The Taste With Vir: Remembering Chef Imtiaz Qureshi's impact on Awadhi cuisine - Hindustan Times

The Taste With Vir: Remembering Chef Imtiaz Qureshi's impact on Indian culinary culture and evolution of Awadhi cuisine

By, New Delhi
Feb 20, 2024 06:11 PM IST

Explore the culinary journey of Chef Imtiaz Qureshi, a pioneer in Awadhi cuisine, whose innovative creations left an enduring impact on Indian gastronomy.

When I heard that Chef Imtiaz Qureshi had passed away, I thought back to when I first met him. It was in the mid-1980s. At that stage, he was widely known only within the world of Indian foodies and chefs. For instance, my then employer Aveek Sarkar would describe him as a chef in the Sunil Gavaskar league and fly him to Calcutta from Delhi to cater his parties. Aveek’s view was that most North Indian food in Indian hotels was Punjabi. (This was not a good thing, according to Aveek.) Only Imtiaz and his chefs (i.e members of his family) knew how to cook real Awadhi food.

Chef Imtiaz left an indelible mark, especially through the iconic Dum Pukht biryani, shaping the landscape of North Indian cuisine.
Chef Imtiaz left an indelible mark, especially through the iconic Dum Pukht biryani, shaping the landscape of North Indian cuisine.

Aveek may have been right but I did not learn Imtiaz’s story till some years later. And, in fact, the world at large only came to hear of Imtiaz because of my old friend Jiggs Kalra. The ITC Maurya was planning a new restaurant focusing only on Awadhi food. (Its predecessor, Mayur, where Imtiaz had previously cooked, was less Lucknow-focused.) (Also read: The Taste With Vir: Why do people go to restaurants? )

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In those days, restaurants did not take double-page ads in magazines but Jiggs persuaded ITC that the new restaurant needed to launch in a blaze of publicity. More unusually, he also talked ITC into putting Imtiaz’s picture in the ads, possibly the first time a hotel company had given a chef so much importance.

They called the restaurant Dum Pukht after a style of steam cooking most often associated with biryani. But Jiggs and the copywriters made out that this was an ancient style of cooking from deepest Awadh that had only now been rediscovered by intrepid culinary explorers in a corner of Sardar Patel Road.

It was during the previews for Dum Pukht that I met Imtiaz properly. He was a flamboyant figure with moustaches to match and a taste for the good things in life. At that stage, he was determined to have his version of Awadhi cooking regarded as a sort of haute cuisine. So he would cook his raan in a European-style puff pastry, presumably to remind us what would have happened if it had been Shah Jahan and not the Duke of Wellington who had defeated Napoleon.

Ever since Roger Moncourt, the legendary French chef, had come in to train the Maurya’s cooks and had roamed through the kitchens with a glass of red wine in his hand, Imtiaz had been tempted to do the same. Of course, he didn’t particularly like red wine so dark rum would have to do.

All of these little eccentricities added to the legend and with Jiggs and the ITC PR machine pushing him, he soon became one of India best-known chefs. Unusually for a large hotel company, ITC allowed Imtiaz to hire several members of his family to run his kitchen. As Dum Pukht became a huge success and new outposts opened all over India, a member of Imtiaz’s clan would be despatched to run the new kitchen. This sounds like nepotism but it went beyond that: Imtiaz’s family had secret recipes that it would not part with and so hiring family members often became the only way of maintaining standards.

I liked Imtiaz. I liked his larger-than life persona, and his ego which was double the size of a portion of the largest goat raan you could think of. He was sure of his abilities and always scathing about his colleagues and rivals. There had been a time, he said, when he had been in charge of Bukhara too and the famous Dal Bukhara was actually his invention. (This led to much unhappiness in the Bukhara kitchen where they strongly denied that he had anything to do with its creation.)

Imtiaz got away with all this because, he was quite simply, a brilliant chef. In an Awadhi kitchen you judge chefs by their mastery of technique and their understanding of spices. In both those areas, Imtiaz was king. But here’s what made him special: Unlike many other Lucknawi chefs, he had the skill and the imagination to create new dishes.

