Meet the Qureshis: India’s first family of Indian cuisine, whose recipe for success borrows as much from tradition as it does from good old-fashioned ingenuity
One of the stories that Imtiaz Qureshi loves to tell is about how he tricked Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, CB Gupta, had invited the PM Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Zakir Husain for a private dinner in the early 60’s. Nehru accepted very reluctantly and only on the condition the food be pure vegetarian. Gupta called for Qureshi, then a young cook with Lucknow’s famous caterer Krishna Hotel,which regularly catered for government events, and told him to take care of the meal. Qureshi protested. He knew nothing about vegetables. But Gupta convinced him to take on the order and the worried chef spent the next month furiously figuring out how to make it work.
On the appointed day dinner was served and soon after an angry Gupta called for Imtiaz. A very annoyed Nehru was peering over his glasses at the food laid out for him. “I asked for a pure vegetarian meal,” the Prime Minister said. “But here I can see murgh mussalam, shammi kebabs and fish mussalam.”
Imtiaz replied: “Sir, everything is vegetarian, only disguised. The fish is actually bottle gourd, the chicken flesh is raw jackfruit and the legs are long brinjals. Even the shammi kebab has been made with lotus stems. I’ve only changed the appearance.” The thrilled guests and had a good laugh. Zakir Husain complimented Imtiaz saying that he had eaten vegetarian food all over the world but never anything as tasty.
There’s no dearth of famous chefs in India. Any media-savvy chef working in a successful fine-dining restaurant, heading a five-star hotel, or even hosting a television show, is happily labelled a celebrity. But the fame is restricted to an individual. The Qureshis on the other hand, may not all be famous individually, but their surname has become the passport to success in the hospitality industry. More than 30 chefs from the same Qureshi family are currently employed by five-star hotels, restaurants, catering companies or run their own restaurants in India and across the world. Mohin, Imtiaz’s nephew is a chef at Punjab Grill in MG Mall, Delhi. His cousin Ilyas works for restaurateur Marut Sikka’s company Indus Culinary Team, younger brother Ghulam is the Masterchef of Chingari at the Le Meridien, Pune while the youngest brother Meraj Ul Haque, looks after The Great Kebab Factory at Radisson Blu Plaza. Ahmed Ali’s elder son Aijaz after working at ITC Maratha has moved to Leela’s Indian Harvest and younger brother Javed works with is uncle Shaukat at Sofitel’s Jyran.
The story of the Qureshis rise to fame as the first family of north Indian food begins with Imtiaz Qureshi. Born on 2 Feb 1929, a few weeks after Martin Luther King and the first publication of Tintin and Popeye, the fifth son of Murad Ali and Sakina Qureshi grew up in a family of nine boys and two girls. His ancestors were butchers and cooks to Avadhi nobility for over 200 years; his maternal grandfather had worked for the Raja of Mehmoodabad and his paternal grandfather and father with the Raja of Jahangirabad. It’s not clear what position they held – assistants cleaned and did menial jobs, bawarchis prepared meals in large quantities and rakabdars usually cooked for the royal family and their guests. Considering that none of the family remembers what their grandparents did, it is most likely that they were primarily employed as butchers who cooked for feasts and festivals.
Imtiaz, like his brothers, began working young, helping out at the butchery when he was only 10-15 years old. Their day began at 4am, when freshly slaughtered carcasses would come to their father. The boys would help him break down the animal into different cuts of meat. By 7:30am, when the first customers arrived, they’d get ready for school. But much more was learned outside the classroom, working odd jobs with caterers – how mango and tamarind firewood left a lingering aroma in the food, how to cook for 100 to 10,000 people, what the elite liked to be served. By the time they were in their thirties, they could cook kilos of biryani, kebabs, sheermal, nihari and kormas in their sleep.
The brothers were well known in Lucknow, some of them ran meat shops and catering outfits. But it was not until the 1970s, when the ITC (then the Welcomgroup Sheraton) in Agra hired young Imtiaz to help develop their Indian cuisine, that they became more than local heroes. Imitaz signed on, taking on the formal surname Qureshi (the community of Qussabs, who practice halal slaughter, in an attempt at upward mobility had recently adopted the surname which derives from the Qurraish tribe of the Prophet Muhammad), and forging the first of many Qureshi links to Indian food. Shaukat followed Imtiaz and worked at ITC’s hotels in Agra and Chennai, Mumbai’s Searock Sheraton, the Holiday Inn and other hotels and catering companies before briefly consulting for the restaurant Punjab Grill. Mumtaz, worked with Kwality group in Lucknow, ran the local Gymkhana Club and introduced many of the kebabs that Kebab Korner at Hotel Natraj (now Intercontinental Marine Drive) is famous for, before joining the ITC with his brothers. Over the next decade the brothers impressed the hotel team and customers and after the launch of Dum Pukht in 1988 that they became established names in the hotel industry. This opened the doors for the sons, and many of the nephews, some of whom worked under the brothers for short periods or were directly picked up by other hotels and consultants, like Jiggs Kalra, since everyone wanted a piece of that galawati.
