Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Nawab of Deccan Cuisine

Enter the drawing room of a three-storeyed bungalow at Jubilee Hills and the first thing that greets you is the chime of grandfather’s clock standing under the gaze of a huge glittering crystal chandelier hung from a wooden ceiling that gives you a feel of sitting in some palatial wood cabin in a hill station. A number of table chandeliers glow near different sets of sofas and heavy teak tables. As the vision adjusts a tall frame in crisp white kurta pyjama and skull cap enters saying salaam. His smile is brighter than the diamond ring he is wearing. This is Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan for you, doyen of the Hyderabad royalty. He is just back from his kitchen supervising a sumptuous dinner that he is hosting at his house for fifty people. Yes, Nawab Saab also dons the chef’s cap.
It’s not for nothing that he is known as the legend when it comes to Deccan food. Now in his late sixties and having braved a by-pass surgery his stature grows larger day by day when it comes to the knowledge of Hyderabadi cuisine that he opens a treasure trove of. Sitting in the plush sofa he checks the progress of the dinner with his staff and continues the conversation, “What’s food? It’s four things: namak, mirch, gehun, and chawal. These make  the basic food. Somebody puts wine. Someone puts cream and hence different cuisines emerge. The way of cooking changes as the geography of kitchens change.” He tells that the right preparation of haleem takes 11 hours! “The ghee, gosht and genhu (wheat) needs to be rightly cleaned, ground and cooked. It’s the balance that makes the difference. These days cooks use semolina so how can one expect the right taste for a bowl of haleem when the ingredient is not right!” he laments.

The clock announces 8:30. Nawab Saab checks with his attendant about Doodh Ka Sherbet over the phone. “I use charcoal smoke for the sherbet as it is prepared in a clay pot. It’s a typical Muharram food savoured in Deccan. There won’t be many in the city who know about this sherbet,” he informs.
For the dinner, under his supervision were cooked delectable dishes like Safeda/ Sofiyani Biryani, Mirchi Kaa Saalan, Baghare Baigan, Chaal Kii Kebab, Shermal, Baigan Ka Raita, Haleem, Murgh, Sheer Khorma and salad. And of course his signature dish haleem with its cream colour texture topped with onion rings fried golden in ghee.

Who has ever heard a Nawab take to cooking? But Baba, as he is fondly called has been cooking for the past forty years. And how exactly did he land in the kitchen? He smiles and says, “As a young boy sometimes I’d peep into the kitchen and help myself with some quick food. As I grew up I knew I loved my food. Then, we had cooks who knew the golden secrets of our kitchens and were old and dying. I decided I can learn the tricks from them if I have to eat the same delicious royal food that nobody else cooks. And that’s how I learnt cooking from them and till date I am cooking.”

When the monarchy of Hyderabad ended in 1947 police action happened and it came under Indian Union. “There was a large scale migration that never happened in other parts of India. The best cooks moved, only a few remained and those died. I was in London in 60s I started cooking there also. In 1956 three districts Bidar, Raichur and Gulbarga ewent to Karnataka and four went to Maharashtra. We studied their recipes and cooked the food. The best part is that such food was cooked in pure ghee. Even today we use pure ghee. I love cooking Mandi also especially the way Yemenis relish eat. They dig a pit and fire huge logs into it. Huge pot of rice with cardamoms and water is cooked and then on the top lamb is put. A gunny sack which is wet is also put. Such food is not cooked with oil. It is cooked in the heat. The shawarma of Middle East is different from ours. They use camel meat while we use beef or mutton. The real shawarma is marinated in onion juice,” he beams.

So, what Deccan recipes has he restored? “Daasht. It’s kind of chicken of Hyderabad. We use paste of browned onion, almond paste, chiraunji and khus khus. For marinating we have special lagan, a shallow pan with legs”, he shares.

And guess what, he’s collected heavy-bottomed copper utensils that were used in the times of his forefathers even from his great great grandfather. The crockery and cutlery of his family suffices for 500 people. And he even has the scales. He has English style serving dishes. Chhaal Kii Kebab made from minced meat which used to be served in many royal Hyderabadi dinners and lunches. He himself goes to the market for buying meat.

