The great biryani search continues. Since I filed my last dispatch from Lucknow, I have spent my time seeking out interesting biryanis in Delhi. As anybody who has seen me recently will attest, this has been at grave cost to my waistline and God alone knows what it has done to my arteries. But aesthetics and health both pale before the lure of a good biryani.
My search began with Imtiaz Quereshi, the chef who (along with Habib Rehman) more or less invented the modern restaurant biryani. Imtiaz is from Lucknow but the biryani he devised is not specially Lucknowi. (And in any case, it would be a pulao in Lucknow.)
The Dum Pukht biryani uses many Hyderabad-influenced flavours along with the Lucknow tradition of cooking with dum or steam. Imtiaz pioneered the style of serving it in individual portions (most restaurants would make a big dekchi of biryani once a day and serve it till it ran out). Now, the idea of a bowl of biryani, with its top sealed with atta, has become commonplace but it was not part of restaurant cooking till the 1980s.
We ate at Dum Pukht and like all great chefs, Imtiaz did not cook but watched as Ghulam, his son-in-law, served a biryani he had made. Ghulam hovered nervously till Imtiaz decided that his biryani was okay. The following day, Imtiaz and I went to Karim’s in old Delhi. Karim’s is almost the antithesis of everything that Imtiaz stands for. It serves a robust, oil and animal fat-based cuisine that has none of the refinement of Avadhi food. That said, the food has a certain earthy charm and though Imtiaz kept muttering that the cuisine was very heavy and that the masalas were the kind bought in ready-packs in shops, I have to say that we had a good meal.
The disappointment, however, was the biryani. We found it too dry and utterly lacking in subtlety of flavour. Imtiaz took this to be a reflection of the lack of sophistication in Delhi cuisine.
I’m not sure he was right because I had an astonishing Delhi biryani a few nights later. Habib Rehman has retired from ITC but still knows more about north Indian food than any other hotelier. I went to his house for dinner and Habib – mindful of the demands of the great biryani search – had found cooks who made four outstanding biryanis.
There were two Delhi biryanis, one made by an old Delhi cook and the other by a family of butchers in Nizamuddin. Of course, they were not as sophisticated as the Dum Pukht biryanis but they were both excellent. To my untutored palate, the Nizamuddin biryani seemed vastly superior.
Habib is from Hyderabad so he had got a cook to make katchi biryani (in which raw meat is cooked along with the rice) for us. No doubt, this reflects my lack of taste but it was a lot better than any biryani I ate in Hyderabad. (You can now write in and tell me that I am a fool and that I went to all the wrong places in Hyderabad.)
Naturally, the Lucknow biryani was excellent but frankly it was not that much superior to the biryanis I have had in Lucknow. (To the extent that they were biryanis, not pulaos, etc., etc.)
I was still recovering from Habib’s biryani orgy when Imtiaz called to say that he was going to cook with his own hands. This is always an event because the old boy, like all great chefs, prefers to supervise the work of minions rather than get his own hands dirty. But being a traditional Muslim chef, he is clever enough to keep a few secrets up his sleeve. There are a few dishes that only he knows how to make and these rarely appear on menus because he will never part with the full recipes.
Imtiaz’s specialty – it is almost legendary – is the safed biryani. This is a biryani that looks like white rice but in which every single grain is coated with so much flavour that you wonder how the old boy managed to infuse the spices into the rice.
On this occasion, he made a safed biryani of his own invention. He called it a Faluk Nama biryani and told me proudly that it did not contain a drop of ghee. He had used olive oil.
On the whole, I am leery of Indian chefs who cook in olive oil but I thought to myself, “If anybody can pull this off, then it is Imtiaz.” I was right. His biryani was spectacular. I took my producer, the painstaking and discerning Robin Roy, and we were both blown away.
Robin said it was the single-best biryani he had eaten in his life. I loved it too though I was less keen on the little koftas he needlessly added to the meat. But hey, he’s the great Lucknow chef and I am only a Gujarati.
Could anything top Imtiaz’s cooking? Robin and I were both aware of the honour the old boy had done us by going into the kitchen and cooking with his own hands at the age of 82. We were disappointed, however, that nobody else knew how to make this biryani.
Imtiaz, on the other hand, was not in the least disappointed. When we asked him if his son-in-law knew how to make the Faluk Nama biryani, he smirked a little. “He was in the kitchen when I was cooking. It was up to him to try and see what I was doing,” he said with deep satisfaction.
But yes, there is a chef in Delhi who is in more or less in the same league. Mohammad Rais, one of the original ITC chefs, left the chain to wander around the world taking in such restaurants as the Taj Bengal’s Sonargaon. He is now back with ITC but sadly, his food is not available at any restaurant.
He is posted at the Sheraton New Delhi and offers his brand of cuisine under the name Dehlvi to banquet guests. So, if you are in the mood for some of the best food in town, you can’t get it in one of the Sheraton’s restaurants. You have to host a banquet at the hotel or get the Sheraton to cater your party.
That was the route I opted for, getting Rais to cook for a small dinner I had at home for my friend Namita Kaul Bhattacharya, who worked for ITC in the early days, knows Rais’ food and has one of the best palates of anyone I know. (In all fairness, I must add that her husband and daughter came too.) Rais produced the best meal I’ve had in a long, long time, with spectacular shammi kebabs and brilliant kormas. But the stand-outs were the two rice dishes.
When I ate at Habib Rehman’s home, I had tried a fabulous lasooni pulao. Habib had read my piece in Brunch on garlic and had dug up this recipe for a pulao that used garlic in two ways, as a flavouring and as a vegetable.
Rais made that same lasooni pulao and all of us at the table agreed that it was one of the most sophisticated and unusual dishes we had ever eaten. It is not often that one can use the words ‘garlic’ and ‘delicate’ in the same sentence. But Rais managed to make us do exactly that with his pulao.
The biryani was also a first for me. I have never before had a biryani made from raan or the leg of goat. In normal circumstances I would have said that this was not a combination that was guaranteed to work. But Rais is clearly a genius and both Namita and I wolfed down the biryani.
It is a shame that you can’t get Rais’ food at a restaurant. At least with Imtiaz we have the legacy of the Dum Pukhts which are run by the many members of his family. But Rais’ food deserves to reach a wider audience.
After all, why should I be the only one who gets fat on too much biryani?