PERSONALITY He considers it his mission to pass on the Dum Pukth legacy to Gen next. Meet Master Chef Imtiaz Quereshi
As you push upon the dough “purdah” a burst of fragrant steam rushes out. Inside the pot the long grained rice streaked golden with saffron is cooked to perfection and under it all succulent meat simmers gently suffusing the entire dish with its smothered flavor.
It’s easy to see why Dum Pukth cooking has been a favorite with kings and Queens for centuries. And why its catching like a wild fire all over the world whether it’s at posh presidential dinners or hip city restaurants.
The guardian of legacy –which has been passed on from generation to generation by royal chefs –is the world famous grand master chef Imtiaz Quereshi, popularly known as the high priest of Avadhi cuisine. “I have admirers in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkatta, Agra, Bangalore…he grins “they know me in London, America, Australia”, His thousands of students” work in kitchen all over the world, because he believes it is his duty to pass on the Dum Pukht legacy. “There are no secret recipes”, he declares “Chefs who claims to carry secret ingredients are just enacting charade to fool children. I make the boys prepare the masalas and then I just add them to the dishes with my own hands so that they learn how its done.
Although this style of cooking is rather complicated today, as a result of generations of master chefs honing recipes in royal kitchens over the decades, the origin of the tradition is appealingly simple. According to legend, Dum Pukht was discovered when Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah decreed that the builders of the Bara Imam Bara Mosque should have access to food all through the day and night. Since cooked food grew cold and chefs couldn’t keep whipping up the meals every hour the street cooks hits upon an innovative solutions. They set giant pots on gentle fires and filled them with rice, meat, vegetables and spices. Then they sealed lids with dough, and topped them with hot coals to slow-cook the food and keep it warm around the clock.
“When the meat is covered with hot rice and spices, it cooks in its own juices and is therefore very tasty,” says Chefs Qureshi, who states that Awadhi cooking is “refined, like fine wine,” As the story goes, the Nawab was so impressed with the street cook’s ingenuity, and the taste of the final product, that he ordered his chefs to work on the cooking technique. “This is the food that was eaten at royal banquets, so even the masalas were added in such a way that the King’s didn’t need to remove pieces of clove, or cardamom, from their mouths,” says Chef Quereshi, saying that they put all the spices into a muslin bag, cook the food, and then throw the spices away.
Today, the 78 years old chef has an impressive list of clients and admirers. I have cooked for all VIP’s, All the Prime ministers, all the presidents, the entire Nehru clan. I recently cooked for Kalaam Saab. He had had a dinner with all the chiefs of Army.” Nothing seems to awe him, though. Perhaps it’s because he started out as nine year old cooking for royalty
My uncle was my first teacher. He had learnt from my grandfather. My ancestors cooked for different kings through the years in Lucknow. And we also traveled to cook for royal weddings, since the kings would borrow each other’s cooks so they could host banquets with food from different kingdoms”.
Food for royalty
Although the young Quereshi wasn’t asked to do more than “make masala, peel, grind, and ‘go fetch this, go fetch that,” he soaked in everything he could about the Awadhi food tradition. “At that time the kings and rulers would set up big shamianas during royal weddings and we would cook on large charcoals and woodfires. There was special food for the Kings; kakori kebabs, galoti kebabs, mutton raan, mutton kebabs, chicken draped in gold leaf….”
Today, he makes the same dishes, following the same recipes. I have been with ITC for 32 years and – since they promote Indian food – they encourage me to re-create these dishes,” he says, adding that he’s also constantly on the move thanks to a passion to pass on the legacy. “Even now. I try to get involved at every stage of cooking. I don’t sit on a chair, I work in the kitchen, And I learn from everyone I meet including Indira Gandhi. Nehru loved mutton, Indira too. She taught me how to make Kashmiri rogan gosht. No onions, no garlic …it’s made with hing, badam, ginger, thoughtfully counting off the spices on his fingers.
“One hundred years ago, the only five star hotel was the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. The Indian royalty and the British were their main clientele. But then the main cuisines served were French, Continental and Chinese,” says Chef Quereshi, adding triumphantly, “Today all over the world, everyone wants to eat Awadhi food.