A Royal Indian Bread Pudding to Toast Diwali

How the chefs at Junoon are celebrating the festival of lights.

November  5, 2018
Photo by Ty Mecham

In celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, we caught up with Junoon’s Executive Chef Akshay Bhardwaj and Executive Pastry Chef Gustavo Tzoc to learn more about their star dessert, shahi tukra, and how the Michelin-starred restaurant is toasting to the holiday this year.

I first had Junoon’s shahi tukra (which translates to "royal piece") at the James Beard House last spring: a single slice of brioche toast soaked in saffron syrup; a duvet of cardamom-spiced condensed milk blanketed over; and a mélange of nuts, flowers, and gold leaf scattered atop for crunch. It came at the end of a seven-course meal that was already phenomenal. But that toast, for me, was the clincher.

I don’t know why I got so emotional when I took that first bite, but I did. Maybe it was the wine, or the fact that it was the most beautiful dessert I had ever seen. No, I teared up after taking a bite, so it was the taste that did me in. So simple, so measured—yet textured and nuanced and everything I wanted in that moment.

"Oh, I remember this," the person next to me said.

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“I Indulged in this rich dessert. It’s delicious! A royal treat indeed!”
— Sehar

I think I did, too. It tasted like the kind of dessert my mother would’ve prepared for us: white bread from the Korean bakery (which is always sweeter than store-bought), torn up into a bowl, then doused with warm milk and a little cinnamon sugar—nothing else. The kind of food you'd only ever eat with a spoon. It was strange to see this on my plate, albeit majorly upgraded. Strange because it was different but familiar, a feeling Junoon is known for recalling. Their tagline: Signal the past while leaving room for the present; Indian food with a modern twist.

I caught up with Chefs Bhardwaj and Tzoc
 to learn more about the dish, the labor of love behind it, and its sweet, technicolor significance during this holiday season.

ERIC KIM: Does your family celebrate Diwali?

AKSHAY BHARDWAJ: Oh, for sure. Diwali is huge in my family. Growing up you'd always start with a prayer ceremony. You'd clean your house and light a bunch of candles, then pray; that's when you'd serve the halwa, a semolina-based dish (it's very sweet). But different families do different things and eat different things. Our family would eat poori chole (bread on the side, some yogurt), an array of desserts. It was one of those holidays when everyone would dress up in bright colors ("festival of lights," you know), and we'd bring sweets over to each other's houses.

EK: Would one of those sweets happen to be shahi tukra? I'll admit, I may have cried the first time I had it—it was so comforting!

AB: Ha, yes! Growing up we'd have it from time to time. But of course, it'd be a little more robust and sharable (and transportable!) than the delicate version we serve at the restaurant.

EK: Chef Tzoc, can you tell us a little about the version you've created for the restaurant? How do you make this beautiful "royal piece"?

GUSTAVO TZOC: So for the Junoon shahi tukra, what we do first is make a classic French brioche in-house (I love baking bread, just the smell of the kitchen you know?). It's very buttery and I wanted something rich from the beginning, so that all of the richness would just pile and pile and pile, and it’s just...DECADENT (laughs). After that, we slice the bread and toast it in ghee (clarified butter) because, why not add more butter to butter? Next, we soak it in a simple syrup infused with saffron and rosewater. Then we make a rabri, which is just a reduction of milk and heavy cream, add some green cardamom to that. The natural sugars in the milk come out, so that’s the sweetness you may be tasting. Sort of like condensed milk, dulce de leche. (I love dulce de leche.)

EK: You're from Guatemala, right?

GT: I am! In a way I’m kind of lucky. Guatemala and India have the same latitude. So we share a lot of those exotic fruits like mangos and bananas, similar climates and flavors. So it’s pretty natural for me as a Guatemalan pastry chef in an Indian restaurant, because I remember a lot of these tastes from my own childhood. Here at Junoon, it’s about tradition—but at the same time, we’re an Indian restaurant with a twist. Chef Bhardwaj encourages us to play around and incorporate our own backgrounds; he has an open mind about that kind of thing.

AB: We have a very diverse kitchen for a reason: It helps us veer away from being just traditionalists all the time, which is often the case with Indian restaurant food. My pastry chef is Guatemalan, my sous chef is Filipino; we have cooks from India, Nepal, Jamaica, all over.

EK: Do you feel that this diversity in the staff influences the food you put out every night?

AB: Definitely. Junoon is global Indian food. We serve an idea and make it in a way that still represents that idea, but the approach is always a little different. My staff, they all add something of their own to the menu and experience. The shahi tukra, for instance—you'd never think of a brioche, or to garnish it the way we do. But Gustavo did. It's a hybrid and something new, yet still a celebration of tradition. At the end of the day it's Diwali on a plate, all those colors, something wonderful to look at as well as to eat.

GT: Anyway, even the shahi tukra was something the cooks would give to the British royals back in the day. They wanted to make them something that was closer to home, because they (the British) weren't used to Indian food. So of course, they went with pudding.

One of the great things about working in this restaurant is that all of us believe Indian cuisine at its core is an international cuisine. People aren’t used to that. In recent years Indian food has become so big [popular] that now we can incorporate tastes and techniques from other cultures in the same way that American food has always been able to. You notice it in the little things, like…even with our Indian diners, they'll go, “Oh, I’ve never tasted this before. But it feels familiar.”

Have you ever tasted this dessert? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.

1 Comment

Sehar November 8, 2018
I Indulged in this rich dessert. It’s delicious! A royal treat indeed!