Imtiaz Qureshi – Master of Awadhi Cuisine

I know, I know, by the time you read this post, the event at ITC Sonar, held from 22nd to 30th June, 2014, is officially over. But trust me, I needed some time to sit down and write about that day. And truthfully speaking, I wasn’t really getting it.

But when I sat down inside the recesses of a dimly lit Dum Pukht, waiting for Chef Imtiaz Qureshi to appear magically perhaps, P looked at me and said, “You look nervous today!”

Won’t you be, I thought, if you are meeting Him?

No, I won’t call him my food God. No. That would be too cliched.

Imtiaz Qureshi Cooking Meat

It was the month of May, 1992 or 1993. I was sitting in front of the television, watching a program that was aired on Sunday afternoons. Daawat. I still remember him introducing the world of Awadhi cuisine to me by talking about it freely, about the food he made, and how it was different from the rest. A new world opened to me. The ingredients were new – cooking methods, the serving of each dish, and the background… it was a show meticulously made, and it made an imprint. And I started reading up on it, and bumped into the legend that was one Imtiaz Qureshi.

He is known as the Grand Master of Awadhi cuisine, the man who re-popularized the art of “dum pukht”. My father had eaten a meal cooked by him, and he had sang praises. That was back in the 1980s, and I had drooled over the description of the melt-in-your-mouth kabab and korma.

But first, let me introduce the accompaniment of the day. The meal was matched with Royal Salute 21 Year Old, and Mr. Sandip Arora explained to us the nuances of the fine alcohol he had matched the meal with, and why he selected it.

Sandip Arora

You see, I wanted to match something truly splendid with the meal, without too much of anything to overpower the taste of Awadhi cuisine. That was the reason why I selected something which was subtle, with a mild nose, with little hints of fruits, and a gentle aftertaste which would linger on your palate, but not unpleasantly. Since I could not think of a good single malt that would do that, I went with one of my absolute favorites – Royal Salute. And the year is impeccable – it is what fine whiskey is all about.”

Royal Salute 21 Year Old (Turquoise)

I added a single ice cube to my drink, and began the meal.

Raan-E-Huzoor – Baby Lamb Shanks cooked in a Date sauce with Almonds and Walnuts.

The man went inside the kitchen to take the bits of the Raan-E-Huzoor from inside the huge pot, and then proceeded to use a fork to show us how tender the meat was – it tore apart at the touch of a fork. Rich with a dark sweetness from the dates with which it was cooked, it was, he explained, a dish he had created in memory of the Arabian men who survived in the desert by eating dates. In fact, figs and dates were two fruits often talked about, and it is also a great way to end a fasting. Those who observe Ramadan often break their fast with a date or two, to replenish the body of essential nutrients after a long day of fasting.

Jhinga Qureshi – Prawns covered with cheese and wrapped in puff pastry

Jhinga Qureshi was the second dish, and the puff-pastry covered prawn was coated in cream and cheese. The flavors were delicately built, although I thought the prawns were slightly overcooked and the juices from the prawns made the puff pastry slightly soggy.

Avidly, I watch the chef in action – he speaks slowly, his voice is low, controlled and measured, just like the food he serves up – everything neatly cooked to suit current palate trend. I noted a distinct emphasis on the health factor, when he emphasized on the use of Olive Oil in the Dudhiya Biryani, and the way he talked about reducing fat and other “unhealthy” things in food. His voice carried a note of very fine disdain, as if he did not like the trend, but had to adhere to it, since it was what was popular.

And I noted, in the “Royal Repast” there were a few ingredients which were definitely not Awadhi, but had more of a South Indian, rather, Hyderabadi influence, and a few modern twists too.

Samudri Ratan

For example, the Samudri Ratan which begun our main meal. Served with thin, and slightly hard Mughlai Paratha, the crabmeat’s delicacy was lost in the overly spicy gravy. The crab itself wasn’t picked very well, so I found tiny bits of shell after taking my first bite. The paratha was not a good accompaniment to it, and I would have much preferred a bowl of white rice, or some soft naan bread to go with it.

