There's A Touch Of Lucknow In Bengal's Mughlai Dishes, Says Imtiaz Qureshi
In the alleys of Lucknow, they called him Imtiaz Pehelwan, the wrestler with a twirling moustache who had floored many a competitor to become a state champion.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Zakir Hussain had also been floored by Imtiaz Qureshi. But that was not on a wrestling mat but at the dining table of Chandra Bhanu Gupta, three times Uttar Pradesh chief minister.
In 1962, when relations between India and China were simmering, Gupta had called Qureshi -then an independent young chef -to prepare a dinner for a few guests. That wasn't uncommon given Gupta's fondness for Awadhi cuisine.
But the conditions that followed were rather strange: he had to cook alone and all dishes had to be vegetarian.
"My first reaction was disappointment. I was beginning to earn a name for my non-vegetarian dishes and here was Gupta asking me to prepare a vegetarian course. Then, there was the issue of cooking alone. But he would have none of it and said security concerns meant that no one else would be allowed into the house from outside.
Determined to overcome both odds, I worked all night and much of the next day to craft vegetarian dishes that tasted like non-vegetarian. So, there was Lauki Qalia instead of Fish Qalia, Jackfruit Musallam instead of Murg Musallam, Lotus stem Kebab in place of Shammi Kebab. Both Nehru and Hussain loved the innovation," recounted Qureshi who is now the grand master chef at ITC Hotels and is among the founding craftsmen behind the Dum Pukht brand known for exquisite Indian cuisine.
In Kolkata to conjure a royal repast experience of a five-course spread paired with fine spirit at ITC Sonar, Qureshi interacted with TOI by the oven while carefully crafting Raan-e-Huzoor (lamb musullum with base made of dates), Jhinga Qureshi (juicy succulent prawns wrapped in bread) and Doodh ki Biryani at the Dum Pukht kitchen on Saturday afternoon. The unlettered Qureshi who has crafted signature dishes for state guests ranging from Queen Elizabeth in the 1960s to Bill Clinton a decade-and-ahalf ago still likes to do things with his own hands when a VVIP, particularly a head of state, is the guest.
"I cannot leave an important task such as this to another person.There is a responsibility to the country and I will adhere to it till I can," said the grand master chef whose ancestors were cooks in the royal court of Awadh where Dum Pukht (a style of slow cooking in a pot with the lid sealed) originated 200 years ago. The kitchen has been his kingdom ever since he was nine. With support from ITC Hotels that he joined in 1976, Qureshi had embarked on an epic five-year pilgrimage to resurrect an ancient cuisine.
ITC Sonar executive chef Mayank Kulshreshtha says Qureshi is a magician, a craftsman. But the master chef says the craft was not one that he inherited despite the lineage. "It was poverty that taught me to be a craftsman. Since we weren't well off, the food that we had was simple. I would experiment with these ingredients to make an interesting dish," he said.
Ask Qureshi which dishes he considers special and his answer is surprisingly simple: biryani and puri bhaji. "The first is a must-have dish at Muslim weddings, the latter at north Indian Hindu marriages.
Made with love, they taste delicious. Also, these are dishes that everyone enjoys, be it a rich man or a pauper. "
So, what does he think about Kolkata Biryani? "They are actually Lacknavi Biryani that arrived here with Wajid Ali Shah. Royal, whose biryani and chaamp are so well known, is a relative of mine.
There is a touch of Lucknow in Bengal's Mughlai dishes. The flavour is unmistakable," said Qureshi.