A meat supplier has been waiting for Chef Irshad Qureshi when we walk into Masala Kraft, at Taj Mahal Palace & Towers, Apollo Bunder, where he has recently joined as Indian cuisine chef. Executive Chef Amit Chowdhury explains, "He is very particular about the meat cuts. He took the effort to sit and explain how he wants the meat cut the first time we met him. He will explain again till the vendor gets it right."
Chef Irshad Qureshi at Masala Kraft, Colaba
It’s the sort of rigour for detail we have come to love. The 54-year-old chef, the seventh generation chef from the well-known family of culinary experts, the Qureshis of Lucknow, learnt under his father Niaz Ahmed Qureshi. "I was 13 when I started working at his catering service. In the beginning, we were not allowed to do much. My duty was to pick out any remnant bones in the meat that had been cooked for biryani or nihari," says Qureshi, who grew up around conversations and flavour in Jehangirabad, 20 kilometres from Lucknow.
The non-veg kebab platter includes Bhatti ka Jhinga, Galouti Kebab, Narangi aur Mirchi Rawas and Namkeen Gosht. Pics/Suresh KK
"Often, as a child, I would discard the wrong vessels, and my father would chide me. But most of the time, he would teach with love," says Qureshi, who joined Sea Rock hotel in Mumbai in 1981. "I worked there for 10 years and moved to Abu Dhabi, followed by stints in Kolkata, Singapore, Malaysia. In 1996, I returned to Taj Indore where I worked for two years, before moving out to launch Radisson Bleu, in Delhi," says Qureshi, who packed off for London’s Red Fort restaurant in Central London. "A fine dining restaurant, I also tried my hand at small plates at their casual diner. I went on to do food festivals in Turkey, Korea, Czechoslovakia," says Qureshi, who took time out to try the local cuisine in every country he lived.
In Malaysia, his palate took a liking for nasi ayam bu oki a fried chicken dish served with soup and rice.
On his global stints, the masterchef learnt that the world was not taking to rich foods. "I cut the usage of almond and cashewnut by half. I would stick to my spice levels, but create separate non-spicy dishes on request." For those whose palate wouldn’t handle much spice, Rogan Josh became Namkeen Josh.
"Authentic Lucknowi food is my strength but sometimes, I create a remix," says Qureshi, pointing to the aloo starter on the menu. "Usually, it has a potato filling inside, but I have stuffed it with black and green olives, along with sundried tomatoes and a hint of lemon and mint leaves."
Another dish is the Narangi Rawas. "I use authentic yellow chillies, ginger garlic paste, top it with some orange zest."
Lucknow cuisine stands out for its finesse, compared to Hyderabadi or Rampuri food, he explains, "In the two cuisines, you will get whole spices such as cardamom and cloves. In Lucknowi, we also cook with khada masala (whole spices) but strain the gravy before serving so that every bite is like silk."
Lucknowi food, in his opinion, may have changed across India and the world, "But when you return to Lucknow, it is just the same," he says, adding that in all his travels, he has managed to locally source ingredients to pound his own masalas. "Just my yellow chillies come from Lucknow, but now even that is spiked. It doesn’t overpower the taste, and has a light hint of heat."
The recipes are inherited from ancestors, and all of them sit in his head. "I don’t need to write them down. They have been with me since childhood."