Bukhara Turns 45: Tradition, Nostalgia And An Unchanged Menu
Image Credit: ITC Maurya

A chance meeting with a family that had just enjoyed lunch at Bukhara, one of the landmark restaurants at Delhi’s ITC Maurya, summed up just what this institution specialising in Northwest Frontier cuisine has achieved in its 45 years of existence. The grandmother revealed that her mother used to dine here in the early 1980s, she has done so all her life with her children, and now she’s here with her grandson—and the food has evoked the exact same sentiments, always. In a world where food trends shift every year, restaurant menus change every season, and certain dishes go “viral” for a hot minute before fizzling out every week, Bukhara is best known for its iconic, unchanged and forever delicious menu. 

“We started Bukhara in 1978 and we’ve never looked back,” exclaims JP Singh, Chef Culinaire, Bukhara. His chef’s hat says, “Every dish is a masterpiece”, and everything that comes out of his kitchen proves this point to the hilt. A part of ITC Hotels since 1981, Singh joined Bukhara in 1991 and has helmed its kitchen for almost 32 years now. During his tenure, he has hosted Indian gourmands, heads of states and global leaders at Bukhara, serving up dishes like Naan Bukhara, Dal Bukhara and varieties of vegetarian and non-vegetarian kebabs made in five custom-made, well-maintained tandoors.  

“We have never changed the menu and that has been the USP of the restaurant,” Singh explains. “We’re very proud of the fact that quite contrary to the global trend of the menu changing maybe once or twice a year, we have defied the challenges, remained abreast of the competition and always managed superlative experiences for the guests without the menu changing at all.” 

"As we celebrate 45 glorious years of Bukhara, we reflect on a journey filled with timeless flavours, cherished memories, and an unwavering commitment to consistency and quality. The unchanged menu-a testament to timelessness has remained an everlasting favourite amongst celebrities and Heads of States showcasing nuances of the region," says Anil Chadha, Chief Executive, ITC Hotels.

The Secrets Behind A 45-Year-Old Unchanged Menu 

A first look at the embossed menu at Bukhara will probably make you wonder if all that fuss and hype is about just two sides of a wooden board with a small selection of kebabs, tikkas, roasted items and breads. But the secret behind Bukhara’s 45 years as a Delhi institution serving tandoori cuisine from the Northwest Frontier regions and undivided India lies behind this selective and evergreen menu.  

“This menu has been curated in such a way that it suits everyone’s palates, be they Indians or foreigners,” Singh says. “That’s one of the main reasons the menu has never changed, because we never felt the need to change to keep going strong. We use very precise cuts and weigh every portion. There is never any waste because we use the extra cuts for our seekh kebabs or send them off to Peshawri for their use. And everything we cook is available throughout the year in the markets and is locally grown and sourced.” 

“The standard that we have set for ourselves is such that no matter which ITC restaurant you go to, there will never be any compromise on the quality of food,” says Taranjit Singh Madan, Chef & Custodian, Peshawri. “It’s always going to be top-notch. Secondly, the prime cuts that we use speak for themselves. If there is a problem in supply or a dish doesn’t come up to the required standard, we don’t serve it. The menu has also not been changed for 45 years because our guests have said repeatedly that they feel this is a complete menu.” 

“The menu, the ingredients, the sourcing of these ingredients, the way of marination, the techniques and temperatures of cooking—all these processes create a nostalgic experience for the customers when they come over, no matter how much time has passed,” Singh adds.  

Kebabs, Naan Bukhara, Dal Bukhara: The Restaurant Classics 

So, what are the classic components of this menu that make it a must-have? Well, there are the vegetarian and non-vegetarian kebabs, a variety of breads and the Dal Bukhara. Singh took this author through every category in detail, revealing the level of precision with which each is created.  