For instance, he once made me a safed biryani. The biryani was pure white, with none of the yellow colour normally associated with biryani. But each grain of rice was coated with flavour. What’s more he had made it with olive oil, not an ingredient that was much preferred by the nawabs of Awadh. Clearly, he had made up most of the dish himself. My wife loved it so much that she asked him if it would be available in Dum Pukht when he was not in the restaurant. Imtiaz pointed to the restaurant’s chefs — all of whom were his relatives, of course – and said “They can try. Let’s see if they can do it!” and scoffed.

Ah Imtiaz and biryani! There has been a lot in the obituaries and on social media about whether Imtiaz made biryani or pulao. The discussion is complicated by Imtiaz’s own flamboyance which led him to say different things to different people at different times. But I had several discussions with him on the subject over the years, and this is what I could learn.

For a start, Imtiaz believed that what many people call a Lucknow (or Awadhi) biryani is not a biryani at all. He was right to the extent that people in Lucknow still prefer the term pulao to biryani. (There are many theories about why this should be so, mostly involving frying vs stewing.)

But he called his own creation a Dum Pukht biryani. There was a very simple explanation for this: It was not an Awadh biryani. (Or Awadh pulao, for that matter.) It had some of the elements of a Lucknow biryani but it also included slightly sour flavours that would normally be associated with Hyderabad. So, strict Lucknow-style definitions did not apply.

Imtiaz also had his own view on the invention of biryani. Though we now hype biryani as a great Mughal court dish, many people believe that pulao, made in small quantities for the royal table was actually the great dish. Biryani, meant to be eaten on its own, was made in large quantities and served to the army and to crowds.

Imtiaz always claimed that he invented the Dum Pukht-style of serving small quantities of biryani in sealed earthenware pots. Until then, he said, large quantities of biryani would be made in a restaurant kitchen. Then some biryani would be put into a serving bowl and taken to the table.

In Imtiaz’s version the biryani would be steamed in a small pot. The flour purdah which kept the steam inside the pot would be ceremonially cut open on the table and the steam would escape. This, he said, was his way of making a mass dish like biryani get the elegance of pulao. By the end, Imtiaz had said many contradictory things to different people and begun himself to use the terms pulao and biryani interchangeably in conversation so I don’t think even he cared too much about maintaining the distinction.

And all those who claim that he never made biryani but only pulao do him a great disservice because that lessens the value of his greatest creation: The Dum Pukht biryani, which was neither fully Awadhi nor fully Hyderabadi. It is this biryani that nearly every North Indian restaurant everywhere in the world now serves. That one dish, more than anything else he did, will be Imtiaz’s legacy.

But he does have a second legacy. The Qureshis originally started out handling sacrifices and then became butchers. This helped the Qureshi cooks understand meat like few other cooks could do. That is one reason why Imtiaz and his descendants make the best meat dishes. (Their fish dishes are, frankly, not up to very much.)

When Imtiaz became famous, almost every chef who wanted to cook Awadhi food added Qureshi to his name. It has now got to the stage where every time I meet a chef who tells me his name is Qureshi, I treat this with a degree of suspicion because the chances are that for much of his life he called himself something else.

And finally, remember that Imtiaz was a lucky man. He almost never became famous. Major Habib Rehman, who ran ITC Hotels for many years, told me the story of Imtiaz’s lucky break.

Rehman was working in a hotel in Aurangabad owned by PL Lamba (of Kwality’s-Gaylords fame). When the hotel had to host a major trade conference, Lamba went off to Lucknow and returned with the young Imtiaz Qureshi who was then a wedding caterer in that city. Imtiaz would cook for the guests, Lamba told Rehman.

Among the guests was Ajit Haksar, the legendary chairman of ITC, who was fed up of the Punjabi food being passed off as North Indian in our restaurants and hotels. Haksar was determined that ITC’s food would be different when he opened his hotels.

Haksar loved Imtiaz’s food, tracked him down once the conference was over and brought him from Lucknow to Delhi to the new ITC Maurya Hotel. In the process, Haksar created a star and set off a food revolution. Now, both men have passed on. But the food remains. It is their legacy and India’s culinary treasure.

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