By Siddhi Jain
New Delhi–What began as a nine-year-old’s venture at Krishna Caterers about eight decades ago in the city of Nawabs turned into an awe-inspiring, lifelong affair with cuisine. Imtiaz Qureshi, a widely admired and adored figure in the Indian culinary space, has served lip-smacking delicacies to several heads of state and government, and other luminaries.
The 87-year-old chef, in an interview to IANS, revealed that he took the culinary plunge at a very early age. Reminiscent of all things synonymous with the bygone era, the times that Qureshi was growing up in were very different from the fast-paced lifestyle of today. He comes from a family of Lucknowi chefs and was brought up amid intense fondness for Indian cuisine.
“Jis zamane mein humne aur humare baap dadao ne kaam shuru kiya, us zamane mein shaadiya five star mein nahi hoti thi. Baarat ghar pe aati thi, chaahe voh jhopde ke andar ho ya mahal ke andar. Tent shamiyane, tamboo yahi lagte the, aur ussi maidan mein khana bhi banta tha,” he recalled, pointing out that there were no five star hotels during those days and marriages used to be held at homes, whether it was a hut or a palace.
And food — for all intents and purposes– is central to Indian marriages. So here was young Qureshi cooking at Krishna Caterers in Lucknow, hopping from one marriage to another and charming the appetite of his customers.
His salary was barely Rs 100 but the young lad had little to bother for one could buy a complete meal at just one or two rupees during those days. “Even after spending a significant amount of money to buy a meal for just one person, there is little satisfaction to one’s taste buds today,” he lamented.
But destiny had greater plans for the chef-in-the-making. As it turned out, Krishna Caterers used to serve food to the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Chandra Bhanu Gupta, who served three terms.
What followed is vividly scripted in his memory. One introduction led to the next and, along the journey, Qureshi began scaling heights in the culinary world, reviving a taste for regal dishes.
His name would soon be at the tip of the tongues of influential political leaders.
“When I worked for Krishna Caterers in Lucknow, Jawaharlal sahab (former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) used to frequent Uttar Pradesh a lot. We were hired to serve him,” he said.
Taking us back into the dining room of Chandra Bhanu Gupta, he recalled that once during Nehru’s visit, he was instructed to prepare a vegetarian meal for him, President Zakir Hussain and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The then young chef racked his brains and cooked vegetarian dishes, which, at least in appearance and odour, resembled the opposite. Bottle gourd and jackfruit was used to prepare dishes which looked like “fish musallam” and “murgh musallam”.
“When the table was set, Nehruji read the menu aloud and exclaimed about the ‘daawat’ (feast). There was a moment of panic and I was summoned, when I spilled the beans about the trick, leading to a good laugh about my ‘gustaakhi’ (mischief),” the maven quipped.
Qureshi, a retired grand master chef at ITC Hotels, is primarily known for reinventing “Dum Pukht” and “Dal Bukhara”.
Elaborating, he said that the former, a process of slow-cooking in a sealed “handi”, is something that needed research to be revived, requiring him to even pore over old Urdu manuscripts for the recipes, while the latter, another slow-cooking process, allows ingredients to simmer over coal fires for hours at a stretch.
The taste of dishes prepared by these methods has millions of fans but the experience of serving nawabs, maharajas, presidents and prime ministers is something not every chef gets. It has indeed been an incredible journey for Qureshi, who today sports a long moustache, complimenting his full, grey beard.
The chef, a recipient of the Padma Shri, will be the chief guest for the upcoming Hotels, Restaurants and Catering (HRC) Expo 2018, scheduled to take place from August 31 to September 2 in Bengaluru.
The HRC Expo will comprise competitions like “Individual Cold Display”, “Plated Appetizers”, “Artistic Bakery Showpiece”, “Butter Margarine Sculptures”, and “Battle of Biryani”, among others. Panel discussions featuring eminent chefs will be a key highlight of the Expo.
His stint with the ITC group of hotels began in 1977. He was encouraged to research forgotten recipes from the Mughal era. For several years that followed, Qureshi worked on perfecting such recipes. He retired as the Grand Master chef at ITC in February 2017.