A Toast to the Mughal Alchemist


A Toast to the Mughal Alchemist

Nazish Jalali, a bashful, head-scarfed home chef extraordinaire, resembles everyone’s favourite aunt. Standing in the gleaming kitchen of the Oberoi Hotel in Bangalore, she is putting the finishing touches to an array of dishes with tantalising names – aloo gosht, saag kofta, taar qorma, and hari mirch ka kheema.

She encourages me to sample a jackfruit cutlet – kathal ki shaami, she calls it. It’s deliciously different. Then she feeds me a kachche kheeme ki tikiya – this one’s intense, yet perfectly balanced in texture and spice.

Jalali, 58, is one of the Oberoi’s more-celebrated guest cooks – she isn’t your run-of-the-mill chef, she’s a guardian of history. She is reviving recipes and techniques practiced by the secretive khansama community – the chefs to the nawabs, who have preserved some of the more forgotten cooking traditions of the Mughals over the years.

Jalali grew up in the Rampur district of Uttar Pradesh, famous for its rich, meat recipes. But Jalali didn’t know that. When she was younger, her family could only afford one meal a day.

“Going to school with hunger pangs was normal. I remember finding a few black channa grains on the ground in my class and cramming them into my mouth before anyone noticed,” she says, slowly stirring a pot of aromatic koftas.

The first time Jalali tasted meat was in her aunt’s kitchen. “She was well off,” Jalali explains. “I was fascinated by the mysterious spices and overflowing sacks of daals in her storeroom. It was nothing like our meagre shelves back home.”

Jalali’s aunt was an excellent cook and would occasionally help out in the nawab’s kitchen. Jalali would tag along, hoping to get a glimpse of royalty, stories of which she’d only heard from her grandmother. She still remembers the day she saw Raza Ali Khan Bahadur, the erstwhile nawab of Rampur, drive by in one of his vintage cars.

But it was in his cavernous kitchen – presided over the taciturn khansamas – where her palette opened up to new flavours.

“There, amid the dark smoky wood fires and bubbling pots, I tasted magic – tender bits of lamb nestling in white gravies, enriched with cashews, not milk; red gravies made of tomatoes, not chilli powder.

“The khansamas worked like alchemists, turning out milky doodhiya biriyanis, almost white in colour. Mutton do pyazas, sharp and sweet with browned onions. Halvas made of capsicum and ginger – tender kebabs made from the nawab’s fresh game meat.”

One of her more popular dishes is motiya pulao – egg whites gently dribbled into thin goat intestines and poached to reveal scores of tiny gleaming edible pearls, used to garnish a dish of rice.

Between appreciative mouthfuls of succulent kebab, I ask what her favourite dish is, expecting to hear another exotic name with a history behind it.

“Khichdi,” she softly replies. “Meri bachpan ki yadein judi hai,” she says, remembering her childhood days. “My family would sit in a circle on a dirt floor and tuck into the warm, gooey mix. My mother would throw in seasonal vegetables, change the grains, coax out the flavours and add a dollop of desi ghee. It was exciting.”

Nazish’s fortunes changed when she married an unani doctor, Najam Jalali, and moved to Gali Madarsa Husain Baksh, a small colony in the shadow of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Most of her husband’s patients were khansamas, living in the neighbourhood of Gali Sattewali in Old Delhi.

The khansamas are skilled artisans, who carry the secrets of their trade in little pouches of mixed spices. They cook gravies and meat using tricks and tips passed down through generations by word of mouth.

Often poor, the grateful khansamas would pay the late Dr Jalali for his services with pots of biriyani and salan. They also shared their secrets with his epicurious wife.

With memories of the nawab’s kitchen, Jalali learned how a perfect blend of garam masala could elevate a dish with just a tiny pinch. How seven different types of grains could transform a haleem into a bowl of liquid flavour. How a taar korma was perfect for dunking chunks of bread in.

The Jalali household soon became a hub for hearty feasts. The lost khansama recipes took on the familiarity of comfort food. Weekly Quran classes held for the neighbourhood kids were followed by “ammi’s” simmered-down niharis, bone-tender lamb chops, and plush biriyanis.

The bug passed down to son Osama, who is now a chef with no formal training, and a food critic.

As Jalali’s storehouse of ancient Mughal cooking techniques became more popular, top chefs came calling. Jalali was shy at first, but egged on by her son, she began to showcase her recipes purely from memory.

One of her more popular dishes is motiya pulao – egg whites gently dribbled into thin goat intestines and poached to reveal scores of tiny gleaming edible pearls, used to garnish a dish of rice.

For the poultry lovers, there’s parinde mein parinda, made by stuffing a duck with a chicken, the chicken with a quail and the quail with an egg. The complex creation is gently cooked in a heavy bottomed pan and served with layers intact – well, almost

Then there’s the kamchas kofta – meat balls hollowed out with a marble of frozen butter and soaked in a rich, spicy gravy. The piece de resistance – ghost ka halva, a soft, sweet custard made of lamb.

In the Oberoi kitchen, an army of uniformed sous chefs watch her conjure up these dishes, awestruck. Outside the kitchen, the dining room is set with crisp linen napkins and sparkling tableware.

Among the elegant guests today, Jalali is informed, is the present nawab of Rampur. He has reserved a seat at his table with Nazish’s name on it.

Today, the once young, shy girl, is a celebrity of sorts. And she still remembers, not so long ago, how she used to point out the imposing silhouette of the Oberoi Delhi from the window of a dusty bus, and whisper to her wide-eyed 10-year-old son Osama, “That place is meant only for movie stars and rich people, beta. Not us.”