First come the kebabs and tikkas, all made to perfection in the designated tandoors—two for non-vegetarian ones and one for vegetarian options only. The menu includes everything from Malai Tikka to Barrah Kebab. “These are the master kebabs or the primary kebabs, out of which variations can be prepared with new concepts today. But we have retained the grassroot level in terms of recipes, flavours and techniques for each of these master kebabs,” Singh says. “We’ve never indulged in the current trend of innovation. So, everything from the marination to the choice of spices in every kebab recipe is controlled precisely, and what comes out is not only authentic and traditional but also has that wow factor because of the nostalgia attached.”  

Next up is the iconic, slow-cooked Dal Bukhara made with black urad dal. “I know many people who have just come over to have the Dal Bukhara and Naan Bukhara with it. I think our Dal Bukhara is one of the longest cooked dals in the world today because we first check the quality of the lentils, we wash it, boil it precisely overnight over hot coals,” he explains. “Next morning, we drain the excess water, add the spices and put it on the charcoal grill and it remains there, cooking until it is time to serve it. So, it keeps simmering continuously until it goes to the table. It is never off the fire.”  

Finally, there are the bread options ranging from regular staples like Butter Naan, Rumali Roti and Kulcha to the more elaborate and typical Bukhara breads. Of these, the Naan Bukhara is a massive, family-sized naan that is cooked in a separate tandoor of its own. The Naan Amal is a smaller, yet festive Khamiri Roti or leavened bread embedded with sliced almonds and more. While the former is meant for large parties, this author tried the latter with the Dal Bukhara, and just these two classics made for a sumptuous meal. 

Hosting The World’s Leaders, Without Cutlery 

Anybody familiar with Bukhara’s history knows that the restaurant has hosted everyone from American Presidents to British Prime Ministers as well as world leaders during the G20 Summit held in New Delhi last year. Of course, given that Singh has catered to them all, he has plenty of anecdotes to share. “When Bill Clinton came over the first time, he came into the kitchen. He wanted to know how the Naan Bukhara is made in the tandoor. He’s been here six times since,” Singh says. “David Cameron came here twice, and he was very curious about the same. I took him into the kitchen, showed how the breads are stuck to the tandoor wall, and he also tried to do it. I had to insist that he should not do this because a tandoor functions at a very high temperature. Tony Blair has been here thrice, so has Barack Obama. Even state leaders who are not staying at ITC Hotels have made it a point to make a pit stop here.” 

But with so many dignitaries from around the world dining here, most of whom are not as used to eating with their hands as Indians are, there is another aspect that must be highlighted—the almost complete absence of cutlery on the restaurant’s many tables. Apart from a sole, small spoon given to serve the signature green chutney with, there isn’t a single knife, fork or even a spork to see anywhere.  

“I would say we are perhaps the only restaurant in a five-star setting where no cutlery is provided at the table,” Singh says. “We always promote eating with our hands to feel the tenderised food and engage all the senses while eating. Eating with hands without the intermediary cutlery also improves satiety. We never let people cut the bread we serve; they are supposed to be broken by hand and shared. That’s how our Naan Bukhara came into existence. The idea that an entire family should break bread together is at the core of our food philosophy.”    

But in a world where every customer might have their own needs, does the Bukhara food philosophy of tradition preserved through an unchanging menu manage to cater to those who have specific demands due to health issues? Both Singh and Singh Madan say yes, to a large extent. “If any guests want a more customised meal, then we only do it when we are given advance notice of at least two days,” Singh Madan says. “Demands for vegan and gluten-free food are also catered to if prior intimation is given.” Singh sums it up by saying: “Considering the needs of the guests, we try our best to accommodate them. However, not everything is possible, and we never compromise on the integrity of our food or the quality benchmark we have set.” 

So, while the rest of the restaurant industry might keep looking at what’s trendy and cater to that need for innovation that the current social media-obsessed generation may have, Bukhara remains an icon that proves that while life is unpredictable, the food you love need not be. “There are many restaurants that have tried to replicate what we do, but it hasn’t been possible. After all, it’s about the composite experience we offer. Just changing menus every season doesn’t help,” Singh sums up. “We have retained what we are for 45 years, and we will continue to do so for the next 45 years while not letting the innovation fever touch us at all.”