The Pehelwan of Dum Pukht

Octogenarian Imtiaz Qureshi, India’s best known exponent of Dum Pukht cooking, was once a pehelwan (wrestler)

By Sumit Chakraberty

Hum purane lakir nahin khichte (I don’t draw the same old line again and again),” said Imtiaz Qureshi, bristling at my suggestion that the 86-year-old chef must have done it all by now and there was nothing new to challenge him any more. These days the original dum pukht aficionado — who has been associated with the ITC hotel chain’s Dum Pukht line from its inception way back in the eighties — is adapting his traditional Awadhi fare to olive oil in response to diners who want a healthier cooking medium. That would be just another small ‘lakir’ in Qureshi’s cap, and he has many to boast of in a culinary career spanning six decades.

His eyes gleam in mischief as he recalls a trick he played on India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru long ago. They were at the residence of Chandra Bhan Gupta, chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, along with Lal Bahadur Shastri, who became PM after Nehru, Zakir Hussein, who later became president of India, and Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who would take over the reins after Shastri.

Soon after dinner was served, he was summoned by Nehru, who was annoyed to find Fish Musallam and Chicken Musallam on a table where the strict vegetarian Shastri was a guest. Everyone had a laugh, however, when it turned out that the ‘fish’ in the musallam was actually bottle gourd, and the ‘chicken’ was jackfruit. Even the Shammi Kebab had been made with lotus stems but artfully disguised to resemble the original dish of lamb meat in both look and flavour.

Here at the ITC Grand Central’s Kebabs & Kurries, where we were trying out Imtiaz Qureshi’s Awadhi dishes on the restaurant’s new menu, the seasoned old chef watched as the waiter gingerly placed a Kakori Kebab on my plate in one piece. It’s well known how delicate is this kebab, designed to melt in an elderly Lucknowi nawab’s mouth.

Less familiar perhaps on an Awadhi menu is the Mahi Qaliyan. After all, most people would credit Bengalis with a dish of Rohu fish cooked in mustard oil, but Qureshi thinks the banishment of Awadh’s Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata by the British had a lot to do with the development of the Fish Kaliya there. Even today Lucknowi restaurants like Amenia thrive in the Kolkata suburb where Wajid Ali Shah had been confined.

Mustard oil tempered with methi was in fact a familiar cooking mode for a young Qureshi growing up in the villages around Lucknow where he would watch the oil being refined in pits. He was training to be a pehelwan (wrestler) before fate took a hand and threw him into a job in the kitchen of a princely house in Jahangirabad. That’s how he came to grips instead with Awadh’s gift to gourmets, the Dum Pukht.

The discovery of Dum Pukht

It’s a story worth retelling, how Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah had started a food-for-work program during a famine in 1784. All-in-one dishes were slow-cooked in huge copper deghs (pots) to simplify the feeding of thousands of workers employed to build the elaborate Bara Imambara in Lucknow. One day the Nawab was so enchanted by the aroma wafting up from the deghs that he ordered the dish to be served in the palace. Over time, the basic combination of rice, meat, vegetables and spices took on multiple avatars with the addition of ingredients popular in royal kitchens, especially those considered to be aphrodisiacs. Today every Lucknowi cook worth his dum has his own potli with a secret spice combo.

On our table at the Kebabs & Kurries, apart from the inevitable Dum Pukht Biryani, there was a Diwani Handi of lamb simmered with vegetables in the same tradition. But it was Chef Qureshi’s Koh-e-Awadh that was the star of the evening.

Like everything else with this octogenarian chef, the Koh-e-Awadh too came with a history tag. It has its basic origins in the popular Paya, which gets its unique taste from the gelatin in a goat’s trotters. But trotters are unfit for a king, and so the goat’s shanks were used instead in royal kitchens. The shanks are meatier than trotters but also gelatinous like them, unlike the thighs or Raan. Chef Qureshi’s spin on it was to make a Korma with the lamb shanks, the meat being slow-cooked with yogurt and lots of cardamoms. The result was neither a Paya nor a typical Korma, it was a Koh-e-Awadh. The goat has 36 parts, the chef explained to me, and every part has its own flavour waiting to be drawn out in creative ways.

Clearly, for somebody like him, with such an intimate understanding of food, there is no need to draw the same line twice — the possibilities are infinite.

Imtiaz Qureshi’s recipe for Koh-e-Awadh

  • Fry 250 gm onions and add a kilo of lamb shanks to it along with 3 bay leaves, 10 cardamoms, 10 cloves and 2 pieces of cinnamon. Add 50 gm of garlic and 50 gm of ginger along with Kashmiri chillies and salt.
  • Add 250 gm beaten curds and some raw onion, then stir until the gravy turns brown.
  • Then add a litre of water along with a mixture of cumin seeds, cinnamon, javitri and black cardamom, roasted and powdered.
  • Cover and cook dum style.
  • Finally, add a paste of almonds and roasted cashewnuts mixed with water. Saffron and kewra or rose water can be sprinkled at the end.
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