The Magic Ingredient Is 'Dil Se!'

Chef Tikka Manpreet Singh upholds home-style food and preserves the old recipes from undivided Punjab that he inherited from his grandparents
Chef Tikka Manpreet Singh
Chef Tikka Manpreet SinghAreeba Ansari

On the evening of August 18, 2023, I step into a culinary event at Tamra in Delhi's Shangri-La Eros Hotel. The place is softly lit, bustling with chefs and waiters in neat white uniforms. Colorful decorations hang from the ceiling, while Indian toy trucks and autos decorate the tables. Kites and cutouts of Chef Tikka Singh grace the corners. Amidst influencers, guests, and colleagues, Singh proudly presents his well-thought-out menu for the evening.

Buffet tables are filled with dishes bearing names reminiscent of home-style food. What's even better is that these dishes look and smell inviting, without any unnecessary additives. Later, I have a one-on-one chat with Singh at a table, where he shares the story behind this flavourful evening.

The Indian touch
The Indian touchAreeba Ansari

For Singh, food is linked to home and childhood memories. "It all began during my childhood," he explains. "I come from a land-owning family of Punjab. Hunting was a popular sport back then. With limited resources, we had to cook everything ourselves. I used to assist my uncle, father, and others; I found it fascinating."

These family experiences outdoors ignited his culinary passion. He fondly recalls, "It was the era of cooking on firewood with clay pots, a tradition that's making a comeback today."

Becoming Chef Tikka Singh

The Chef who has served in prominent roles in Indian and international hotels—an Executive Chef for about 10 years at hotels like Carlson, Marriott, IHG, and Accor—decided to embark on his own food festival journey a few months ago.

"My first food festival was at The Claridges, showcasing Dhaba-style cuisine. From there, I worked with various hotels, adapting menus to different regions and weather conditions."

Singh's approach to food is rooted in his heart and upbringing. He emphasises, "The food I create is like what our mothers, grandmothers, and homemakers prepare at home." He underscores that food is a reflection of care, belonging, and love, saying, "The intention behind cooking matters a lot. Unless food is prepared dil se (with heart and soul), it won't taste good." He also acknowledges the importance of lighter, easy-to-digest meals.

Chef's aaloo wadiyan
Chef's aaloo wadiyanAreeba Ansari

Besides infusing his dishes with the dil se factor, Singh emphasises three key ingredients in his creations: mustard oil, desi ghee, and butter.

He recalls the festivities of Lohri and Baisakhi in his hometown, where old and forgotten dishes were prepared. While traditional dishes like sewai and kheer were popular, beetroot was a treasured ingredient of his community.

Signature Delights

At the Chef's Table at Tamra, Singh proudly presents two signature dishes: "First, my signature dish is murgh dahi-kali-mirch. It's a family signature, and now it's mine too," he shares. "Second, I prepare a delicious radiya meat, a mutton curry prepared traditionally. In vegetarian options, churan-wali bhindi is another family signature. Each family has its unique technique for cooking bhindi, and my mother's technique involved adding churan (digestive spices) for texture. That's why I named it churan-wali bhindi," he adds with a smile.

Chef's desi tari wala murgh
Chef's desi tari wala murghAreeba Ansari

When I ask if he's on a mission to resurrect any specific dish or ingredient, Singh expresses concern about the commercialisation of food. "Many hotels have merged Punjabi food with Mughal and Awadhi dishes, erasing the uniqueness of many traditional dishes," he explains. He continues, "While I was at Shangri-La in Bangalore, we focused on resurrecting lost recipes from undivided Punjab. We turned this idea into a menu to bring back those forgotten flavours and recipes cherished by my parents and grandparents."

The Adventurous Chef

Known for his love of pets, cars, and bikes, I inquire about his ideal pet-car-travel combination. Laughing, Singh shares, "I have a golden boy (labrador) named Ruffle. I'm quite the motorsport enthusiast; I love rallying. I participated in local events a few years ago. I'm fond of cars and bikes. I own an old Yamaha RD350 that I'm restoring. It's a vintage beauty. I had one during college, sold it, but memories drew me back to it." He also cherishes a Bullet he received as a gift from his father in 2001.

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