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A pulao with olives? February 21, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

That’s not the only surprise in store when Ishtiyaque Qureshi decides to take over the kitchen, discovers C Y Gopinath

ISHTIYAQUE QURESHI CONTROLS FOOD. The way a pet-lover controls his pet.

If he doesn’t want his onions to brown just yet, they will patiently await his further instructions. If he wants the meat not to stick to the bottom of the pan, then the meat will obediently float around in its oil, sticking not even to its closest friends. If he wants the garlic to go to sleep, it will go to sleep, pretending it’s actually an almond. To understand which djinn gave Ishtiyaque his awesome powers, you must go both into his genes and genesis. Genes first.

Ishtiyaque’s father, Imtiaz, was already a legend in the gullies of Lucknow before he was discovered by the Maurya Hotel group. In those bylanes, he had improved his own mastery of ingredients and proven his mettle in simple, nearly impossible feats — such as mixing sugar into rice. The accolade went to him who could mixing the largest quantity of sugar into cooking rice without sacrificing the flakiness of the final product. Imtiaz, the story goes, could effortlessly blend 3 kilos of sugar into a kilo of rice.

The architect of the famous Dum Phukt Restaurant — whose Bombay edition closed down after a bomb blasted the Searock Hotel — was hailed, on the inside flap of the menu, as being illiterate and unschooled, but that was wrong. Imtiaz’s studies were more precise than most engineers’ and more sophisticated than most artists’. And it was this extraordinary skill of mastery over the cooking process that he passed on to his eldest son Ishtiyaque, who never thought he’d one day be a virtuoso in a kitchen.

I asked to meet him after tasting his butter-like, utterly yielding kakori kebab, revived from the dhabas of Uttar Pradesh. As our acquaintance grew, I was privileged and delighted to be his guinea pig in a number of experiments. In one, he served me what seemed like an almond kheer, except that the ‘almonds’ were pods of garlic whose ego he’d subjugated by careful ministrations in simmering milk, converting them in the process into something quite nawabi and aristocratic.

On another occasion, he satisfied a picky vegetarian companion of mine with a stupendous biriyani which she promptly labelled a sham. But it was not. The ‘meat chunks’ were blocks of jackfruit, cooked so that their texture, taste and consistency was indistinguishable from mutton.

The third time, at the Leela Kempinski’s Indian Harvest, Ishtiyaque decided to experiment with morrels, the exotic and costly mushroom-like fungus that is so prized in French cuisine. He delivered an array of delicacies to our table, all Indian as they could be in taste, yet ineffably refined by the subtlety of morrels.

Now for the genesis. Ishtiyaque is one of the few unsung heroes of the Indian kitchen. He’s the maestro who will never be the witty host of his own food show on Star TV, the chef who will never write his You-Too-Cook-Be-Like-Me best-seller. In fact, this extraordinary artist shuttles around in the twilight zone between the cooking and the food processing industry. He disappeared for a spell to Bangalore, exploring the frigid world of frozen kebabs and biriyanis. Then, tiring of that, he re-entered normal life at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai. Then there was another disappearance to Ahmedabad, another disenchantment, and another homecoming. You may see him today triumphantly re-inventing one of Mumbai’s most illustrious Mughlai restaurants. The Bandra edition of the Copper Chimney, renamed the Charcoal Grill, is currently a showcase of Ishtiyaque’s talents.

He made his olivon ka biriyani in my humble kitchen. In contrast to my panic-driven method of putting together my merely passable meals, Ishtiyaque cooks as though he had all the time in the world. The onions will not char while he turns away from them to play with my son. The meat will not separate into fibres because he was busy pounding garlic for the raita. With Ishtiyaque, cooking is an act of will, man against masalas, and the winner is always the same.

“But olives in a biriyani!” I exclaimed. Spain meeting Hyderabad, bullfights in the haveli, torreros and tandooris. How could they mix?

Ishtiyaque smiles. And that reminds me: until someone imported potatoes into India from South America, whoever had heard of batata wadas here?

Olivon ka Pulao

150 gms ghee
1/2 kg Basmati rice
2 Bay leaves
1 gram saffron
3 big cardamoms
3 small onions, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 green chillies
2” piece of ginger, julienned
Yellow chilly powder (to taste)
Salt to taste
50 gms fresh mint leaves
20-25 pitted green or black olives
Juice of lemon or 1 tsp aamchoor (dried mango powder)
5 gms garam masala
1 1/2 cups of soya bean nuggets (optional)
A generous fistful of dough

1. Wash the rice clean in several changes of water, and soak it water until needed.

2. Heat ghee on a low fire, and brown the onion rings in it, stirring frequently until they are golden brown and crisp. Use a slotted spoon to drain the oil off the onions.

3. If you are planning to use soya bean nuggets, fry them light golden in a little oil, and keep aside.

4. To the same ghee, add the crushed garlic, bay leaves, big cardamoms, green chillies, ginger, and half a cup of water. Sauté for about three minutes. If you are using soya bean nuggets, add them now, and then add a litre of cold water, or enough to cover the rice. When the water comes to a boil, add the soaked rice and salt to taste.

5. When the water comes to the boil again, add the pitted olives, mint and saffron and stir it gently.

6. Using the dough, seal the rim of the cooking vessel and place the lid firmly against it. Put the vessel on a tava and let it cook on slow heat. When the steam begins hissing out through a weak spot in the dough, the pulao should be ready. If it is not, add a little more hot water, reseal the vessel, and let it cook a little longer.

7. When the pulao is done, garnish with the crisp fried onions, sprinkle with garam masala, and serve hot, along with a little raita.


1. susieshapira - April 29, 2007

Hi Gopium:

I have a huge jar of olives that I got from Costco and olive pulao sounds perfect. Nice blog. Nice layout, nice title, nice about me, great article!


C Y Gopinath - June 9, 2015

Hello Susie —

I can’t believe I’m replying to a 2007 letter in 2015. I was going through old mail and came upon yours.

I wonder if you’ve been wondering where my blog has disappeared to. It is true, the blog has unfortunately been inactive for some time. A part of the reason is that I had shifted everything to a new WordPress site. Though it is still under construction, it is ready for viewing.

Please do come back — lots of my food writing is there, and I’m seriously dreaming up new ones now. You can access it at http://www.cygopinath.com — and sign on when you get the subscription form. I will make sure you get a notification whenever I post a new blog.



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