“Our food has influences from Delhi and Lucknow, Rampur being equidistant from both cities,” Osama Jalali greets us at the door of the restaurant where his festival is in full swing. The Jalalis are from the principality of Rampur; in fact, Osama’s wife Nazia Khan is a Rohilla Pathan, a community well represented in the small town with its crumbling palaces and forts. Only the royal library, the Reza Library, lives on, more or less in its original glory, crammed with manuscripts and printed tomes about subjects as diverse as religion and cuisine! The nawabs of Rampur were patrons of the arts and Begum Akhtar was ‘discovered’ at a royal mehfil so it was in Rampur that she made the transition from Akhtari bai to Begum Akhtar! Why the name of the dusty little town lingers on in the minds of food lovers is because of its cuisine: at once robust yet nuanced; with the delicate craftsmanship of their Lucknavi neighbours yet red-blooded from the Pathan ancestors who sought Chapli kebabs wrapped by king-sized rotis that were torn by hand and served to diners at a banquet: one interpretation of ‘sharing bread’.
Osama Jalali, his mother Naazish, popularly known by the sobriquet Ammi, and wife Nazia Khan are from Rampur, though Dilli 6 has been their more recent home. However, the tastes of childhood never leave you, so Osama recounts with warmth the Khasta Kofta that his grandmother’s sister used to make for the family every year at Eid. One touch and the kofta would fall apart on the plate, as it was supposed to, which made cooking it through a stiff challenge that only the most experienced cook could get right. This food obsessed family can spend hours talking about the fragrance of the clove necklace that Osama’s wife Nazia was presented on her wedding day by her mother: a gift that will be, in turn, bequeathed to her own daughter on her wedding day, for the antiseptic quality of the spice. They talk – as I ate my way through an eighteen course meal – of Summer Behisht, the exquisitely sweet and fragrant mango that is native to the orchards of Rampur, even as it is in danger of being edged out by the faster growing, higher yielding Langda. They talk of the beautifully crafted knives that are still made in the markets of the old town, each carved on the handle with a motif.
Meanwhile, the Nargisi Kebab is made with chicken mince and cooked on a sigdi so that the mince cooks through but the succulence is retained before grated boiled egg is sprinkled atop, to earn the sobriquet ‘nargisi’. Yakhni Tali Boti too was tender because of the rib cut used and because of partial cooking in yakhni or stock. Whether it was the Kacche Qeeme ki Tikiya, Shammi Kebab or Murgh Seekh Kebab, the flavour of the meat was prime, the spices formed a subtle matrix in the background and the texture of the kebab was sacrosanct: neither tough nor falling off the bone.
Rampuri Khichda was a robust preparation of a mix of different types of lentils with lamb cooked together in a deceptively simple style. That is to say, no tomatoes or turmeric ever enters the kitchen of the Jalali family and the spices they do use are sprinkled judiciously, so as not to overpower the ingredients. The subtlety of the spicing is reminiscent of Lucknow but the minuscule quantities is pure Rampur. The understanding of meat is a subject that reaches metaphysical proportions in Rampur. Osama’s opinion is that “any part of the animal that touches the ground is not as tasty”. As a result, the neck, shoulder and back are considered by connoisseurs to be superior cuts.
In addition to the Taar Gosht – the highlight of any Rampuri meal because of the stickiness of the bone marrow – the Hari Mirchi Qeema had its own texture with firm diagonally cut fresh green chillies with tender mince; the Urad Gosht was a sensation because of the earthy whole dal with meat, both perfectly cooked despite widely varying cooking times; the creamy Chana Dal Bharta; Arbi Ka Salan that turned a not very premium root vegetable into an art form and Rampuri Mash ki Dal – the ultimate proficiency of any cook in the city, home or commercial, who can fully cook white urad dal completely without letting it turn to mush.
One of the desserts that we were offered was Gosht ka Halwa: a trick dish in the manner of the best of Lucknavi nawabs playing tricks on one another. Made of mutton, it is impossible to guess the central ingredient. This particular halwa did not have the consistency or the fibres of meat, leave alone the aroma. As a grand finale, it was as good as any to end a meal that transcended provenance and community. As long as families like the Jalalis keep wielding the ladle, the heritage of Rampur is in no danger at all.