The Reluctant Chef

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Imtiaz Qureshi is all you’d expect him to be, and more. The father of modern Awadhi cuisine knows a thing or two about legacies, but isn’t quite ready to hang up the apron just yet. He still has a long way to go – in his own words – because there’s still so much flavor of his ancestral heritage that he hasn’t showcased.
As every enthusiast of North Indian and specifically Awadhi cuisine knows, he’s the world’s most famous proponent of this genre of food, and comes from a family of masterchefs. What a lot of people don’t know is that he’s also the man who has shaped the evolution of the cuisine to bring it into the present. The man is full of sagely advice, rustic anecdotes and never shy of speaking his mind.

Here are excerpts from our interview with the master of good food, who believes he is a cook more than a chef and whose exacting standards have led to his and his family’s work becoming the epitome
of the cuisine. The chain of eponymous restaurants – including Qureshi Bab-Al- Hind at Hormuz Grand Hotel in Muscat – follows the traditions that have been handed down for generations.

On Awadhi Cuisine
“Awadhi cuisine is possibly the most elegant of cuisines, and I can say that because I have sampled food from all over the country and the world. It is not centred around an overpowering taste, but a delicate approach. The spices are inherent, not obvious. You shouldn’t find a whole cardamom, clove or stick of cinnamon in your food. The Nawab of Lucknow was very particular about it, and it is what I was taught. It is something I have tried to inculcate in my sons and as a practice in the restaurants as well,” says Qureshi.

On the right ingredient and the right input
“The standard of cutting and selection of the meat is of prime importance, so a chef will take into account the age of the animal and the relative fat content. A younger animal has a better muscle texture, which alters the way it has to be cooked. The protocols for spice mixes dictate that the chef vets each individual fresh spice and oversees the grinding. Even the quality of wood the food is cooked over matters, as it imparts its own fragrance and taste. The traditional woods range from tamarind and mango to teak and margosa. Margosa is bitter, so it is hardly ever used. We have, in fact, extensively researched the charcoal from various woods to see which produces the lowest soot and yet retains the maximum heat. This also dictates the flame intensity and the resulting moisture,” outlines Qureshi.

The Qureshi Standards
There are many things that are unique to his House, which have been handed down for generations and which make the subtle difference. His use of the iron tandoor, for instance, which he says doesn’t absorb ghee so the rotis and breads are softer and more flavourful. His high standards of butchery or the use of yellow chillies – which were once used only by kebab specialists on the streets of Lucknow – for a subtle flavour. Or using raw papaya, pineapples and figs to tenderise meat. “I was taught that the proportions had to be perfect. My mother or elder sister would personally segment the garlic, chillies, coriander, grind them with the mortar and pestle, and ensure everything was fresh. The biggest learning has been that everything should be clean and the kitchen has to be orderly,” emphasises Qureshi, adding that it was through experience that he understood that the combination of meat and vegetables was as important as the spice mix.
“Every question about cuisine appears simple, but it is actually very complex,” Quershi says, adding that his father and grandfather taught him one must do one’s work so well that it helps one create an identity. “But I believe that the implicit factor in this advice is that you must also help evolve your field.”

On Dining out
“I have just one rule when I eat out. I go to a place where the restaurant sells out within a few hours, because that signifies quality and taste. If the locals are eating it without a problem, you should try it too,” he says.

The interview originally appeared in our December edition