It was a sultry day in April when our long-standing intentions of working on this feature finally materialised. An inventive and camera-shy Divija Singh, or Divija jija as I call her, stood in an air-conditioned kitchen in her high-arched house in Lutyen’s Delhi. Known for her understated style in reviving some authentic recipes with a contemporary twist, I had been trying to persuade the her to feature in my publication ever since I first developed the idea. Three features later, the two of us decided to put an end to our mutual procrastination and arrange an informal coverage of hers at her candid best. The plan for the afternoon was a three-stage cookout display, of which Divija would provide me a live demo. Thereafter, we would briefly discuss some of her signature concepts and preparatory tricks that set her culinary stye apart.
Hailing from Rajasthan’s Badnore, an active alumni of Mayo College Girls’ School and a law graduate, Divija realised a few years into legal practice that her calling lay in whipping up some magic in the kitchen. Wasting no time, she took the brave decision of changing her career path and replacing the lawyer’s robe with a chef coat. In a brief introduction to food & restaurant consultant Divija Singh, I would make no delay in pointing out one of her most remarkable projects so far, namely, Jaipur’s Baradari, the City Palace’s erstwhile cafe that has been reclaimed into an al fresco dining space. Catering chiefly to the palace’s international visitors, Baradari’s sophisticated menu reflects some charming customisations that undoubtedly point towards Divija’s mastermind. For example, a global array comprising of Italian, and continental favourites are momentarily suspended by the irresistible appeal some of the Divija’s signature entrees, such as the Keema Pao Benedict and Mozzarella Kachori. Hence, these subtle hints of innovation that jointly constitute a larger fare ensure the purposeful admission of a diverse range of palettes, from the adventurous to the conventional, from the zesty tourist to the Parisian who’s having a homesick day amongst Jaipur’s spice-saturated cityscape.
Her immaculate command over the variety and scope of the dining experience at Baradari implies almost explicitly that amongst all, her native Rajasthani cuisine remains the closest to her heart. That stated, Divija’s versatile gastronomical know-how can be found in the eclectically youthful concept of Jai’Pour, another cafe and bar situated in the Pink City. Her frequent oscillations between contemporary and regal dining experiences are performed in a seemingly effortless manner, as could be observed by those who attended last year’s season of Dine with Royalty. Here, Divija curated a heritage dine out experience with twenty five other Rajput families in a special effort to introduce carefully-preserved familial recipes to the modern world.
Honoured to be the individual recipient of Divija’s informal cookout that afternoon, I keenly awaited her introduction to the afternoon’s entrees. She had decided to introduce me to a trio of junglee prawns, pork khada masala and gulaab ki kheer with traditional liquors, also known as amals. Inspired by the quintuple tradition of the famed junglee maas, Divija’s rendition replaces the mutton with prawns while keeping the elements of ghee, garlic, red chillies and salt intact. The classical flavour produced by the immaculate mixing of these various components over a flaming griddle descended earthily on the impressionable prawns to my sheer delight. I was transported back to my family’s kitchen in Rajasthan while being acquainted to a lighter variant of seafood.
The junglee prawns served as an ideal preamble to the grand entrant of the afternoon, which was the pork khada masala. Succulent pieces of pork were cooked in a composite mix of khada masala known as garam masala and served alongside a buttered pao and some garlic chutney. Imitating Mumbai’s adored vada pao with a pickled meat twist, the pork khada masala serves as a typical entree that can be promptly converted into a breakfast special as well as a high tea surprise. The garlic chutney added just the adequate amount of moisture to the mildly-crisped pao. A cutting-glass of masala tea would make the perfect accompaniment to this street-style Indian bao of sorts.
Divija’s kitchen-time glory had reached its third round wherein she produced a unique fusion between kheer and phirni, topped with roses and flanked by the traditional liquors (amals) called kesar-kasturi. Although amals are traditionally made with an opium base, the official ban on opium has eliminated the feasibility of procuring the original variant. Hence, Divija makes her versions of amal with a vodka base.
The kesar liquor comprises of vodka-infused raisins with a saffron undertone while kasturi is simply rose petals distilled in vodka. The vodka-soaked duo provided Divija’s kheer with the perfect amount of spunk for a lazy afternoon. In the absence of the dessert, she points out the use of kesar-kasturi as popular aperitifs through changing times.
After conducting a brief photo-shoot for the camera-conscious Divija and her elegantly-plated meal trio, we cleared the set over a brief conversation. Divija briefly introduced me to two of her most elementary cooking principles, which she found to be commonly lacking in today’s day and age. First and foremost, she highlighted the unmatched importance of ensuring a procurement of the freshest of ingredients. “People tend to forget how important it is to cook using fresh ingredients. Market-bought ingredients are fine so long as their source is certified and verified as straight-forward and genuine. I, personally prefer to grow all cooking herbs in my backyard, such that I can ensure their freshness and ready availability”, she adds. Her second principle comprises of a blatant rejection of ‘fast cooking’, which she elaborates by saying, “fast cooking doesn’t work, it is violative of the basic components of cooking. Flavours take time to form, to blend in and to be infused. Adding preservatives to speed up a cooking process ends up in a synthetic texture to the dish. Hence, it is my firm belief that the larger the number of in-house material, the better the quality”. Divija admits to the tediousness that goes into ensuring the applicability of these two principles but ensures their irreplaceable worth and results.
Deriving immense strength by honing the basic conventions of cooking, Divija’s style combines elementary considerations with a thoroughly balanced foresight of emerging food trends. Her readily-identifiable know-how of rapidly changing culinary demands can be traced back to the thorough grounding and exposure that she received during her year-long training with Delhi’s renowned Olive Kitchen and Bar. From her time there as an apprentice to her present stature as a sought-after consultant, Divija has thoughtfully nurtured her skill and insights in a way that would enable her to deliver a refreshingly different concept onto every project that she has worked on.
Our afternoon tête-à-tête concluded with her sharing her upcoming work, which she is leisurely curating as her signature concept, The Table. Through this initiative, Divija envisions a conglomerate of India’s regional cuisines from where she is personally shortlisting lesser-known recipes to be presented to elite diners at prime locations across several cities. She intends to place particular focus on diversifying cuisines that are lesser-known to the urban eater, namely, Kasmiri, Parsi, Rampuri and Chettinad favourites.
With a cauldron full of magic and distinguished diners to educate, Divija has an exciting and enticing summer ahead of her, and we wish her all the very best!