Food gives us many stories and many heroes – people who have spent their entire life cooking and understanding food. These are the real heroes that need to be spoken about. I’m sharing my interactions and inspirations in these two stories…
The Story of a 95 year old magician
Lucknow has its share of great food and some bewildering food fables. Stories of dal cooked with gold that brought an old dead tree to life or of ‘Parind Pooris’ that had small birds fly out of them when cracked, are just a few common ones that you would hear sitting in an erstwhile Nawab’s or Taluqedar’s house.
These are much more than the stories or food folklores; these are an intimate connect to Lucknow’s glorious cultural past.
While tracing this past in parlance I met a gentleman, Rishad Rizwi, at his haveli in old Lucknow. He was a proud Lucknowite with his stash of secret recipes and family dishes, on requesting a taste of which, he invited me over a lunch. I was much keener in the cooking process than the served lunch, so chose to start up early morning with his chef Mubarak Ali.
But before that, here’s how an old Nawabi kitchen set up goes: each kitchen had a daroga, who was the administrative head and then there were bawarchis, who would cook for the courts, hakims. Bawarchis are the ones who would identify what the royal family needed to eat as per the season (or their body needs) and the raqabdars, who were the highly paid cooks and would cook only for the Nawabs/Taluqdars.
The bawarchis stay as a famous lot, as they would be widely appreciated by virtue of their food being tasted by a lot more people. These chefs had their names printed on wedding invites, as they would be the real crowd pullers for any ceremony. A famous chef cooking for a wedding was sure to draw huge crowds. It’s the raqabdars though, who were the masters of creativity and finesse – as they cooked for the choosiest, moody and the easily-bored class. These raqabdars are a lost tribe now, and the next morning when I learned that Mubarak Ali was a third generation raqabdar I felt honoured to be working with him.
When I arrived to meet him, I saw a frail, old and lazy man lying on his charpai and abusing the whole world.When he got up, he could hardly walk, had a very noticeable hunchback, and then the raw material arrived and the transformation happened.
Suddenly there was a glow in his eyes, he was sprinting between his three wood-fired chulhas and talking to me like we were friends forever. He started cooking with his father when he was just 12 and professed to be 95! This meant he had cooked for almost eight decades! A fact later verified by his knowledge of ingredients, his skills, and his never ending stories, and later by Rizwi saab himself.
His kitchen had only fire wood, itr and potlis of masalas not numbered, not named, and all I did was light the fire and follow him around and try to keep up with him. He miraculously cooked a meal for six people of six dishes in 45 minutes while I was just wondering what hit me. Then he yelled at the waiter to take the food and quietly lay back on his charpai and started abusing the whole world again. What I witnessed was like a dream for a chef; the pure magic of a raqabdar. A 95-year-old chef with his magical wand, who would probably never have his work or his name acknowledged outside of that royal family he cooks for. So Mubarak chacha, here’s a small chef trying to talk about a grand master chef… when he is still stunned and speechless. Salute to such a magical soul!
The second story is of another food hero, Uncle Jack
The Portuguese have had a substantial influence over the two major Port cities of India – Goa and Kochi. They have given a lot, which is very much visible in art and architecture and more in all the cuisines of these regions. Along with the chilli they have given us a taste and appreciation of all things nice in life (siesta included of course). On my last visit to Goa, willing to explore this Portuguese side more, I went over to a very dear friend (and also an authority on Goan food) Odette Mascarenhas who guided me to Jack D’souza in “Pilerne”, a village abundant in ancient Portuguese style houses and chapels.
Uncle Jack was sitting on his typical Portuguese verandah of a 200 year old ancestral house. An old man in his late seventies who would walk slowly and would talk loudly, yet in no time you would understand that behind this frail smiling face, is a man very aware and passionate about his food.
I asked him a lot of questions about the Portuguese influence on Goan food and the origin of Portuguese Goan dishes; and he had an answer along with an anecdote to each of them. Where and how did he learn so much? “I am not a chef, I have always smiled at food and food has always smiled back” he said. It was a philosophy that I would absorb well, soon. Uncle Jack’s grand mom was a super cook and a seasoned baker who also used to teach the nuns at times. Sitting along with the nuns and noting down recipes was this young boy Jack, smiling in anticipation of the next awesome meal!
“When I was young all my friends would call me for drinking parties, I smilingly went where I’d get the best food. I’d come home and, granny and I would critique the dishes for hours, sometimes she would tweak her recipes if I felt a sorpotel or vindaloo had a balance better than ours”. Uncle Jack decided to share his grandma’s Vindaloo recipe with me on one condition – I had to cook it with him. He wanted to make sure I got it.
The recipe was in numbers and inches, not in grams and kilograms, reminding me of the “masha-tola” recipes of Munir ustad.The similarity between Munir ustad and Uncle Jack didn’t end here. Uncle was as unsatisfied with my choice of the sizes of onions and cloves and my understanding of one inch piece of cinnamon as Munir ustad would have been if he were alive. I had to grind all masalas fresh on a mortar pestle (Ghonsono in Konkani) and it was never fine enough. I was living my apprenticeship all over again and loving it.
By the time the masala got ready I realised that I was by now just being “Linguini”, the cook from the movie Ratatouille and uncle Jack was “Remy” sitting on my head and pulling the strings, I was living the movie and loving it. After another 20 minutes of Ratatouille, Uncle finally told me I was a good cook and I could keep the recipe.
After having him sign the cherished recipe, I put a small footer on the page …“Haven’t yet learnt to properly smile at food, so much to learn…”!
(My next write up is dedicated to another passionate perfectionist from Lucknow, “Haji Saab”…)