“Many people don’t know what is silver screen in a meat-piece. Those who have the zauq and shauq of good food only can understand what it is. If it’s not cleaned properly the masala won’t cook in the meat-piece. Then there is Mukhdas a sausage like Arabic dish we make which is meat-pieces wrapped in cleaned intestines. Again its recipe is lost in many families,” he explains and adds, “We make different kinds of Do Pyazaa like Tamatar Ka Do Pyaza, Nimbu Ka Do Pyaza, Meetha Do Pyaza without adding sugar to it. Kachii Imli Ka Do Pyaza, and even Starfruit Do Pyaza. We bhuno it so much that nothing of onion remains in the dish. Dalcha is another dish we make i.e., Deccan Ka Dalcha with three different kinds of pulses, tamarind and meat chunks. These dishes are exquisite.”

A walk into his kitchen and you get to see stocks of sauces, vinegars, oils, spoons, spice-boxes and three burner stoves. This is the place he comes to whenever he rustles some ingredients in a pot to cook his legendary dishes that even food connoisseurs and chefs are fond of. But for dinners like he hosted on a Sunday he gets temporary brick stoves made at the backside of his bungalow on the floor. And the food is cooked on huge wood logs. We take a walk and find the cinders still glowing red. The smell of wood-smoke mixed with food cannot be ignored.

He still has buffaloes whose milk is used for cooking. “The kind of fodder that animals eat has its effect on the taste and texture of food,” he tells us.

He has been trotting all over the world and has collected rugs from countries as far as Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan Pakistan and Iraq. He loves collecting knives. He has built his collection over the past 50 years. And these are not big knives but small, foldable ones.

He shares, “You don’t get pure Shah Zeera outside Hyderabad. It grows only in Afghanistan. What is sold outside the city is not Shah Zeera, it’s something else. When I’d gone to Afghanistan, local merchant told me that 90 per cent  of Shah Zeera that is grown in their country is used in kitchens of Hyderabad, they use only the rest 10 per cent.”

 So does travelling enrich his food experiences? “I don’t have a club life. Travelling always enriches experiences. I taste the food wherever I go. This tells which food is different from what. I find that pulao or pilav as it is called is cooked in many countries. The taste and ingredients differ from land to land. You see the basic is rice and some condiments.”

The director of Hyderabad Deccan Cigarette Factory, popularly known as Golkonda Cigarette Factory, and honorary secretary of prestigious Anwar-Ul-Uloom Group of Institutions starts his winter breakfast at home with Daal-e-Maash topped with ghee tadka and roti.” He is fond of rural Deccani food. But finds a lot of refinement in Hyderabad food. “Twenty quintals of biryani I cooked for my son’s wedding and 1,200 Kg fish and 3,000 Kg chicken. We make certain foods in clay-pots. You cannot cook the same on a gas stove. Western cooking is dependent on the sauces. Ours is masala-based that needs to be cooked for a longer period. Country chicken is better suited for our kind of cooking. The skin of country chicken stands the heat and spices. It takes one hour and a half, and then the masala will develop its own taste. You cannot do it with broiler chicken. For restaurants broilers is heaven-sent item. I cook Anglo-Indian food also like Chicken Roast. I do pot roast in old English style,” he tells us.

He reminisces the time when he would relish pomfret at Taj Bombay when he used to visit Bombay as a little boy along with his father Nawab Shah Alam Khan. “They removed their signature dish which is sad,” he laments.

After the sumptuous dinner that he lovingly served to his guests he sits and talks about the time when he was invited to prepare a feast for Prince Agha Khan who didn’t want a lot of ingredients to be included in his food platter.

“Two sets of dinner were prepared under my guidance; one for the guests, one for him. It so happened that he ended up having the guests’ food while the food prepared only for him remained untouched,” he chuckles reminiscing. He has many food stories up his sleeve and before we take his leave we ask him if he’s going to pen a book. He thinks and responds, “Now I think I will.”

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