Several Indian regions have produced chefs who are masters of their respective cuisines. So what accounts for the Qureshis prevalence in Indian restaurants? The family attributes it to their background in butchery and their intimate knowledge of the cuts of goat. “Anyone can cut meat,” says Mumtaz. “But only a Qureshi understands which cut of mutton has to go into which preparation.” Of course, it’s not just knowledge of meat but knowing what spices to use when and how much that sets them apart. For as Ahmed Ali says with a benign smile, “Give us only water to cook and even that we will make flavourful and serve.” Then again, it’s not that the Qureshis are the only masters of Avadhi cuisine. Rahim ki Nihari in Lucknow’s Chowk serves some of the best nihari and paaya; Alamgir in Aminabad does delicate galawatis and kulchas that rival a puff pastry in flakiness.
Perhaps the family’s fame rests on two simpler reasons.
The first is that uniquely Indian character that has been debated extensively in the run up to the elections: family. When Imtiaz joined the ITC group he did not come alone, apart from his brothers he also brought his nephew Rais, sowing the seeds of dynastic succession in a commercial kitchen. Three of his five sons were employed by the company before they decided to forge their destinies elsewhere. Imtaiz’s son-in-law Ghulam is master chef of Dum Pukht at Delhi’s ITC Maurya, other relatives are in charge of other Dum Pukht outposts or are in charge of the Indian section of hotel banquet kitchens. Even the younger generation, many of whom who grew up outside Lucknow and didn’t start off at the butchery, still gained an edge by training and working under the senior Qureshi brothers.
Blood ties, however, can take you only so far and no company, or electorate, will tolerate a non-performer. The Qureshis also possess the unique ability to straddle two worlds. Though steeped in a culinary tradition, they have contemporarised Avadhi food for a modern diner without compromising on the character of the food. The Dum Pukht biryani is a classic example: Imtiaz took the traditional bulk cooking technique and adapted it to a la carte dining. “Any chef in India can make 10 kgs of biryani, any chef can make 5 kgs, they can even make 1 kg of biryani. But no one in the history of India made a 200 gm portion for a single person till I did it for Dum Pukht,” says Imtiaz Qureshi not too modestly. And he can do the reverse with equal skill; he is working on an Avadhi festival based on wheat gluten, a meat substitute from East Asia that has suddenly found a global following. “Imtiaz Qureshi was the world’s first modern Indian chef,” says Gautam Anand VP, ITC Hotels. “He broke free from the past and re-imagined Indian food for the world. He made it possible for chefs like Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar to reinterpret Indian food.”
ADAPTING THE RECIPE
The Qureshis outside the mother ship are no less creative. When given charge of the Indian restaurant Jyran at the Sofitel, Mumbai, Shaukat was given a very clear mandate: Indian food, but with a French touch. His response: a paya soup that’s velvety and light but holds the flavour of a greasier version; and bhagu ke kebab, a version of the galouti that retains a pâté-like smoothness even though it uses olive oil, not animal fat.
Ishtiaque, Imtiaz’s eldest son, the owner of the Kakori house chain of restaurants decided that he wanted to make the cuisine more accessible by opening multiple outlets that served the food at a consistent quality and affordable prices. He did this by going back to bulk cooking techniques but incorporated modern mass food packaging technology to ensure that every portion served would consistent not just in taste but calorific value. “I want to minimise the craftsmanship and make it more mechanised. I want a consistent product that is the only way that the cuisine can go international,” he says. Additionally, he has taken great pains to stay in the background, so that the brand has greater recall value than the individual “In my units I should not be important but my product should be important. 99% of the people will not recognise me.”
Ashfaque and Irfan, his younger brothers who run Grande Cuisines, a Delhi-based consultancy firm have gone one step further. Many of their restaurants are only lightly linked to Avadhi cuisine. “One need to reinvent oneself ,” says Ashfaque, “what my father and his father did was great, but I don’t have to follow exactly in their footsteps.” Pukhtaan, which means ‘to cook’, his soon to be launched restaurant in Patna offers dum pukt style dishes from across the subcontinent and Asia. It will have Persian inspired dishes, dishes from Morocco, Tunisia and of course, India. “I do respect my heritage,” he says, “but as a chef I have a greater moral responsibility to go beyond what has been taught me.”
Of course, the fame of the family has given rise to “duplicate Qureshis” says chef Ghulam Sabir, a Qureshi who just finished a contract with Movenpick, Dubai. In between jobs he’s spending time with the family in Sadr and says that he’s come across many Qureshis from other parts of India who, “learn a few names” and then claim they are from the same family.
Earlier, says Ashfaque, he and his brothers too would get upset when he heard of chefs who were not from the family using their name. But his anger was assuaged by his father who said, ‘badnaami mein bhi naam hai.’
Imtiaz’s family is not the only one that has done well. Among the boys from Sadar who have found success are Vakil Ahmed of The Great Kebab Factory (TGKF), Mukhtar Qureshi who heads the much acclaimed Neel in Mumbai and the young Shahnawaz Qureshi who is in charge of the kitchens at Saffron at the JW Marriott, Mumbai.
