THE TASTE OF AVADH

Get to know the best-kept se­crets of Lucknow’s melt-in-the­mouth ke­babs

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - INDULGE - Vir Sanghvi

M OST OF us know Ran­veer Brar from TV; from the shows he did on Khaana Khaz­ana (now Liv­ing Foodz) and most sig­nif­i­cantly, from the one sea­son of Masterchef In­dia which he judged. Be­cause he is good-look­ing and per­son­able, I sus­pect that many peo­ple re­gard him as a mere TV chef, the sort of Pun­jabi hunk who looks good on TV but doesn’t re­ally bother too much with cook­ing. It doesn’t help that he has never had a sig­na­ture restau­rant of his own in In­dia where we can go to and try his food.

I know Ran­veer only slightly. We have met briefly at events and we were both at Noma Aus­tralia in Sydney ear­lier this year on the same night. But I was al­ways in­trigued by the re­spect that other chefs hhadd ffor him.hi MMostt workki chefs – let’s be hon­est – scoff a at TV chefs. It may be envy. But restaur rant chefs think of TV chefs as pretty b oys with cam­era skills and not much m more.

Of course, this is un­fair r. The great San­jeev Kapoor is a wa alk­ing en­cy­clopae­dia of cui­sine; a true master. I’ve eaten Ku­nal Kap poor’s food and it is out­stand­ing. V Vikas Khanna is chef at the Mich he­lin­starred Junoon in New York. . And some of the other In­dian chefs s who have made it to TV are highly tal­ent-t ed (though I am not so sure abo out TV chefs else­where in the world).

Last week, I bumped into Ran­veerR in Bom­bay and we agreed to meett the next day to chat about food. When we sat and talked, I was struck by how dif­fer­ent he is in real life from his TV per­sona. Of­f­cam­era, he is shy, a lit­tle in­tro­verted and so cere­bral that he may well over-think ev­ery­thing. The “Brar” in his name marks his an­ces­try – Pun­jabi landown­ers – but is also lit­tle mis­lead­ing. He was brought up in Lucknow and his back­ground and train­ing are in Avadhi food. At a young age, he ran away from home, he says, and ap­pren­ticed him­self to Us­tad Mu­nir Ahmed, one of Lucknow’s old­est kabab ven­dors. (He had a small shack be­hind Odeon cinema.) While Ran­veer would go on to join the IHM, Lucknow and was one of the few chefs se­lected in 1999 to join the Taj Man­age­ment Train­ing Pro­gramme through a cam­pus place­ment,lt I reck­onk ththatt his real train­ing came dur­ing that stint with the Us­tad.U Ran­veer has a new book out ( Come Into My Kitchen – HarperCCollins) which is mar­keted in the usual way withh a cover photo of him gaz­ing wist­fully into the dis­tance.d I reckon the ph­hoto will help sell the book. But it may do a dis­ser­vice to the se­ri­ous­ness of the con­tents. There is an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion and an ex­plan­na­tion of how tastes, tex­tures and flavours are coom­bined, fol­lowed by a string of recipes, somme of which are imag­i­na­tive (Water­meloon dosas; hon­estly!) while oth­ers in­clu­ude his own in­ter­pre­ta­tions of clas­s­icc dishes. It was while talk­ing about the class­sics that we dis­cussed the se­crets of Avadhi cui­sine. As you prob­a­bly know, the great chefs of Avaadh never part with their se­creet recipes. (Al­most ev­ery sin­gle reccipe you have read for a tra­di­tioonal kabab, ko­rma or a biryani is a lie; the chef has left out a key

A TIIME TO REIMAGINE

Ran­veer Brar wants to see if some of the smoke and san­dal­wood fl avours of a

Why can’t we, asks Chef Ran­veer Brar, re-imag­ine the kakori Kabab rather than de­con­struct it?

in­gre­di­ent or an im­por­tant step in the cook­ing process.)

In his book, Ran­veer writes about be­ing put in charge of cook­ing the ne­hari when he ap­pren­ticed with Us­tad Mu­nir Ahmed: “Of course I never knew what went into the pot. I would only be sum­moned af­ter ev­ery­thing had gone into the pot”. Even when he had to grind the masalas for pack­ing into potlis, the Us­tad kept his se­crets from Ran­veer: “When it was mix­ing time I was sent away on some pre­text or an­other.”

Avadhi chefs will tell you that they like keema be­cause it is a good medium for con­vey­ing the del­i­cacy of their spic­ing. But all the great keema kababs of In­dia de­pend not just on the mix­ture of spices but on pro­por­tion. How much fat do you mix with the lean keema? (And what kind of fat, from which part of the an­i­mal?) What is the pro­por­tion of masala to meat?

