I have always been enamoured by royalty. Blame it on my academic roots. Being a post graduate in history, the Mughals of Delhi, Nizams of Hyderabad, Ranas of Chittor were all that my world was made up of till 5 years back. Even after shifting gears and jumping head-on to journalism, it has been the past that lures me more than the present. Needless to say, when I was invited as a part of the Kolkata Food Bloggers’ team to join the royal repast menu launch at Dum Pukht, ITC Sonar, on Saturday, my delight knew no bounds.
Also, this happened to be the first time I was meeting all the amazing food bloggers in my city after interacting with them on Facebook and blogosphere for more than a month. So the excitement was multiplied. On reaching ITC Sonar on a horribly rainy day, I found Kamalika, Archita, Sayantani, Amrita, Anwesha and Priyadarshini already waiting.
We were welcomed with a choice of fresh fruit juice, fresh lime soda or cold drink. I opted for chilled watermelon juice whereas the rest of my blogger friends settled with its mango counterpart.
As we were savouring the fruity delights and rambling away among ourselves, in stepped legendary grand master chef Imtiaz Qureshi. Hailing from a family of royal cooks in Awadh and popularly known as the Shahenshah of Dum Pukht cooking, Chef Qureshi is largely responsible for revamping Mughlai cuisine and taking “Dum Pukht” preparations to a whole new level during his association with the ITC group of hotels since 1976.
In his chef whites that matched perfectly with his silver hair and moustache, he narrated stories about his entry and consequent journey into the food world in chaste Urdu. Tales of how, despite being an untrained cook, he perfected each unique recipe and endeavoured to take them notches higher were awe-inspiring to say the least. The former pehelwan and a state-level wrestling champion, who can neither read nor write, spoke in the language of a master craftsman…in a language of someone who knows and is completely in love with his art.
What he explained in great detail was the the history and mechanism of Dum Pukht cooking, the ancestor of present day slow cooking…the way it was restored and further developed from the royal kitchens of the Nawabs. He believes Dum (to breathe) Pukht (cook) style of cooking is synonymous with giving the same love to your kitchen as you would to God. Quoting anecdotes from the past, taking help from bits and pieces of stories of the Awadhi and Lucknowi Nawabs, he weaved his recollections into creating the lavish spread that was in front of us. He confessed of owing his fame largely to Bukhara and Dum Pukht, and he’s ever grateful to them for bringing out the best in him and showering him with love and affection. “I’m now trying to give back to them the love they’ve given me all this while,” he said humbly.
Master chef Qureshi was joined soon by whisky expert Sandeep Arora who had laboured for more than the last three months to create a perfect harmony between the royal repast menu and Royal Salute 21YO (a brand of Scotch whisky produced by the Chivas brothers) that owes its origin to 1801 Scotland. A firm believer that whisky goes best with Mughlai food, he speaks of their “perfect marriage” where the whisky stands firm and the food is the vivacious partner.
It was now time for us to sample the delicacies and decide whether this “perfect marriage” would become epic or not. I am not a whisky fan by any means, so the glass of whisky given to me almost remained untouched. But the food! And what a spread it was!
1. Raan-e-huzoor: The first and undoubtedly one of the very best dishes of the day, these soft, juicy baby lamb legs cooked on the dum for 4-5 hours was a unanimous hit with everybody. Marinated in a thick date sauce and embellished with walnuts and almonds this raan and biriyani (which was to come later) would have made a meal in itself.
2. Jhinga Qureshi: Named after the chef himself, this unique dish was my personal favourite. The jumbo prawns, dried apricots and cheese filling rolled and covered by puff pastry was impeccable, both in concept and execution.
3. Mughlai Paratha/Sheermal: These two brilliantly crafted and delicious starters were given perfect company by melt-in-the-mouth sheermal. I am a huge fan of breads and I could have lived on this sheermal, trust me.
1. Dal Badami: White Urad dal tempered with fresh dill leaves and cooked with almonds was another fresh concept. North Indian-style dal lover that I am, it bowled me over with its subtle balance of flavours.
2. Samudri Ratan: Crabmeat koftas simmered in a fenugreek gravy was the essence of this dish. It had a slight tang, which I guess came from tamarind. Again an innovative concept, however I expected it to blow my mind a little bit more than it did.
3. Desi Murgh Ishtew: I won’t be able to throw much light on this except that it was a dish of tender chicken pieces slow-cooked with onions, peppercorn, yoghurt and other spices. I was so full by this time that I had to give it a miss.
4. Koh-e-Avadh: These succulent pieces of lamb shanks, cooked in their cardamom juices and finished off with saffron, is a Chef’s specialty. Rarely have I had meat that is so soft, tender and juicy. Another winner of an item and the best of the main course.
5. Dudhiya Biriyani with Bhurani Raita: I’ve heard of Kolkata biriyani, Awadhi/Lucknowi biriyani, Hyderabadi biriyani…but never have I heard of a biriyani that is made with milk. And yes, Chef Qureshi has done exactly that. Pristine white in colour, studded with tender lamb morsels, this biriyani was less of food and more of an experience. This was the only item in the menu that I had to take a second helping of, and I totally didn’t mind the extra calories that were coming free with it. The garlic-infused raita that went with it brought a sudden burst of refreshment into the meal.
6. Naan-e-bah-khumach, Roomali roti: Traditional naan and roomali accompanied our main courses…soft, smooth and completely the work of a very, very experienced hand.
1. Shahi Tukda and Lab-e Mashooq: I’m not a huge fan of Indian sweets so the dessert section was more of a formality for me. I’d rather have carried the lingering taste of biriyani with me. The shahi tukda was basically a saffron rabri spread on a syrup-drenched bread. The second one was a frozen dessert of reduced milk scented with a hint of orange.
Right from the beginning of the meal, Chef Qureshi and others guided us through the menu. Each dish was served to us following traditional and signature rituals. Their vegetarian fare consisted of Dudhiya kebab, Hara Kebab Awadhi, Paneer Qaliyan, Gunch-wa-qeema, Dum ki kumbh and Subz Biriyani other than the breads and desserts.
Royal repast at Dum Pukht is available only for dinner at a price of Rs 6,500 plus taxes per person from June 22nd.
The Signature Collection at Eden Pavilion is available from June 22-30 only for dinner. It is a part of the Dinner Buffet, which is priced at Rs 1,850 plus taxes per person.
PS: This was an invited review and the post is completely a personal account of the blogger based on her experience. No monetary compensation was involved.