The rise of North India’s first family of food can be traced to one man alone: master chef Imtiaz Qureshi of Dum Pukht, the signature restaurant at Maurya Sheraton Hotel and Towers in New Delhi. Chef Imtiaz started his career in the family’s butchery business. Like the other two well-known Muslim cuisines of India: Kashmir and Hyderabadi, Avadhi food is largely meat based, which meant that the butcher and the cook had to now more about each other’s field of expertise than they would in other circumstances. During festivals held to commemorate birth anniversaries of saints, the fair that would gather overnight at the saint’s shrine would invariably have a kabab stall set up by a member of the Qureshi clan. The best known of these is the one at the Urs held at Kakori, just outside Lucknow, with its lt-in-the-mouth kakori kababs. Most of Lucknow’s nawabi families combined epicurean tastes with infinite patience in tracking down the means of satisfying them. Thus, while cooks attached to nawabi households provided gastronomic delights every day, festive meals called for a different menu and were provided by the butchers of the Qureshi clan. They would buy the ingredients, grind the masalas and cook them in their own houses, transporting the finished product to the nawabs’ homes. That the Qureshi butchers of Sadar Bazar, Lucknow, have metamorphosed into renowned master chefs in the last 30 years is a spectacular story: while Sadar Bazar continues to be the old homestead, virtually every Avadhi and kebab restaurant of note in the country has a Qureshi chef at its helm. Members of the family are spread as far afield as major restaurants Riyadh, Australia, UK and Canada.
By the time the young Imtiaz graduatedfrom employment in one of Lucknow’s streetside stalls selling nihari to rckshaw-pullers, Welcomproup had comissioned its second hotel in Agra, he was hired in the kitchen. You can’t keep a good man down, as the saying goes, and the chef’s traditional Avadhi cooking arrested the attention of the management. Soon enough, plans were affot to start Dum Pukht, the restaurant which takes slow braising in doughsealed cooking pots to an art form.
When Chef Imtiaz took charge of the kitchen, he brought with him a number of relatives. Some of these have since taken charge of kitchens in other hotels. What each of them has in common is an ability to innovate, and a modesty that is refreshing. “Few of us speak any language other than Urdu,” says Chef Salim Qureshi, till recently the head of the Indian kitchen at New Delhi’s Vasant Continental. “Which is why others, with their way with words, capitalise on our skills, while we remain in the background.”
The background, let it be said, is not a dull place to be — Qureshi chefs dream of food in their sleep, and when they awake, it is to translate their dreams into reality in the most fanciful language imaginable. When family members do meet, talk revolves around one topic: food. “A few of us pray at the same mosque every Friday and guess what we invariably talk about!” says Vakil Qureshi, consultant with food consultant jiggs Kalra.
And being in the field of commercial cooking, the clan as a whole has taken Avadhi food forward. This is no doubt due to the exigencies ofthe market where the customer is king. And the king invariably has a few peccadillos: either he’s vegetarian, or is on a diet, or gets bored of even the most royal cuisine after a few visits.
Which means that the chef has to have up his sleeve as much excitement for strict vegetarians — completely outside the parameters of traditional Avadhi cooking — as he has for non-vegetarians. In addition, menus must be continually reworked using the traditions of Avadh as a framework.
The interesting aspect of these masterful chefs is their creation of signature dishes served only to special guests. Seldom seen on menus, either because they’re not
financially viable, or because they cater to the adventurous gastronome, these dishes have a parallel in the couture world where designers have a pret line for their bread and butter and a fantasy one of bustiers and other unwearables to “show off their abilities”.
Chef Md Ahmed Qureshi of Hotel Inter Continental’s Baluchi restaurant delights in showing off his mahi shammi kabab made of flaked fish instead of ground mutton. “The major problem is binding it: channa dal is not compatible with fish. I’ve had to do some extensive reworking.” The flushed face and sparkling eyes are not unlike a scientist who has solved a difficult equation in quantum physics. ChefAhmed’s dessert of the day, phirni of flaked fish, is a reworking of an Avadhi favourite — mutanjan, or pounded mutton with rice and sugar.
Says Sheraton’s executive chef Gev Desai of Imtiaz Qureshi, “He can take two elements from disparate cuisines and blend them into something wholly Avadhi.” In that, he could have been speaking for the entire Qureshi clan.