum Teacher. Yes, I have been training my stuff – the things that we learnt in culinary school from the nutritional perspective and applying them to the dishes we cook. I tell the younger generation of Chefs – working in the kitchen is a lot of hard work and being a good team player and realising your mistakes and rectifying immediately, is the key thing in becoming a good Chef. (I hope my younger readers who aspire to become Chefs take note)

Do you think that Indian Sweets are a bit overtly sugar-coated and bad for the pancreas? Oh please, what are you saying? I love sweets. There are so many Bengali Sweets… (Okay I take back the question)


North Indian Cuisine, Fully licensed

Tel: +971 4 451 9151 or Email:; Location: Souk Al Bahar
For more info, visit Facebook: Patiala Restaurant; Twitter: @Patialadubai or the official website: Patiala

Interestingly, there’s a ‘Kebab and Biryani Brunch’ starting at Dhs 195/- on Fridays – Saturdays, 12:00pm – 4:00pm

The restaurant website is updated with a Live Chat and a full-fledged Food Menu with the complete Wine list. A new wine list would be introduced very soon under Chef Bahl’s supervision that will complement the different nuances of the Indian dish offered in the Menu. It would do good to the Restaurant’s profile though if it adheres to a few food trending that’s taking place everywhere – The Patiala Menu doesn’t yet focus on sustainable fishing (a few other restaurants in Dubai, irrespective of whether it’s big or small, have started taking a note on this. And some far away places that I visited recently have completely given up on fish that are overfished – for example, Sense on the Edge, Zighy Bay or the Samak Restaurant, Anantara’s Desert Island Resorts. Also, gaining importance is the local organic farms from which daily fresh produce is sourced. What I gather is that these are ideas that they are absolutely open to, probably incorporating them at a later stage. Given the knowledge at the helm of the kitchen and the culinary heritage of the entire team, I shall definitely wait for that. It is also interesting to see when the other established restaurants have been revamping their menus and relaunching them with elements of fusion and new flavours, Patiala is promising to introduce authenticity to Indian fine-dining. Personally speaking, when I know a particular cuisine well, I look forward to a bit of experiment in that. But if I am trying out a cuisine for the first time, I look for absolute authenticity. Signing off with a question, what would you prefer – an authentic cuisine or the one that promises a bit of fusion?

Unblogging it all… Ishita


Disclaimer: I was invited for Patiala’s media launch. The Cover photo on Kabab is from Patiala. While you enjoy reading a post with a lot of visuals, please don’t use them as some of them may have been taken from our personal albums, just to make your reading experience more pleasurable. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.


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