Lucknow has its share of great food and some bewildering food fables. Stories of dal cooked with gold that bought an old dead tree to life or of 'Parind Pooris' that had small birds fly out of them when cracked are just a few common ones that you would hear sitting in an erstwhile nawab's or taluqedar's house. These are more than just stories and food folklore, they are the connect to Lucknow's glorious cultural past.
While tracing this past in parlance I met a gentleman Rishad Rizwi in his Haveli in old Lucknow. He was a proud Lucknowite with his stash of secret recipes and family dishes, on requesting a taste of which he invited me over for lunch. I was more interested in the cooking process and so chose to start early morning with his chef Mubarak Ali.
Now, here's how old Nawabi kitchens were set up: each kitchen had a 'daroga', who was the administrative head and bawarchis, who would cook for the courts, hakims, who would identify what the royal family needed to eat as per the season (or their body needs) and the raqabdars, who were the highly paid cooks and would cook only for the Nawabs/ Taluqdars. The bawarchis were the famous lot as they would be widely appreciated by virtue of their food being tasted by a lot more people. These chefs had their names printed on wedding invites as they would be the real crowd pullers. A famous chef cooking for a wedding was sure to draw huge crowds.
It's the raqabdars though who were the masters of creativity and finesse, as they cooked for the most choosy, moody and the easily-bored class. These raqabdars are a lost tribe now and the next morning when I learned that Mubarak Ali was a third generation raqabdar I felt honored to be working with him.
When I arrived to meet him, I saw a frail, old and lazy man lying on his charpai and abusing the whole world. When he got up he could hardly walk, had a very noticeable hunchback and then the raw material arrived and the transformation happened. Suddenly there was a glow in his eyes, he was sprinting between his three wood fired chulhas and talking to me like we were friends forever. He started cooking with his father when he was 12 and professed to being 95! Which meant he had cooked for eight decades. A fact later verified by his knowledge of ingredients, his skills, and his never ending stories, and later by Rizwi saab himself. His kitchen had only fire wood, itr and potlis of masalas not numbered, not named, and all I did was light the fire and follow him around trying to keep up. He cooked a meal for six people of six dishes in 45 minutes while I was just wondering what hit me. Then he yelled at the waiter to take the food and quietly lay back on his charpai and started abusing the whole world again. What I had witnessed was like a dream for a chef, pure magic of a raqabdar, a 95-year-old chef, who would probably never have his work or his name acknowledged outside of the royal family he cooks for.
So Mubarak chacha, here's a small chef trying to talk about a grand master chef... when he is till stunned and speechless.