As a child his job was to regularly water reed curtains during the summer months in the barracks of Lucknow cantonment. But he would run away to the langer instead and willingly do chores for the cooks from the military kitchens of this former Residency to his present position as Grand Master Chef, of ITC group of hotels its been a long journey for Imtiaz Qureshi. The former kitchen hand is now a leaving legend, personifying all that Avadhi cuisines stands for.
At 78, Qureshi has seen it all. “I don’t think there is any contemporary person who matters, be it a head of state or a celebrity, who has not eaten from my hands”, he says.
Qureshi takes pride in himself, his appearance and his work. We munch on the tenderest lamb pasanda and gulatti kidney bean kebabs at Park Sheraton while the chef grooms himself for the interview and photo session. He then posses charmingly with his huge cauldron of lamb biryani, then lovingly doles out helpings for us.
“Unless you sample everything, you won’t comprehend the gastronomic range of Avadhi cuisines”, he says. He’s pained that the world over, its mughlai cuisine which is popular.
“The Mughal’s were so busy making wars that they didn’t have time for indulgences. These arts are developed in the smaller kingdom like Avadh and Hyderabad”, he points out. “And these were the chefs who were called for big Mughal functions” Qureshi should know, for he hails from a family of Khandani Khansamas.Talk to him about Avadhi cuisine and his eyes glaze over, his lips twitch into a fond smile. It’s like talking about his favourite child.” It’s a cuisine of nazakat,” he says. “The Nawab of Avadh knew what indulgence meant and their cuisine exemplifies their refinement. You wont need to pick on a bone or remove an irritating fibre from your teeth the spices are ground very fine, the meats are cooked till very tender. Even the firewood-mango, tamarind or dhak-was selected for the fragrances they had lend to the food. Neem wood was never used, for it left a bitter after taste,” he says.
Though he agrees that the Avadhi cooking gets its flavours from specific condiments like zafran, rose essence, kevra and green cardamom, he insists that it’s the fine interplay of the condiments, and the knowledge of when to add them to the dish that makes one an ustaad in this cooking. “Look at these chicken kebabs,” he says, pointing to the platter of bite size morsels. “There’s fresh pomegranate in them, which helps making the meat tender.”
And for all the nazakat in his cooking- which was so good that we felt quite incapable of reviewing it – Qureshi is quite matter –of – fact. ‘There are many chefs who insist of exotic condiments like phattar ke phool and pan ki jad. But they don’t know how to use them so they end up ruining the dish. But with just the simplest spices, you can work wonders. Look at this brain curry. It’s flavoured with only methi. And it’s my best dish.”
Qureshi doesn’t believe in the recipe book. I am ungootha chaap (unlettered) and I believe cooking should come from the heart not from the book only then will the diner get the luft of the repast.”
Quintessentially Qureshi, the Avadhi fest is on at Park Sheraton till December 11.