“When two Englishmen meet, they talk about the weather,” said PJ as we sampled his spinach soup, “but when two Bengalis meet, they talk about food.” The soup, like many of PJ’s dishes, was smooth and creamy, but without cream; it had a deep flavour profile, rich in herbs and spices, but without too much heat.
The conversation was equally rich and smooth, with laughter and anecdotes, a deep knowledge of Indian cuisine, and an enduring pride in Indian history and culture. Probal Bhattacharyya is a man with a passion for India.
PJ and his wife, Dalal, opened their first restaurant, Tandoor Mahal, in Achrafieh, Beirut in 2000. It was, by all accounts, modest, warm, welcoming, and authentic: just like this charming couple. Sadly for the Lebanese, but fortuitously for us, politics intervened, and they eventually moved to Cairo where they opened Nawab, 21B, Baghat Ali Street, Zamalek in 2009.
A nawab is a sort of prince. It was an honourary title bestowed by the Mughal emperors on important landowners in northern India in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were men of leisure, and one of their pastimes, like other Muslim nobles in North Africa, Arabia, Persia and Turkey, was food. Mughlai cuisine—the dominant trend in Indian restaurant food worldwide—was born of this tradition.
Having grown up in Calcutta, and having learned these traditions in his homeland, PJ was somewhat dismayed that he could not find good Indian food on his extensive travels as a corporate executive. So when he met his begum, Dalal, who shares his passion for Indian cookery, they decided to go into the restaurant business together. A begum is the prince’s wife, and their latest venture, Begum, 34, Road 276, Maadi, is every bit as authentic, warm and welcoming as the Zamalek branch.
My own princess and I were delighted to learn about the history of Mughlai cuisine from PJ and Dalal as we sampled their bahjis, pakoras and pappadoms in anticipation of a full on Indian feast. This is the real deal. The only Indian restaurant that even comes close in Cairo is the Mughal Room at the Mena House Oberoi, but Nawab and Begum are both more affordable and more accessible.
There are some other regional dishes available, such as Balti masalas from Kashmir and Vindaloo from the east coast, but the heart and soul of the menu is northern Indian cuisine with all its familiar dishes, many of which are prepared in a clay tandoor oven over natural charcoal.
We tried the lamb korma dilpasand which, like all of Begum’s food, was steeped in spices and aromatics in a subtle rather than overpowering fashion; the prawns malai kebab, which are a Bengali specialty; the chicken pasanda, which is stuffed with and baked in a thick sauce of cashews and almonds reminiscent, in a way, of the famous Turkish sharkaseya; and a baked tandoori white fish marinated in ginger, garlic and tomatoes.
Something we especially loved was the fact that Begum is a haven for vegetarians. In addition to the spinach soup, we tasted the palak paneer, which is a cheese dish that PJ and Dalal make fresh in a way that cannot be found elsewhere in Cairo, and the aromatic dal makhani, a deep mixture of lentils and kidney beans. There are more than two dozen vegetarian dishes on the menu.
If you desire a sampling of all things authentically Indian, Begum does a noon brunch on Fridays that features street foods from across the continent including what is known as “Desi Chinese,” an Indian version of Chinese that every local cook masters.
In fact in India Desi Chinese and Moghulai dishes are often available in the same restaurant, and PJ and Dalal intend to open their own Desi Chinese restaurant next door to Begum sometime next year.
Another way to sample everything they have to offer is to get together a party of eight or more friends, call ahead, and have the chefs set up your own private buffet. Keep in mind that the restaurant itself is modest, and that they do not have an alcohol license, but if you bring your own party, it would be an excellent way for everyone to get the chance to try as many of the dishes as possible.
Already Begum seems to be the restaurant of choice among visiting Indian tourists and the local Indian ex-patriate community and there could hardly be a stronger recommendation than that.
And if you have something particular in mind, or just want your own, private culinary tour of India, pass by and experiment. As we discovered, the nawab and begum of Indian food in Cairo are friendly and easy to talk to, and their passion for food pours out of the kitchen.