The curious tastes of Ishtiyaque Qureshi February 18, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
C Y Gopinath profiles one of the most inventive cooks in Mumbai
“TRY SOMETHING NEW,” said Ishtiyaque Qureshi. “Milk pudding.”
The 25-year-old chef was wearing his deadpan face, the one he used when he had done some devilry in his kitchen. The pudding looked perfectly ordinary: I stirred it, noted some blanched almonds floating in it. It tasted as it should, touch of crocus there. There was something wrong with the way the almonds tasted, though. There was a tantalising edge to them, too subtle to identify but too distinct to miss.
“What’s this?” I asked Ishtiyaque, holding an almond up in a spoon.
“Can’t tell you,” he said. “You might not eat the dish if I did.”
And that was how I had my first ever garlic pudding, over six years ago at the end of a memorable dinner at the erstwhile Dum Pukht restaurant of the Searock Hotel. The man who had subdued the garlic enough to make it sing within milk comes from a rich culinary heritage in the nawabi gullies of Lucknow.
Now in a Lucknowi gully, the cook of calibre is one who can dissolve the maximum sugar into his rice. “Some people can manage just a kilo of sugar to a kilo of rice,” said Ishtiyaque. “A champion could do upto three.” I must have looked blank, because Imtiaz kindly began to explain. To cook correctly, with each grain standing separate, a portion of rice needs a portion of water. Accommodating more sugar, however, means adding more water, and thus increasing cooking time — and risking the rice being reduced to mush. In Lukcnow’s gullies, the man who can melt sugar into his rice without turning it into goo is hailed as a virtuoso.
Last week, when I reached the Leela Kempinski Hotel, where Ishtiyaque’s vast innovative skills are utilised (or underutilised), Ishtiyaque was doing something with rice. I recognised it at once — the mythical Syrian Christian Coconut, which I had extolled in this very column a fortnight earlier. A dish I have heard described but never seen being prepared, this enticing coconut dessert is said to be made after the Kerala rice harvest, when the grain is parboiled in large stone vats in the backyards of landowning Syrian Christian households. While the rice parboils, fresh green coconuts stuffed with a mixture of flat rice, jaggery, cardamom, cumin and ghee are bundled in cloth and thrown in to cook in the water’s heat.
“The principle involved is the same as in Lucknow’s dum cooking,” said Ishtiyaque. “That’s why I decided to try it.” To simulate the environment of a Syrian Christian stone vat in a 5-star kitchen, he added rice to the water. To better seal in the coconut, he plastered the shell with wheat dough, the way a handi is sealed in dum cooking. The result, when he finally dismantled the coconut, was a superbly subtle sweet in which the cumin stood up unexpectedly within mouthfuls.
I have always been a little in awe of the way Ishtiyaque marries his instinct for authenticity with his spirit of inventiveness. He once served my vegetarian wife a delectable mutton biriyani — which she refused to touch until he assured her that the meat was actually chunks of jackfruit. “In texture, bite and taste, jackfruit comes closest to mutton, especially after marination.”
After a particularly dazzling dinner once at the Leela’s Indian Harvest, whose menu he has slowly refashioned, he asked me if I could guess why the gulab jamun was called as such, when it featured neither jamuns (blackberries) nor gulabs (roses). After being rewarded with a vacant look from me, he served us the original gulab jamun. The syrup, dark, thick, slightly sour and fragrant, had been brewed from the juice of true jamuns mixed with honey, and charmed by the juice of fresh rose petals. Another Ishtiyaque original.
Last week, for the first time in all the years I’ve been fed by Ishtiyaque, I asked him to cook something perfectly ordinary, something he hadn’t invented, something anyone could cook, something typically Lucknowi and something delectable. He easily created the Bawari Handi. A bawar, in old Lucknow referred to the fertile banks by a river. When a crop of fresh vegetables reached the market from a bawar, you could savour the Bawari Handi in hundreds of Lucknowi dhabas.
While Ishtiyaque watched his Bawari Handi, I watched him. Like a Zen archer, who closes his eyes and blanks his mind at the moment of aiming, Ishtiyaque when cooking seems to become one with his creation. Here, at age 30, with his distinctive pigtail of hair behind his toque, was a consummate chef with supreme control over his ingredients, their quantities and their behaviour. His hands, unexpectedly podgy even in a charitable description, work like calipers, precisely assessing quantities of turmeric, chilly powder and salt, the only three spices in this dish. As the mutton simmers cheerfully in its own juices, you will come to believe that the meat has indeed met its master, and will obediently do as he bids it.
At the height of creation, the cook disappears in sheer pleasure. The mutton and vegetables start enjoying their own transcendence to heavenly status. Cooking, for a while, stops being a task with an objective — and at the end, the Bawari Handi seems to emerge almost by itself, perfect in every nuance, its wafting aromas heralding its birth.