FIRST IN MIDDAY>> Seasoned chef Mukhtar Qureshi's tumultuous past became the impetus for a furious culinary journey that has now culminated in a restaurant in Andheri which subsumes the flavours of Awadh
Khaana hum ne bachchpan se dekha, lekin paka ne ka humein zyaada knowledge nahi tha. Humarein andar sirf rumali roti bana ne ki karigari thi, bas uss hi ko lekar hum yahan aayein the," says iconic chef Mukhtar Qureshi, running his finger up and down the lapel of his chef's coat, often wandering off as if conversing with his past and not us.
Purdah khubhani tart
We are sitting inside Ummrao, Qureshi's gift to Mumbai and Andheri's latest restaurant, wrapped in bold blue and a soothing gold. The centre space is surrounded by a delicate metal jaali, akin to the stone screens found in medieval palaces, coruscating in the warmth of a regal lotus-shaped chandelier hanging overhead. Faint strains of classical Indian music interweave with the overall calmness within the space, and at first glance, she is impressive in her carefully calculated and mahal-like grandeur. But like Qureshi says, "Yeh sab bas sajawat hai. Khaane ki parakh toh pehle niwale mein hi ho jaati hai." Nonetheless, she is undeniably beautiful. Inside and out.
And it is the inner beauty of this Awadhi bride that Qureshi has woven with his experienced handiwork, or what he earlier referred to as karigari. Twenty-five years since the sought-after chef arrived in Mumbai, his karigari has multiplied amply, far exceeding the simple art of making rumali rotis. Yet, there was a time when that was all that he made, 40 kilos a day, for a meagre Rs 150 at Jamaal Ka Dhaba near Mumbai Central. That was circa 1993 and Qureshi was just 16. It was his second job, before which he worked at a tea stall in Bandra's Garib Nagar for three months in exchange for a meal a day.
Bagade gucchi biryani. Pics/Sneha Kharabe
But how did Qureshi, who came from a lineage of restaurateurs in Aminabad, end up hamstrung in Bambai nagariya? "My father passed away when I was very young and soon after so did my mother. My grandfather helmed several restaurants in the '60s, including Habibia Hotel. They would serve just five or six dishes such as qorma, galouti, biryani, rotis, and maybe phirni, too. There is a massive gambling problem in Lucknow, and my uncles had succumbed to the addiction; there was a lot of infighting between them. We began losing everything we had to my uncles' debts. I stayed with my aunt for a while but got tired, ran away and came to Bombay with `50 in my pocket," he shares in Urdu as pristine as the glass of sparkling water sitting still in a clear blue chalice before us.
Five saag melange
The texture of his voice as he enunciates each word falls short of the richness in his purane chowk ki galouti (Rs 450) by just a shade. The soft pan-seared mutton kebabs sit on miniature melt-in-your-mouth parothas, and the creaminess of the dish remains unperturbed because it is made craftily, achievable only when there is a balance between instinct and technique. The magic is all-pervasive and present in each of Qureshi's creations, be it the basnu singhada (Rs 225), a tawa-fried cutlet made with bamboo shoot and water chestnut flavoured with refined Indian spices. Or the ambada jhinga (Rs 375), skewers of piquant and soft flattened prawns soured with an ambada leaf marinade, and the bagade gucchi biryani (Rs 995), an aromatic biryani with Kashmiri wild mushrooms, which is donned with caramelised onions and made as a homage to the culinary aesthete that Wajid Ali Shah, Lucknow's last nawab, had greatly contributed to before being exiled to Kolkata's now disintegrating region, Garden Reach.
But perhaps, the allure in Qureshi's art lies not in the play of flavours, the search and sourcing of exquisite ingredients ranging from Kashmiri apples and mushrooms, to bamboo shoots from the Northeast, to panchphoron, a quintessential five-spice mix from Bengal, to fine and juicy meats from Lucknow and paneer from Punjab, but in the simplicity that he manages to retain even amid all the grandiosity.
And he echoes this when he relives his journey from being a lost and famished child on the streets of Mumbai to becoming an assistant trainee cook at the famed Qureshi family's Copper Chimney for a paltry salary, only to realise he was in fact a relative, and from working as a commi 2 at Hotel Sun & Sand to finally ending up in the lap of ITC's celebrated twin-Kashmiri restaurants, where he says he learnt the most; to now, dressing up the bride herself in five prized jewels — akhlaq or ethics, jashn or celebration, roohaniyat or soulfulness, nazaqat or elegance, and lastly riwayaat or tradition.
TIME: 5 pm to 1 am
AT: Courtyard by Marriott, Andheri Kurla Road Andheri East.
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