This Eid, Lucknow’s Bawarchi Tola is in mourning. Another flame in the collective kitchen of the city has been extinguished. Absar Ahmad, descendant of kitchen wizard Haji Ala Bandey, is no more.

The Bawarchi Tola is a neighbourhood from the city’s imperial past where professional chefs have been living since the end of the 18th Century. It is the families of the Bawarchi Tola who are responsible for elevating the reputation of the city to a culinary paradise.

Ahmad leaves behind an impressive legacy of the ways of the unrivalled ‘dastarkhwan’ (dining area) of Lucknow that he had inherited from his ancestors for over two centuries.

The food served by Ahmad was unique because it was prepared by him in a silver plated brass ‘degchi’ (cooking pot) and in a ‘mahitava’, a heavy duty copper basin coated with tin lining.

He had no use for aluminium or steel utensils. Son of master chef Nasir Ahmad, he was well known throughout the country for that special swirl of whatever was cooking in the pot.

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan had invited Ahmad to cook for him in Mumbai, while he was a star participant in Bhopal’s Avadh Food Festival at the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel.

Ahmad was famous for cooking up specialities like ‘kofta nihari’, ‘korma taal makhane’, ‘ korma badam’, ‘fish musallam’ and a line-up of different ‘kebab’ like ‘shahi fish kebab’, ‘pasanda’ and ‘lapeta kebab’.

His ancestry can be traced back to Ramzan Ali who joined the royal kitchen in 1786 during the reign of Asafudaula, the fourth nawab of Awadh. Ali was not an everyday cook. He cooked only on special occasions when he was called to organise a feast for a wedding or a festival.

It is said that Ali’s salary was equal to that of the revenue minister of the ruler. The ‘sultani dal’ made of ‘tuvar’ lentils and cooked in a clay pot was a speciality.

It is Ali who had first dunked whole turnips into a clay pot with a spicy and aromatic mutton sauce, sealing the lid with dough and leaving the meat and vegetable to steam on softly sizzling embers all night long.

Ali also had the last word in exactly how much ‘desi ghee’ and how much saffron was to be sprinkled on one side of the baked bread called ‘sheermal’. The ultimate dessert even today is the mouth-watering ‘shahi tukra’ which is a makeover by Ali using left over ‘sheermal’.

After the British had colonised Awadh in 1857, they had followed the lavish lifestyle of the former rulers of Lucknow. It was from the ‘bawarchi’ (chefs) that the British learnt to practice generosity, and tried to be as hospitable as the local rulers.

Bandey was the son of Ramzan Ali, who was in demand for the different varieties of ‘kebabs’ that he was able to put on the table. The combination of spices and aromas that were added by him into his cooking was in consultation with the ‘hakim’, the local physician who was a master of Greek medicine, and of Ayurveda.

Bandey had seven sons who were equally good in the kitchen. However, the best of them all was Habib Ahmad who was invited by landlords all over the Awadh province to prepare a banquet on different occasions.

The delicacy called ‘mutanjan’ with mutton, rice, sugar, almonds, coconut, cream, and saffron stewed in bone marrow was his invention. Habib Ahmad had six sons and Nasir Ahmad was the one who inherited his father’s magic fingers.

Absar Ahmad who passed away in Lucknow early this week was the son of Nasir Ahmad. He had invented many specialities in contemporary times like ‘kathal kebab’ and ‘arvi salan’ which his family will surely continue to serve, but without the magic touch of Absar Ahmad.

Another Great Loss

Earlier this year, Lucknow-born chef Imtiaz Qureshi had passed away at the age of 93 years. His ancestors were also employed by the rulers of Avadh. During World War II, he had helped his uncle to cook for British soldiers.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had liked what Qureshi cooked, and invited him to prepare the banquet to inaugurate Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel in 1956. Ever since, foodies have been lining up for Qureshi’s ‘Dal Dukhara’ for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At a dinner hosted by C. B. Gupta , the vegetarian Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) for Nehru, Qureshi had served jackfruit kebabs, bottle gourd koftas, lotus stem shaped like a fish and brinjal smoked and whipped into a creamy delight. While still in Lucknow Qureshi was hired to cook for a ‘majlis’ hosted by the ghazal queen Begum Akhtar.

He opened the Falaknuma rooftop restaurant at Lucknow’s Clarks Avadh Hotel but moved to Delhi in 1979. At the ITC Hotels Qureshi popularised cooking in copper utensils.

At the Maurya Sheraton Hotel he revived the ‘dum pukht’ way of the leisurely cooking style of Lucknow as served at the famous Bukhara restaurant. Qureshi had pulled the ‘seekh kebab’ out of the suburbs of Kakori, 20 km away from Lucknow to place it at the centre of the national platter.

Qureshi’s melt-in-the-mouth ‘kebab’ is responsible for transforming another Lucknow born named Ranveer Brar into a celebrity chef.

The Toothless King

The necessity of tenderising the mince-meat into a melt-in-the mouth ‘galauti kebab’ is a story most interesting. Rais Ahmad of Lucknow’s Tunday Kebab outlet used to tell an interesting story.

According to him one of the rulers of Lucknow was very fond of ‘kebabs’. Over time the ruler lost his teeth and he was sad because he was unable to chew on his favourite meal.

At a conference in the royal kitchen it was decided to use raw papaya to tenderise the mince-meat. Along with an exotic mix of spices, the ‘galauti (melted) kebab’ was born that had earned the best toothless smile ever on the face of royalty.

Rais Ahmad’s family added its own touch to the recipe which remains a guarded secret to this day. Rais Ahmad inherited the recipe from his father Murad Ali who had lost his left hand while flying a kite on a rooftop. He was a child when that happened and soon after Murad Ali was nicknamed ‘tunda’ or the one armed one.

Murad Ali used his only arm to knead mince-meat into a many splendored experience. He grew up to be a great chef. In 1905 when he opened an eatery in Lucknow, the ‘kebabs’ he had fried became famous as ‘Tunday Kebab’.

Rais Ahmad shared his father’s secret recipe with his children before passing away at the age of about 90 years in 2022. Today the ‘Tunday Kebabi’ business has spread out into several outlets all over Lucknow.