Master Chefs and Magicians

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

The king, apparently, was in his counting house, counting all his money. The queen was in her parlour, eating bread and honey. Not a bad combination at all, honestly. Besides, considering the royal chef’s wicked sense of humour, I don’t blame her for sticking to the straight and narrow. Who knows what horrors lurked beneath the murky depths of pea soup.

There’s an legend about an Indian chef who did the same thing. Apparently he would bake live birds into pies, so that they flew out the moment guests began their meal. And my guess is, when the pie was opened the birds certainly didn’t begin to sing. It sounds more like a scene from a blood-chilling Hitchcock movie than a pretty historical anecdote. But apparently it was quite charming and clever in those days. (Clear evidence, of course, that a society without ‘Sex and the City’ disintegrates in horrifying ways. Tsk. Tsk.)

Yet, it’s undeniable that royal chefs could — and still can — capture imaginations and create romance. So when I recently met Mohammed Ashfaque Qureshi, of the iconic Qureshi family that’s produced master chefs from more than 200 years, of course I brought up the birds.

Chef Ashfaque says his family “worked for the king’s kitchen: the Nawab of Awadh.” (The nawabs governed in the in the 18th and 19th century. The region is in the centre of what’s Uttar Pradesh today). But he’s still rather cagey about the avian pie.

“Well, if Tan Sen (of Akbar’s court) could create rain, or light lamps with his song, then yes, a chef could create a pie filled with live birds,” Ashfaque says, adding, “Chef means leader in French. The top most guy. In Hindustani they say Maharaj, meaning king. In Arabian countries it’s Rabakdar. A person who can create food out of nothing. The word magician actually comes from chef.”

He adds that since food is really the only art form that is consumed it’s hardly surprising that there’s a romanticism to it.

His father started out as a nine year old cooking for royalty. When I met the senior chef Qureshi a few years ago, he was delightfully blasé about the whole VIP thing. He talked of how his ancestors, famous for their fragrant kebabs, rich biriyani and heavy dals, cooked for different kings, since royalty then borrowed each other’s cooks for weddings and important banquets. The cooks worked in shamianas, with large charcoal and wood fires, making kakori kebabs, mutton raan and chicken draped in gold leaf.

Chef Qureshi went recreating many of the same dishes at the ITC hotels, where he worked for more than three decades. He’s cooked for “All the prime ministers, all the presidents, the entire Nehru clan.”

Five of Ashfaque’s four brothers are chefs. He himself started cooking at the age of 6. “I was making simple things like alu tikki, or gajar halwa.” Simple? For a six year old? Most of us are still scribbling crayons on walls at that point. There’s obviously something in the Chef-Magician theory.

“Well, taste is about 70 per cent ingredients and 20 per cent methodology,” he smiles, maintaining that anyone can create a pretty good kebab. But that final 10 percent? That’s the spice, herbs and secrets. “And yes, in that 10 per cent you can create the magic.”

Though Ashfaque insists that you don’t really need to travel back in time to experience the glories of a rabakdar. “The best example really is a housewife. To create three and four meals a day, everyday,” he says, “Well, that is magic.”

(The Qureshi brothers are in Chennai for a North West Frontier Festival at The Crown restaurant, Residency Towers Hotel. The festival is on for dinner till February 9. Call 28156363 for details).

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