Once upon a time, a child was born with the gift of culinary talent in his blood. Born into a family of chefs who catered specifically to the Nawabs of Lucknow, the child grew up to be a man who was perhaps destined to help Indians rediscover their love for Awadhi food.
Cut to late June 2012, Bangalore city; in town to launch the new menu at Kebabs & Kurries at ITC Gardenia, Grand Master Chef Imtiaz Qureshi came down for the interview after a visit to the gym! Dressed in a sharp white tracksuit, complete with a formidable thick silver chain around the neck, one couldn’t help but wonder if the man had drunk from the fountain of youth. He doesn’t look 83, and he certainly hasn’t allowed age to affect his memories. For you see, the man loves to begin conversations with stories.
And his tales are not from the recent past; they go back decades and decades.
He will tell you about the wedding of the Maharajah of Jaipur, “It would have been just after the partition of India and Pakistan. I went to Jaipur as part of the entourage of chefs for the wedding banquet with my maternal uncle, who was already an established cook. I must have been 16 or 17, don’t remember very well, but it was the first time I saw dinner plates and bowls of gold and all the kings and nawabs and the affluent people from the country.”
It’s about that time when, he reminds us, the concept of fine dining in India was not alien. “Even the Mughals weren’t as obsessed with their cuisine as we are. They were busy fighting wars; to them food was about survival. And that’s why meat is such a main part of their cuisine.
A bunch of soldiers, walking through dense forests, where even salt is not available, were compelled to hunt and roast on the spot whatever they could find. It was the nawabs who canted towards cuisine and culture. They were responsible for developing the cuisine because they always wanted to impress those who came as royal guests, apart from humouring themselves,” he reminds us.
Imtiaz Qureshi, in fact, is filled with stories — from cooking for Jawaharlal Nehru to the upkeep of Nawabi khana in modern India — he can regale you with them till it’s bedtime, or even past it.
“I remember I had gone to attend the wedding of a big media baron’s daughter. At the wedding, people from all over the country were there, including Bollywood celebrities. At the wedding, I saw a man and realised that it was the king of Jaipur and I had cooked for his wedding. How young he looked! At one point, we were all sitting around chatting when I broached the subject and said, “You don’t remember but I cooked in your wedding. I was only a boy of 17 then”.
The man turned around and said, “Are you sure it wasn’t my father’s wedding?” it was the funniest moment; I couldn’t tell the man apart from his father. I guess age has been catching up with me fast,” says Imtiaz Qureshi.
Moving on to slightly more serious subjects, we ask the man if royal food in India is on its way to a slow demise, given that documentation is always a problem.
“This is not a problem of today. It has always been there. Even the chefs of yesteryear were insecure about sharing their recipes because they believed that someone else would become more popular. And that is exactly why many of old Indian culinary gems have been lost. Once the family responsible for creating them faded out, there was no one else to make them!” he says. Has he never thought of having his own restaurant? A question we’ve been hesitating to touch upon all afternoon. “It’s not that I have never thought about it. But my sons are also in the food business and what I do here is treasured well. There are people to carry on the legacy. If I had a restaurant and died, God knows what would happen to it. What if it fell into the wrong hands?” he wonders aloud.
One of the brilliant things about the chef is that he never basks in vanity. Albeit his depth of knowledge in Indian traditional food, he speaks without an iota of arrogance. Ask him any question and he responds with respect. So, we ask — are there any spices in Indian cuisine that were not normally added by Indians but were introduced during the various invasions?
“Almost every spice used in Indian cooking has been around for the longest time. How can we even borrow spices from another cuisine when we are not willing to talk about the massive treasury of spices we have? To us, at one point of time, it was all about concealing our culinary secrets!” he jokes.
Imtiaz Qureshi has been responsible for many wondrous creations — the single serving dum biryani, perfecting the kakori kebab and revival of many Awadhi dishes. And while India is embracing world cuisine on a war footing, he is constantly working towards preserving what is truly Lucknowi.
“Go to any Dum Pukht, Bukhara, Peshawar or Kebabs & Kurries — the taste of the dishes won’t change. They are standardised by years and years of practice. And I can still remember the day when I went to Lucknow to buy utensils for the new kitchen at ITC Maurya in Delhi,” he trails off…
On a final note, as he makes his way back into his room, one is left wondering. Here is a man who never went to any fancy catering or culinary school in India, US, Switzerland or wherever young talented chefs go to. In fact, he’s hardly been to school. He used to be under the tutelage of his maternal uncle who was a wedding cook.
He’s even been a champion wrestler. He claims to be ‘illiterate’ and yet, he is a genius. He works on instinct, using his memory and mind and even heart to measure ingredients and never goes wrong; he can teach you everything you ought to know about Lucknowi and Indian food. He is one of the reasons why perhaps Awadhi cuisine continues to survive in the constantly growing urban India.
In comparison, most Indian chefs, of any age, can’t quite measure up — no matter how beautifully they can make a mille feuille or roast NZ lamb chops. In Qureshi’s hands lies the true flavour of an era gone by.
From the perfect dal to the kebabs to some of the delectable and even delicate Lucknowi food — Imtiaz Qureshi has preserved the food of the kings with much integrity. From the dal that’s cooked for nearly 14-16 hours to the concept of the single dum biryani — he has rarely wavered from his core discipline, making changes only to perfect the food. “The concept of individual dum biryani came into existence because of large banquets that went on till wee hours of the night. The food was prepared earlier in the day and invariably, by the time the guests were ready to eat, it would turn cold. Individual dum biryanis help to keep the flavour and the aroma fresh without any mess. You open a vessel only when it’s ready to be eaten,” says Qureshi.