Learn the secrets of Lucknow’s legendary kababs with chef Ranveer Brar
Most of us know Ranveer Brar from TV; from the shows he did on Khaana Khazana (now Living Foodz) and most significantly, from the one season of Masterchef India which he judged. Because he is good-looking and personable, I suspect that many people regard him as a mere TV chef, the sort of Punjabi hunk who looks good on TV but doesn’t really bother too much with cooking. It doesn’t help that he has never had a signature restaurant of his own in India where we can go to and try his food.
I know Ranveer only slightly. We have met briefly at events and we were both at Noma Australia in Sydney earlier this year on the same night. But I was always intrigued by the respect that other chefs had for him. Most working chefs – let’s be honest – scoff at TV chefs. It may be envy. But restaurant chefs think of TV chefs as pretty boys with camera skills and not much more.
Of course, this is unfair. The great Sanjeev Kapoor is a walking encyclopaedia of cuisine; a true master. I’ve eaten Kunal Kapoor’s food and it is outstanding. Vikas Khanna is chef at the Michelin-starred Junoon in New York. And some of the other Indian chefs who have made it to TV are highly talented (though I am not so sure about TV chefs elsewhere in the world).
Last week, I bumped into Ranveer in Bombay and we agreed to meet the next day to chat about food. When we sat and talked, I was struck by how different he is in real life from his TV persona. Off-camera, he is shy, a little introverted and so cerebral that he may well over-think everything. The “Brar” in his name marks his ancestry – Punjabi landowners – but is also little misleading. He was brought up in Lucknow and his background and training are in Avadhi food. At a young age, he ran away from home, he says, and apprenticed himself to Ustad Munir Ahmed, one of Lucknow’s oldest kabab vendors. (He had a small shack behind Odeon cinema.)
While Ranveer would go on to join the IHM, Lucknow and was one of the few chefs selected in 1999 to join the Taj Management Training Programme through a campus placement, I reckon that his real training came during that stint with the Ustad.
Ranveer has a new book out (Come Into My Kitchen – HarperCollins) which is marketed in the usual way with a cover photo of him gazing wistfully into the distance.
I reckon the photo will help sell the book. But it may do a disservice to the seriousness of the contents. There is an autobiographical introduction and an explanation of how tastes, textures and flavours are combined, followed by a string of recipes, some of which are imaginative (Watermelon dosas; honestly!) while others include his own interpretations of classic dishes.
It was while talking about the classics that we discussed the secrets of Avadhi cuisine. As you probably know, the great chefs of Avadh never part with their secret recipes. (Almost every single recipe you have read for a traditional kabab, korma or a biryani is a lie; the chef has left out a key ingredient or an important step in the cooking process.)
In his book, Ranveer writes about being put in charge of cooking the nehari when he apprenticed with Ustad Munir Ahmed: “Of course I never knew what went into the pot. I would only be summoned after everything had gone into the pot”. Even when he had to grind the masalas for packing into potlis, the Ustad kept his secrets from Ranveer: “When it was mixing time I was sent away on some pretext or another.”
Avadhi chefs will tell you that they like keema because it is a good medium for conveying the delicacy of their spicing. But all the great keema kababs of India depend not just on the mixture of spices but on proportion. How much fat do you mix with the lean keema? (And what kind of fat, from which part of the animal?) What is the proportion of masala to meat?
When the Ustad marinated “the kababs or the keema was mixed,” Ranveer writes, “I was sent out because the proportion of masalas to meat was a closely-guarded secret.”
I asked Ranveer about the famous keema kababs of Lucknow. The two most famous ones are the galouti (which means melt-in-the-mouth) and the kakori.
Outside of Lucknow, the two kababs are often confused and people believe that it is the same kabab, differentiated only by the shape: the galouti is shaped like a shami or a patty while the kakori is shaped like a seek kabab or a torpedo. Even the stories about their origin are often confused. Both kababs are said to have been invented for toothless old nawabs who asked for kababs that did not require chewing.
The galouti-kakori confusion gets people from Lucknow (where the galouti is more easily found and possibly more popular) very agitated. In fact, there are huge difference. First of all, the texture: a kakori requires the meat to be very finely ground, like a pate while the galouti has a coarser structure.
The spicing is also different: the kakori has more clove, nutmeg etc. – the so-called heady spices. And both are difficult to cook. A kakori mixture will not stay on its skewer unless the chef knows his craft. And the trick to cooking a perfect galouti is not to cook one at a time but to cook a whole batch together so that they keep the heat on the tawa/pan constant. Ideally, the kababs should touch each other while cooking so that each kabab keeps the others warm!
Ranveer’s own favourite is a third kabab, the dorra of Rampur. This looks a little like a kakori because it is cylindrical in shape. But its flavour comes from the smoking of the meat mixture and khus and sandalwood. In the book, Ranveer writes that a dorra often beats a kakori in flavour.
Now, Ranveer wants to go a little further than most chefs have. When we talk about a deconstructed kakori, many chefs just take it apart and put a little sheermal here, and a bit of keema there. But why can’t we, asks Ranveer, re-imagine the kakori Kabab rather than deconstruct it?
Because he has worked with old style kabab Ustads, he knows that one of the trickiest parts of a kakori is the thin crust or membrane that forms outside. How do you get that? Some chefs use kaju paste. ITC will not part with their recipes but I guess they use egg.
Ranveer wants to research ways of finding the thinnest membrane. Then, he wants to see if some of the smoke and sandalwood flavours of a dorra can be transferred to a kakori.
This is all complicated stuff, way beyond the competence of most chefs who just struggle to get the basic kabab right. And besides, I asked Ranveer, what about the problems he encountered while working with the Ustad? How do we figure out the right masalas?
His response was interesting. He believes that the masala is only a small (if overhyped) part of the story. The trick to a perfect kakori, he thinks, is an understanding of technique. How do you know when the mixture is ready? What is the perfect distance between the heat and the skewer? How much heat is right? When is the kabab ready to take off the skewer?And so on.
The secret of the great Ustads is not just that they don’t part with their masala formulations. It is that a lifetime of practice has allowed them to master the technique. You can’t teach that at hotel school. A chef must observe a master at work and then practise the technique again and again himself till he gets it right.
I asked my own guru, Manjit Gill, if he agreed. Absolutely, he said. You can’t teach the cooking of complex classics in a textbook but any gifted chef, with a catering qualification, who practises till he masters the dish, can learn to do it.
Manjit is a master; he has been at this for a long time. Ranveer is still young. He has already run a restaurant in Boston, is opening outlets in Canada and a vegetarian restaurant should open in Bombay next month. His imagination and depth of knowledge are truly impressive.
I hope he continues to reimagine India’s classic dishes.
From HT Brunch, November 6, 2016
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