This Ramzaan, try iftaar with a twist, says Kunal Vijayakar
We are still in the holy month or Ramzaan, just days from the sighting of the Shawwal moon, which will ring in Eid ul-Fitr. It’s been nearly a month of fasting for devout Muslims, and a season of pure iftaar indulgence for me.
Rarely do I get a chance to revel in such a parade and panorama of Mughlai foods. I started two weeks ago with Nihari from the bylanes of Mohammed Ali Road, sampling gurda and kapura in Bhendi Bazaar and then had the most hearty Qorma and Khichda, at an iftaar soiree.
I worked myself through the menu at Grant Road’s best iftaar takeaway, to home-made Smoked Mutton Samosas and Raan in Red Masala handed down by the matriarch of The Bohri Kitchen.
I indulged in Gulab-ki-Kheer at a fine five-star and washed all the spices down with a Royal Falooda, and you’d think I would have had my heart’s fill. Well my heart is indeed full, but my stomach still had some space, and so with great jubilance I accepted an invitation from old friend Mukhtaar Qureishi.
During Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s culinary flamboyance in Lucknow, the Qureishi clan were butchers and cooks to Awadhi nobility. Mukhtaar comes from this legacy of precious rakabdars and khansamas, a rare breed of professionally untrained bawarchis who cooked with a ‘gift of the gut’ for flavour and spice and were often paid as much as a cabinet minister in the courts of Awadh.
I first met him when he ran the kitchen at what was Rahul Akerkar’s Neel at the Turf Club, he had invited me to an iftaar party there. I turned up expecting it to be a patrician South Bombay shindig but was touched to find that Mukhtaar had included me on a special guest list, which included only the staff of the restaurant. We bonded over the Safed Doodh ki Biryani and have remained friends ever since.
This Ramzaan, Mukhtaar is creating almighty drama in his own restaurant, Ummrao, at Courtyard by Marriott in Mumbai. Here he does theatre with herbs, spices and meats over hot coals and crackling flames. He explains how, while Lucknow gained the reputation of being the lyceum of Awadhi cooking, the Ustads themselves came from other parts of the country and were picked out for the delicacies that their ancestral towns were famously known for.
Like small-town Malihabad in Lucknow, famous for its Dussehri mangoes, just a few kilometres from a town called Kakori, home of the famous Kakori Kababs. Rampur in the Moradabad Division of Uttar Pradesh renowned for its Rampuri Mutton Kababs, and Spicy Rampuri Qorma with red oily roghan floating on top, a meal to be finished off with a mild Rampuri Doodhiya Biryani (cooked in milk and spices) and Rampuri Adrak ka Halwa.
Kishanganj, from where Mukhtaar adopted the recipes for his Pasande, Haleem and Boti, a small town in Bihar also renowned for its Paya-Nihari. Then there is the Bengal influence from Murshidabad, on the banks of the Hooghly River. Once the Mughal capital of the Bengal region, the Murshidabad cuisine simplifies the richness of the Mughlai cuisine without compromising its taste. Rich ingredients are replaced by more modest alternatives. Potatoes were added to meats, and poppy seeds replaced the luxuriance of nuts creating a cuisine of its own. And from Faizabad near Lucknow, where all the illustrious and exalted khansamas, dum cooking and Awadhi cuisine originally hailed.
As I sit down to my iftaar dinner at Ummrao, Mukhtaar gives me samplings of the Ramzaan menu as well as a few of his regular gems. I start with a delicate Awadhi Paya Shorba and a tasting of tangy spicy Tomato Shorba with crunchy water chestnuts. This is followed by Shatavar ki Galouti, soft and tender, made with asparagus. Next arrived a portion of the most succulent and aromatic Murshidabadi Gosht Seekh Kabab, smoky, spicy and supple garnished with raw crunchy Kashmiri white onions.
The seekhs were followed by a sudden flurry of Gosht Boti, Bhavnagri Murg Tikka, Hyderabadi Nizami Pomfret and Rawas Tikka.
Next came a duck preparation influenced by Bengal, cooked in a clay oven with panch phoran. It was mildly gamey and the roasted duck was cooked to perfection. If that wasn’t enough, it was time for the special Ramzaan Degustation. Deg ka Mutton Halim (broken wheat, cous-cous, baby goat cooked in potli spices), Tabrezzi Murgh ka Saalan (chicken cooked in an almond and yoghurt gravy), Paya Gosht ki Nihari served with a Taftaan (traditional fluffy bread baked in a clay oven), Bakhumas (sourdough bread grilled and topped with poppy seeds), Varqi Parathas (slightly sweet, layered).
The finale I thought was the Bhopali Dum ki Ghosht Biryani that came sealed in a pardah which when opened filled the room with the aroma of meat and spices. But anybody who knows me, knows that no iftaar meal, for me, can be complete without some Bheja, Gurda and Kaleji. So the meal ended with a Bheja Butter Masala, sautéed dry with onions, leniently spiced with turmeric and garnished with coriander, followed by Gurda Kheema Masala, compassionately cooked kidney in minced mutton, done simply on a griddle with garam masala, green chillies and fresh coriander.
The meal ended with three things — Parde mein Shahi Khubani Tart (the chef’s take on a Khubani ka Meetha with Rabdi), Malpua Aamras Kulfi, and an offer for a room to collapse in after the meal. I didn’t take him up on the last offer, but left, a little overweight and very emotional.