When the Us­tad mar­i­nated “the kababs or the keema was mixed,” Ran­veer writes, “I was sent out be­cause the pro­por­tion of masalas to meat was a closely-guarded se­cret.”

I asked Ran­veer about the fa­mous keema kababs of Lucknow. The two most fa­mous ones are the ga­louti (which means melt-in-the­mouth) and the kakori.

Out­side of Lucknow, the two kababs are of­ten con­fused and peo­ple be­lieve that it is the same kabab, dif­fer­en­ti­ated only by the shape: the ga­louti is shaped like a shami or a patty while the kakori is shaped like a seek kabab or a tor­pedo. Even the sto­ries about their ori­gin are of­ten con­fused. Both kababs are said to have been in­vented for tooth­less old nawabs who asked for kababs that did not re­quire chew­ing.

The ga­louti-kakori con­fu­sion gets peo­ple from Lucknow (where the ga­louti is more eas­ily found and pos­si­bly more pop­u­lar) very ag­i­tated. In fact, there are huge dif­fer­ence. First of all, the tex­ture: a kakori re­quires the meat to be very finely ground, like a pate while the ga­louti has a coarser struc­ture.

The spic­ing is also dif­fer­ent: the kakori has more clove, nut­meg etc. – the so-called heady spices. And both are dif­fi­cult to cook. A kakori mix­ture will not stay on its skewer un­less the chef knows his craft. And the trick to cook­ing a per­fect ga­louti is not to cook one at a time but to cook a whole batch to­gether so that they keep the heat on the tawa/ pan con­stant. Ide­ally, the kababs should touch each other while cook­ing so that each kabab keeps the oth­ers warm!

Ran­veer’s own favourite is a third kabab, the dorra of Ram­pur. This looks a lit­tle like a kakori be­cause it is cylin­dri­cal in shape. But its flavour comes from the smok­ing of the meat mix­ture and khus and san­dal­wood. In the book, Ran­veer writes that a dorra of­ten beats a kakori in flavour.

Now, Ran­veer wants to go a lit­tle fur­ther than most chefs have. When we talk about a de­con­structed kakori, many chefs just take it apart and put a lit­tle sheer­mal here, and a bit of keema there. But why can’t we, asks Ran­veer, reimagine the kakori Kabab rather than de­con­struct it?

Be­cause he has worked with old style kabab Us­tads, he knows that one of the trick­i­est parts of a kakori is the thin crust or mem­brane that forms out­side. How do you get that? Some chefs use kaju paste. ITC will not part with their recipes but I guess they use egg.

Ran­veer wants to re­search ways of find­ing the thinnest mem­brane. Then, he wants to see if some of the smoke and san­dal­wood flavours of a dorra can be trans­ferred to a kakori.

This is all com­pli­cated stuff, way beyond the com­pe­tence of most chefs who just strug­gle to get the ba­sic kabab right. And be­sides, I asked Ran­veer, what about the prob­lems he en­coun­tered while work­ing with the Us­tad? How do we fig­ure out the right masalas?

His re­sponse was in­ter­est­ing. He be­lieves that the masala is only a small (if over­hyped) part of the story. The trick to a per­fect kakori, he thinks, is an un­der­stand­ing of tech­nique. How do you know when the mix­ture is ready? What is the per­fect dis­tance be­tween the heat and the skewer? How much heat is right? When is the kabab ready to take off the skewer? And so on.

The se­cret of the great Us­tads is not just that they don’t part with their masala for­mu­la­tions. It is that a life­time of prac­tice has al­lowed them to master the tech­nique. You can’t teach that at ho­tel school. A chef must ob­serve a master at work and then prac­tise the tech­nique again and again him­self till he gets it right.

I asked my own guru, Man­jit Gill, if he agreed. Ab­so­lutely, he said. You can’t teach the cook­ing of com­plex clas­sics in a text­book but any gifted chef, with a cater­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion, who prac­tises till he mas­ters the dish, can learn to do it.

Man­jit is a master; he has been at this for a long time. Ran­veer is still young. He has al­ready run a restau­rant in Bos­ton, is open­ing out­lets in Canada and a veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant should open in Bom­bay next month. His imag­i­na­tion and depth of knowl­edge are truly im­pres­sive.

I hope he con­tin­ues to reimagine In­dia’s clas­sic dishes.

BEYOND THE GREAT LAKHNAWI KABAB CON­FU­SION Ex­treme left:Chef Ran­veer Brar was brought up in L uc­know and his back­ground and train­ing are in Avadhi food. The two most fa­mous kababs to orig­i­nate from L uc­know are the ga­louti (cen­tre) and the kakori, which is cylin­dri­cal in shape (left)

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