Dal Badami

The Dal Badami was overwhelmingly nutty, I daresay. Although it was tasty, but the delicate dill was lost in the sea of nuts, and even for someone like me who likes almonds, the nuts were too much, although the dal itself was creamy enough. 

Desi Murgh Istew

The Desi Murgh Ishtew was a spicy, South India style dish with whole spices in it, along with pearl onions. The chicken was braised for quite some time, and the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, a version which reminded me of the stew I had eaten at Hyderabad on my recent trip. The curry leaves lent a lovely depth to the dish which I felt went well with the thick, nutty Naan-e-Bah Khummach. The Naan was a multi-grain one, and though it tasted good warm, as it started to get cold, it became dry and chewy in the end.

Dum Ki Khumb

From the vegetarian fare, we also sampled the Dum ka Khoomb, mushrooms cooked in a thick gravy that tasted of cashew and tomatoes. It was, again, a modern take on a traditional recipe, the button mushrooms not quite absorbing the rich masala in which they were cooked, but the gravy was delicious and had me wanting more. 

Koh-E-Awadh

But, the meat dish that clearly stood out in the main course was, again, one made with mutton. This was a lovely qorma of tender lamb shanks, melting on my tongue, elegantly falling off the bone at the touch of my fingers, redolent with the smell of cardamom and ginger. This was apparently the Chef’s special recipe, and it was finished with some saffron, which clung to the bits of the paper thin roomali roti that was perfect for scooping up the meat.

Chef Qureshi with his team and Sandip Arora

We took a break here, did a brief photo session with the chef and exercised a bit, walked around, to make space for the next thing on our menu. Chef Qureshi introduced me to the man who is the key to Dum Pukht, Kolkata, Chef Zubair Qureshi, who specializes in Awadhi-Indian Cuisine. He has worked with Imtiaz Qureshi, and was an “apt shagird.”

But, we were waiting for the Dudhiya Biryani, and P had an anticipatory gleam in her eyes. “When will the biryani come?,” She whispered, and I grinned back.

Salan

And it came with a lovely, white salan which was creamy and slightly sour. It set off the biryani perfectly.

Dudhiya Biryani

For, Chef Qureshi had devised a dish which was delicate, tender to the core, and dangerously addictive. We kept going back to it, helping ourselves to second and third servings of it. He had said, in a mixture of Hindi, English and Urdu, “This Biryani is not dirty – there is no element of color here except for what went into cooking the meat, and that too, was kept at a minimum. The key is the flavor of the basmati rice and the quality of the meat – good meat can change everything in a meal, and knowing the right cut is important. Plus, this dish contains Olive Oil, its good for you, right?”

The meat was tender. The rice was tender but every grain was separate, yet moist. The salan added just a little touch of sourness to cut through the delicate aroma of attar.

Shahi Tukda and Lab-e-Mashooq

And the chef took a bow after serving us the dessert – a milky Shahi Tukda which was moist, creamy, and not overly sweet, and the wickedly named Lab-e-Mashooq (lips of the lover), orange-scented kulfi served in a lovely crunchy edible sweet bowl, reminding me way too much of a brandy snap.

Imtiaz Qureshi and Me. I am the one on his left. Wait, no, is that his right?

Of course, I could not resist being in a photograph with Imtiaz Qureshi putting his hand on my shoulder. It was one of those moments of my life.

Items from the menu were available from 22nd to 30th June, 2014 as part of the dinner buffet at ITC Sonar, which is priced at INR 1850/- plus tax. The Royal Repast with Chef Qureshi, on the other hand, is a special set menu of five courses, matched beautifully with whiskey, and is priced at INR 6500/- plus tax per guest, available from 22nd June onwards, as part of the dinner menu, which is from 7.30 to 11.45 pm. 

Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee was invited to sample the Royal Repast with Chef Qureshi by ITC Sonar. Her opinion is honest and unbiased.

Written by Poorna Banerjee

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