A Christmas feast like a Maharajah
Nisheeth Tak of Rasam restaurant tells Lucinda O'Sullivan of his time in The Taj and shares some family Christmas recipes.
In 1965, the American novelist Arthur Hailey wrote a blockbuster called Hotel, which went on to be a movie and subsequently a TV series. With a changing colourful 'cast' coming through their doors every day, hotels can provide the ultimate backdrop for a book.
The thing about great hotels and hoteliers is that they must treat every guest as if they are VIPs - remaining urbane and impervious to the sometimes strange demands of the people they host.
A recent fly-on-the-wall TV series provided great entertainment and insight into what goes on behind the scenes of hotel life at the legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. The opulent hotel - known far and wide simply as 'The Taj' - is high on the list of the international rich and famous, who expect immaculate service at every instance.
Over the years The Taj has hosted Jackie Kennedy, the Prince of Wales, Mick Jagger, Barack Obama and hundreds of other big names.
In the recent TV series it was fascinating to watch an elderly American billionaire who made it her home for much of the year, and the very modern Maharajah, who liked to lead a simpler life than his ancestors. Likewise, the lives of the staff - who worked in ultimate luxury and in the evening returned to their simpler homes - proved fascinating. However, we cannot forget that in 2008 The Taj was targeted by terrorists who murdered 30 staff and guests.
Nisheeth Tak knows more about life in The Taj than most. Having trained in hotel management, he worked in its marble halls before coming to Ireland 25 years ago.
Nisheeth owns the hugely-popular Rasam Restaurant in Glasthule, Co Dublin - known for its amazing food and the impeccable service from Nisheeth and his team. Its list of devotees include Chris de Burgh, Mark Little, Pat Kenny, Miriam O'Callaghan and ex-IMF mission chief for Ireland, Professor Ashoka Mody. Indeed, I sat there recently on a Saturday and watched three dotcom multi-millionaires chomping away on their Nimbu Jhinga jumbo prawns.
Now living in Lucan with his wife Anna and their two beautiful daughters, Sabina and Jaya, Nisheeth saw it all at The Taj -and, indeed, lost some of his former colleagues in the terrorist attack.
"There is literally no comparison to The Taj in terms of grandeur, hospitality standards and the desire of every Indian hotelier to work in that wonderful institution. It was a privilege and each one of us was well aware of it," he says.
"There was a silver polishing room; fresh flowers were changed twice a day, housekeeping supervisors were on duty 24/7. Basically it ran like a well-oiled machine. The who's who of the world were regular guests."
Nisheeth laughs as he recalls how his hand was shaking as he poured wine for President Francois Mitterand of France.
"I was wearing silk gloves and it was almost impossible to keep a grip on the bottle. There was a huge focus on detail. Everything was rehearsed, re-rehearsed, tasks assigned… like Special Forces on some daring mission.
"One day, there was a booking for the Maharajah of Jaipur, Mr Bhawani Singh, in the hotel's Tanjore restaurant - and in he walked with Jackie Kennedy! She had the same famous smile and easy manner. She left the menu decisions to us - and we served them exactly the same thali that we use today in Rasam and they all loved it."
Nisheeth says Mumbai is a melting pot with hundreds of churches - Catholics, East Indians, Anglo Indians Parsees, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs - and everyone celebrates everyone else's festival.
"Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas buffet lunch at the Taj are booked out months in advance. The French chef would be carving meats; the Chinese chef would be making noodles and it all felt like magic. It still does.
"Each one of us who left The Taj at the same time as me went on to set up good Indian restaurants around the world, including Shirin Alexander of La Porte des Indes, Camellia Panjabi of Amaya and Chutney Mary, Sriram of Quilon - all in London.
"Camellia Panjabi has been the inspiration behind us all. Her focus on regional cooking, food festivals created interest in various regions of India.
"Would you believe that until 1990, the only Indian food in Dublin was Punjabi? Not a single chef, at least as far as I can remember, had even seen the inside of a catering college, let alone a five-star hotel. Now, having come back from my annual visit to my parents in India and a trip to The Taj, I can confidently say that Indian food in Dublin is as good as there."
Nisheeth says that, having been fortunate enough to spend half of his life in India and half in Ireland, he has a good understanding of both Eastern and Western culture.
"I am glad I came to these shores, for here I met my beautiful Anna and we are very proud of our two daughters, who were both raised as Catholics."
Christmas is huge in the Tak family, Anna loves to decorate the house beautifully - but she leaves the Christmas Day cooking to Nisheeth. "Dinner is almost always a Rajasthan lamb curry with side dishes, and this is one meal that we always look forward to having together at home."
Nisheeth shares some of his Christmas recipes with us.
A triple-decker sandwich widely eaten all over India and popular as a street snack, but would be good as a pre-lunch snack with drinks.
1 cup Besan (gram/chickpea flour)
3 slices good white bread
green chutney - fresh coriander, mint, and de-seeded green chilies whizzed up together.
Ready-made tomato chutney
Lightly-fried onions and mushrooms
Add 3.75 cup of cold water to one cup of Besan. Add salt and chilli powder to taste. Mix well and set aside.
Assemble the triple-decker. On the top slice of bread, spread the green chutney. On the middle slice of bread, spread the tomato chutney, and on the bottom slice of bread, spread the mushrooms and onions
Dip the whole sandwich in the gram flour batter and deep fry in a pan or pot.
Cut the slice into four triangles and serve with tomato ketchup.
Rajasthan Lamb Curry
1.2kg (2.6 lbs) lamb leg cubes
2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
2 Bay leaves
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 chopped onions
4 tablespoons of ginger and garlic paste (50-50 crushed and mixed together)
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons chilli
2 teaspoons coriander
3 black cardamom pods
7 green cardamom pods
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup yoghurt
1 cup of water
Heat oil and add bay leaves, cloves and coriander seeds and temper lightly until they pop slightly or change colour. Don't burn!
Add, onions, garlic and ginger paste. When onions are softened, add the lamb cubes and mix well.
When the lamb begins to seal, add turmeric and chilli powders and mix well.
After five minutes add the cardamom pods and salt.
Mix well, add one cup of cold water, stir through, and cover with lid. Simmer slowly for 25 minutes, adding a half-cup of water as necessary as it thickens.
Add a cup of water; leave it untouched on low heat for another 35 minutes.
Add cup of plain yoghurt and stir well for 7-8 minutes until yoghurt is cooked. (Do not add yoghurt before the lamb is cooked.)
Gajar Ka Halwa
This delicious Indian carrot dessert needs watching and stirring.
2 litres full fat milk
350 grams (12oz) sugar
100 grams (4oz) ghee - clarified butter
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
Cashew nuts, sultanas and almonds
Wash, peel and grate carrots. Heat the ghee and add grated carrot. Cook on a low heat until the raw smell of carrot disappears.
Add milk and cook on a low heat until thick.
Add sugar and cardamom and stir continuously.
Continue cooking on low heat until the ghee separates from the mixture.
Transfer to dish and garnish with nuts and dried fruits as desired.
For more information or to book a table with Nisheeth, email firstname.lastname@example.org or or call 353 (0) 1 2300 600. Rasam is at 19 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin