A revolution knocks on the door – and it comes with a fork and knife. The world of food is more exciting than ever before. New restaurants are coming up offering novel cuisines or digging out old ones. Chefs are looking at unusual ingredients and dramatic ways of presenting food. Meanwhile, some wizened old experts continue to wield magic with their skewers and ladles in remote parts of the city. There is a world waiting to be discovered or re-embraced– new cooking styles, world food, sub-regional cuisine and tiny holes in the wall which produce the most delightful dishes. Here’s a guided tour.
One of the most contentious issues ever – and, no, I don’t mean Donald Trump – is the humble kabab. You will never get two people to agree on where they think the best kababs come from. There are as many informal kabab lovers’ clubs as they are possibly kabachis in the country. I, for one, have always held that the best shammi kababs come from Meerut, in a place called the Jali Kothi area.
But I still salivate over the seekh kababs that I used to eat in a corner near the Hapur bus stand in Meerut. The soft and dripping meat, taken off the red hot skewer, tasted like ambrosia.
Nothing can beat a juicy seekh kabab. But, sadly, good seekhs are rare. For, unlike a shammi, a seekh kabab can often go wrong. Keep it in the heat for too long, and it will turn out rubbery. Bring it out too soon, and it will smell raw. Put too much of masala, it will turn a suspicious red; put too little, and it will look a ghastly grey. Put too much fat, and it will be much too greasy; put too little, and it will be as dry as parched earth. For the perfect seekh, you need the right mix of masalas for the marinade, the exact amount of powdered spices and lard, and just the right heat. And, of course, the minced meat has to be just so – neither too coarse, nor too fine.
Once done, the kababchi slides it off the skewers and puts it on a plate in front of you with onion rings and green chutney. And sometimes, he squeezes a wedge of lime over it.
I have eaten seekh kababs in many parts of the country, and in every little nook and corner of Delhi. But the best kababchi in Delhi, to my mind, was a master called Haji Moinuddin Qureishi, who grilled kababs on the roadside in Gali Kasimjan, opposite the Hamdard Building, in the Lal Kuan area of Old Delhi.
The Ustad died last April – coincidentally, on the same day when the city’s most famous nihari maker, Kallu, departed for the great kitchen up there. But thankfully Moinuddin’s sons are carrying on with their father’s business. And along with the grill by the pavement, they have opened up a small restaurant called Sangam.
What makes these seekh kabab so special is the softness of the seekh. And, of course, it tastes heavenly. The secret, the family tells me, lies in the special spice mix that goes into the meat – ground garam masala and yellow chillies.
Haji Saab’s legacy lives on. But the war over kababs continues.
(Rahul Verma has been writing on food for over 25 years now. And, after all these years, he has come to the conclusion that the more he writes, the more there is left to be written)
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