Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Mar 20, 2002
Food & Cuisine
Tasty bites & titbits
Chefs Mohammed Irfan Quereshi (foreground) and Mohammed Ashfaque Quereshi at work.
CHENNAI, March 19
WHOEVER thought North Indian food at restaurants is all about tandoori kababs, brown-yellow-red gravies groaning in oil and biriyanis reeking of undistinguishable spices has a second think coming. The nine-day Awadhi Banquet, which started at Chennai's Radisson GRT on March 16, revealed some mellow and unusual flavours and more interesting tales about this cuisine.
Chefs Mohammed Ashfaque Quereshi and Mohammed Irfan Quereshi, who are here to lend their expertise to the food festival (dinner buffet at Rs 375 plus taxes), are descendants of Lucknow's (Awadh's) royal chefs. Their father, Chef Imtiaz Quereshi, is credited with reviving the famed Dum Pukht cuisine after research which spanned 10 years.
Ashfaque, who's not only a trained chef but runs a food consultancy called Grande Cuisines of India, has an interesting tale to tell about how Dum Pukht was born. It has its roots in the great famine that struck the Awadh region in the 18th century, during the reign of Nawab Shuja-ud-daula. Concerned about his subjects, the Nawab ordered his cooks to prepare large quantities of food to be served round-the-clock. Degs (huge vessels) were dumped with great amounts of meat, vegetables, rice and spices, sealed with dough and placed on a fire with coals on top so that they could cook slowly in their own steam. Food was thus available the whole day through.
The hallmark of this cuisine, according to Ashfaque, is that any spice is used as a suggestion, as a hint of its presence, and not as an all-pervading taste in the mouth. The chef is scornful of statements such as those which claim a kabab has been marinated in a 120-spices.
"I'm sure they can't name even 30 they're supposed to have used," he challenges, before going on to add, "What would happen to the flavour of the meat/vegetable that is being smothered in these 120 spices?"
This cuisine employs, among others, exotic spices such as root of khus, jarakhus and kabab chini but they only account for an extra 20 per cent of the taste apart from what salt, chilli/pepper and the main items, which he likes to call "raw material", give it.
What is the difference between Mughlai food and Awadhi food? The former is "the mother of all refined cuisines", says Ashfaque. The Mughals were one of the early outsiders to come to India and rule for a considerable period of time and as their culture and influence spread, so did their cuisine, with regional variations, he explains. Awadhi shares a lot of similarities with Hyderabadi food, its offshoot.
What's Khichda, a concoction of dal, meat and vegetables, in Awadhi cuisine transforms itself into the famed Haleem of Hyderabad. Its Pathar Ka Gosht (meat cooked on stone) is the Deccan's Pasinda Kabab, its Shahi Tukda, the rich Double Ka Meetha.
In fact, Ashfaque throws light on an interesting aspect of Dum Pukht's history. The cuisine, which began to evolve about 400 years ago, has seen a lot of British influence. Shahi Tukda, the dessert, came into being only after bread was introduced to India.
All the smooth gravies in the cuisine's repertoire are variations of the Western roux, a basic sauce made with fat and flour; kulfis and falooda too, as cold desserts, borrowed from the British concept of one.
The Quereshi brothers want to take Dum Pukht back to the people as it was originally "made for the commoner". However, that doesn't mean that they will be writing a cookbook on the subject.
Ashfaque doesn't think too highly of cookbooks, they really don't have a role beyond spreading awareness, he remarks. They plan to set up an institute to train chefs, though.
He believes that some level of innovation is necessary to widen their range. Apple jalebi is one of their successful innovations. What were their most outrageous? "Hmm, Western spices with Indian food, salmon with Indian spices," says Ashfaque. What's his favourite food? "Chinese," he answers, happily unaware that it might be something of an anti-climax for those who expect a reply more exotic.
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