Of the three, Ahmed who was on the opening team of the first Dum Pukht, is the only one who has worked under Imtiaz. As the Master Chef for the TGKF he, along with food consultant Jiggs Kalra, created the menu and is custodian the quality for the restaurant chain.
At Mumbai’s Neel, Mukhtar Qureshi has different challenges to face. For a city that loves vegetables, he’s had to create an extensive vegetarian section from a cuisine that leans heavily on meat. So apart from his excellent galouti kebabs and tandoori nawabi chaps, he makes a chilgoza soup that has such a meaty flavour it’s impossible to believe that it’s pure vegetarian. His innovations include a broccoli kali mirch tandoori and a Kashmiri seb ki subzi and he’s introduced an olive biryani from Kashmir. The spice levels in his recipes vary according to season so the balance between palate and body remains perfectly aligned through the year.
Young Shahnawaz Qureshi, who’s in charge of the kitchens at Saffron at the JW Marriott, Mumbai, has trained at some of the best restaurants in Aminabad, the epicentre of Lucknow’s kebab centre, and is a master of meat. His uneven spicing may betray his youthfulness but his knowledge of cooking any kind of meat is unquestionable. Whether it’s the lehsuni jhinga, murgh nawabi tikka or a gilawati it’s cooked perfectly to the point of doneness.
DIGGING INTO ‘DUM PUKHT’
Dum pukht is one of the many techniques of Avadhi,cuisine and when the restaurant was launched in 1988 Qureshi and Maj SS Habib Rehman cleverly conjured up a complete backstory to add a dash of mystique. It claims: ‘When Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah, found his kingdom in the grip of famine, he initiated a food-for-work programme, employing thousands in the construction of the exquisite Bada Imambara (translate?). Large cauldrons were filled with rice, meat, vegetables and spices and sealed to make a simple, one-dish meal available to workers day and night. Then, one day, the Nawab caught a whiff of the aromas emanating from the cauldron and the royal kitchen was ordered to serve the dish. Gradually refined to please the royal palate, ‘Dum’ cooking soon spread to other Indian courts of Hyderabad, Kashmir and Bhopal.’
Holly Schafer in her essay Dum Pukht: A pseudo-historical cuisine points out that Qureshi and Rehman wove together two strands of history: the building of the Bara Imambara and the Indian act of gifting food for a religious occasion particularly during Muharram. The popular story of the Bara Imambara being built to alleviate the suffering of the people has no basis in history, it doesn’t even feature in the Uttar Pradesh Tourism booklet’s description of the structure. Hussein Keshani’s essay Architecture and the Twelver Shi’i Tradition: The Great Imambara Complex of Lucknow indicates that though there was indeed a famine in 1784, the complex was created to ‘accommodate the mourning rituals and assemblies of Muharram.’
None of this in any way detracts from the beauty of the food or the success of the ITC’s restaurant of the same name. If the price for keeping a cuisine alive is an over romanticised tale, it’s a price worth paying.
LEGENDS OF AVADHI CUISINE
Stories about how extravagantly the Nawabs of Avadh spent on food tumble like jewels out of a box. Here are some morsels
*There’s one about the cook who came to Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah and asked not just for a princely sum to cook only dal, but stipulated that when it was cooked the Nawab had to eat it immediately. The Nawab agreed but when the dal was ready the Nawab, engrossed in conversation, failed to respond to the cook’s reminders. In anger, the cook flung the dal out of the window and departed, never to be found again.
*In Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, Abdul Halim Sharar describes a moti pulau in which the pearls of rice were made by beating silver and gold foil into egg yolk. The mixture was stuffed into the gullet of chicken which was tied into knots and lightly cooked. When the gullet was cut open, little pearls that had formed were added to a biryani.
*Epicureans would fatten chickens with musk and saffron pills until their flesh was scented with these substances before cooking them in a broth.
*Gravies would be sieved multiple times to ensure that they were smooth and silky. Whole spices would never appear in the food, only the flavours would. Kebabs were pounded to paste with tenderisers so that the meat would melt in the mouth. Raj Saxena, co-author of Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh says this is because, “the main entertainment was dancing girls, chess, watching cock fights or kite flying. The foods which would be served as snacks, could not be heavy so that it did should not distract them from the entertainment. In fact, if anyone remarked about the food then it was considered an offence. The food had to be excellent; otherwise there was no place for it.”
*The other highlight of Avadhi cooking was the fascination with ‘riddle’ dishes: foods that appeared to be one thing but were something else altogether. Entire meals were composed of these disguised dishes especially when they nobility wished to trick or embarrass a guest. Sharar describes a ‘riddle’ meal created by Prince Mirza Asman Qadar’s chef for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. “There were pulau, zarda, qourma, kababs, biryani, chapatis, chutneys, achar, parathas, shir mals – in fact every kind of food. However, when tasted they were all found to be of sugar… It is said that even the plates, the tablecloth, the finger bowls and cups were made of sugar.”
An edited version of this article appeared in HT brunch on May 5, 2014. Published HT Brunch May 5, 2014. Read the print version of the Qureshi cover story