I have been after Chef Irshad Qureshi’s life to offer an occasional menu that offers the home food of his clan. Chef Qureshi hails from Lucknow’s famous cooking clan that started out life as butchers. In the Muslim style of Lucknow’s cuisine, butchery is no less important than spicing. It is entirely possible that there exists another bunch of traditional cooks in Lucknow who carry forward the craft of their forefathers, but there’s no doubt that it is the Qureshis that are the most famous.
The clan is a fascinating combination of young and old males, with varying degrees of education and media-savviness. In general, there’s a courteous yet firm reluctance to part with recipes or even details of processes. One notable exception is Chef Irshad Qureshi who heads the Baluchi kitchen at Delhi’s The Lalit. The result is that I visit him regularly after working hours, when he is having his lunch: usually home-cooked food. The boring part about asking most chefs what they eat at home results in most of them going on and on about dal and chawal. Not Qureshi. His eyes gleam as he talks about parathas filled with channa dal seasoned with cumin and black pepper. Not just any old parathas – these have two pedas each which are filled and then rolled one on top of the other, so that they fuse into one. These are cooked on an ulta tawa that every family in the community seems to possess.
Eating in the Qureshi clan is strictly seasonal. Thus, in summer, they would eat lamb with bottle gourd and spinach, made sour with aamchur, while in winter, the menu changes to lamb with spinach and turnips. It is not meat all the way, however. There is dal too. The favourite is satpeta, green urad dal (that no departmental store in Delhi seems to have heard of) cooked with a mixture of spinach and the green leafy vegetable that is called bathua (pig weed). The tadka is as simple as it gets: an onion, cumin and a broken red chilli.
Division of labour is stringent in the family. It would not occur to a female member to seek employment in the hospitality industry, while it is not the job of a male to go poking around in the kitchen at home. The fascinating aspect is that in both places, processes are followed equally stringently. Potli masala is made in both places – quite a feat, considering that it is a mix of 21 different spices.
Potli masala and its poorer (by comparison) country cousin, garam masala may not go into every dish that is cooked at home, but it is the defining factor in a cuisine that can never be accused of being simple. It is fascinating to conjecture on the origins of this community and its cuisine. Though turmeric is supposed to be indigenous to India, you’ll rarely see it in the food of the Qureshi clan. What you will see, instead, is the relatively uncommon yellow chilli.
Footnote: Bandh Gosht calls for lamb sautéed in onions, cumin, garam masala, haldi, khus-khus, cashew paste, grated dry coconut and yellow chilli