A little more than a century ago, Haji Murad Ali had a problem. His patron, a nawab from Lucknow, had lost his teeth. Still fond of the good life, he ordered his chefs to create a kebab that would satiate his “meat tooth” as well as not agitate his non-existent teeth. All the other chefs failed and were fed to the crocodiles (presumably). Murad Ali succeeded, despite being handicapped by the loss of one of his arms.
In league with a hakim friend who lived down the road, Murad Ali hit on a recipe that would please the palate of his nawab as well as, subsequently, millions of others. It consisted of 125 spices and other condiments and the final kebab was a slim disc, which melted in one’s mouth without being too heavy on the stomach. Because history is simultaneously kind and unkind, the kebabs left behind a legacy, being henceforth called tunday kabab (after their progenitor’s disability).
Growing up, Mohammad Usman knew this legacy of his grandfather, even if he wasn’t aware of it. “My grandfather never let his disability come in the way of his life, whether it was chopping onions or flying a kite. He was as able as any two-handed person,” recalls Usman, the owner of Lucknow’s Tunday Kababi restaurant. Usman was at JW Marriott in Delhi’s Aerocity for a food festival. It’s highly unusual for Usman to travel, and indeed speak much about his family’s brand. The only reason he has done so is that he’s known Marriott chef Vivek Bhatt, who convinced Usman to showcase his family’s food in Delhi.
The recipe of the kebab is a closely guarded secret, one passed down generations. Usman himself learned the recipe from his father, also inheriting the family’s reluctance for expansion and the turning of a quick profit. “Growing up we were always told that the act of feeding people at an economic rate is the most important thing. Even today, a plate of kebabs costs only Rs 10,” he says with pride. Its modest rate notwithstanding, the kebab has become iconic of a city already celebrated for its cuisine, and the Tunday Kababi restaurant a mainstay on any visiting foodies’ list. While the kebabs are naturally de rigeur, the eatery also serves Paya Ki Nihari cooked overnight, biryanis, and even Gobhi Musallam. The Marriott’s courtyard, for the festival, is done up just like the Tunday Kababi in Lucknow, with cooks at the various counters straight from Usman’s kitchen.
That being said, Usman and his family have never thought about expanding, believing it goes against the ethos that was taught to them. Other relations have franchised the name out to restaurants, including one in Indirapuram, but Usman is determined not to follow suit. “They can do whatever they will, it won’t change the lessons I learned from my father and he from his. We are the original and only Tunday Kababi in the country,” he says, refusing to be drawn into criticism of his relatives’ actions. The famed recipe, he says, has already been patented.