Only a Qureshi can tell you which cut of meat goes into which dish” is repeated ad infinitum in Indian kitchens. For good reason — numerous members of the family have made their mark in the country’s culinary landscape over the last few decades, but the most indelible has been left by patriarch Imtiaz, 87. The senior-most Qureshi became the first chef to be honoured with a Padma Shri on Tuesday.
A descendant of khansamas of the Mughal rulers and nawabs, Imtiaz rose through the ranks around the time of the Independence. In the mid-1940s, a detachment of British troops was stationed in the United Provinces — now Uttar Pradesh — and Imtiaz’s ustaad was in charge of their kitchen. A typical breakfast comprised halwa puri and boiled eggs. “There were no cooking ranges, no electricity, no fancy equipment. It was raining, the wood was wet and we had to cook for 10,000 soldiers,” says Imtiaz, who was 16 at the time. “Kaam toh ustaad ka tha, par sambhalna hamara,” he recalls.
Imtiaz’s mother, fearful of ruffling feathers because Imtiaz was outshining his uncle, asked him to join another job, which he did at Krishna Caterers. During the Indo-China war, Krishna Caterers was feeding jawans in Lucknow. “The young Hindu soldiers refused to eat because Muslims had cooked the food. It reached such a state that Pt Nehru had to visit the battalion and explain to the troops that India, as a new nation, should move past these religious distinctions,” says Imtiaz.
This was also the beginning of Imtiaz’s culinary history with India’s first family. In 1962, CB Gupta, then Chief Minister of UP, invited Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Zakir Husain and Lal Bahadur Shastri for a state banquet, conditional to it being entirely vegetarian. Krishna Caterers was hired and Imtiaz, much to his chagrin, was instructed to cook a vegetarian repast that would satiate the meat-loving Nehru.
What added to his woes was that he was to cook the entire meal alone due to security concerns amid the war. When a Garhwali officer entered the shamiana where Imtiaz was cooking and lifted the lid of a dish, Imtiaz hauled him away by his collar. The officer apologised and later remarked in a letter that there was no need for security concerns when the burly chef was around. The story of how Imtiaz imitated meat dishes by cooking lauki mussalam, kamal kakri ke shammi kebab and paneer pasanda, much to Nehru’s amusement, is well documented.
The Prime Minister went on to hire Krishna Caterers for the opening of the Ashok Hotel in Delhi. Imtiaz made kebabs, biryani, bakri and murg mussalam — and a dal that would become well-known as Dal Bukhara.
That brings us to ITC, which was pivotal to both Imtiaz and Indian dining. Hired by the conglomerate’s hotels division in 1976, Imtiaz’s brief was simple but formidable — to showcase the best of Indian cooking. “I wanted to cook in copper vessels as I was used to but was told that wouldn’t be possible in a five-star hotel. After a lot of back and forth with the management, they finally relented and I went to the market and bought copper vessels at the rate of Rs 20 per kg. Since then, copper vessels have been a part of the hotel’s kitchen,” says Imtiaz. Other hotels followed suit and Imtiaz began his mission to champion north Indian food, especially frontier cuisine.
Offers poured in from other hotel brands, first for Imtiaz and then his family. Apart from training future generations of chefs, Imtiaz took younger relatives under his wing, initiating them into the mysteries of the dum, cooking food, especially biryani, in utensils sealed with dough. Trained in biryani and kebabs, the younger Qureshis found employment both in India and abroad and Imtiaz had the pleasure of seeing his style of cooking disseminate across the globe. “In the age of kings and emperors, chefs enjoyed a lot of prestige; they were given land, wealth and titles. Each chef was a specialist, whether in kebabs or biryani or in kormas, and was celebrated for his metier.
Then the profession fell from grace and cooks found themselves employed essentially as menial labour. That has started changing recently and this award validates that change. It gives cooks who strain over the stove reason to look forward to success and a bright future. I couldn’t ask for anything else,” says Imtiaz.