Platters and conversations, tales and flavours of Old Delhi
Words: Ambica Gulati
Magic of aromas, magic of nostalgic fragrances, magic of a dawat during Shahjahanbad ki Sair. This Sair (walk) was at a dinner table at Ssence, The Suryaa Hotel, Delhi, with eminent food critic Osama Jalali and his bubbly mother Nazish Jalali. The mother-son duo is hosting a Mughlai fest there till December 21, 2014. The USP: as the title says it, heritage dishes from the bylanes of Old Delhi, erstwhile kingdom of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, and cooked by the lady herself—Nazish Jalali. There’s always something to be said about a mother’s cooking and it’s normally, “No one can cook like my mother.” Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, but this is an unusual team of mother and son who make great food and their tales are full of days spent in the bylanes of Old Delhi and they struck a similar chord with my childhood tales.
As in everything else, it all begins with the looks—the Jalalis had got their very own Mughlai dinner set to serve these genuine Mughlai dishes. Our conversation began with Chawri Bazar where these dishes can be bought and I recalled my childhood home. I was born in Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, near Jama Masjid, and just the mention brought a smile to my face. Jama Masjid is one of the main mosques for worship and has an amazing old world feel. Pigeons, eagles, men, women and children linger on steps and within, praying for their welfare. Then there is the exotic Meena Bazar right below which has some interesting traditional stuff. It was time to take another bite of the Kathal kee Tikki which was a hot, yum mix and put a bit of green chutney over it. I think I would have enjoyed the meal better with my hands, really old world Mughal style.
The tikki in my mouth, Nazish and I continued our conversation. The gentle lady regaled how her journey to cooking began at home in Rampur. My aunts and uncles live in the town next door—Bareilly–and both of us started talking about the old town with its narrow lanes and havelis. Unlike me, Nazish does go once in a while to visit Rampur, best known for its sharp knives.
Bhutte kee tikki went down fast and I loved the chicken seekh with its subtle flavours and herbs. What you can’t miss is the Kachche keeme ka kebab. As Osama has been a food critic for a long time, Nazish and he had spent much more time with Chef Sanjay Bahl and the others in the kitchen before the fest opened for the public on December 12, 2015. There were glitches and hitches, as even the way the food is stirred while cooking matters, but Nazish tasted it all before it reached the guests. The team also holds customized dawats for those special occasions.
I had heard about Osama during my days as a full-time journalist, but met him now as a host. Even though mutton has been a hot favourite for Mughals and most Mughlai dishes are made from mutton, both Nazish and I prefer chicken. But I would say, don’t miss the Nahari which is loaded with herbs, spices and takes six long hours to cook. Though, I had just a small bit, it’s so soft and well made that you don’t feel the weight of red meat. Then Osama went on to talk about how important the age and weight of the lamb is for cooking these delicacies. Each part of the body offers different flavours, but for that you need a very fine palate to find out what is in the minced dishes.
Another must-try dish is the Palak Chicken Kofta which all of us, including the Jalalis, loved. Back to more tales, as the dinner continued, there are some 20-odd dishes on the menu which is a huge number to taste. Osama’s father was a doctor and they lived in Old Delhi in those days. So people would bring dishes for the good doctor and that’s how Nazish’s interest continued in her cooking. In fact, recently one of Osama’s friends specially asked her to cook a dinner as she wanted to impress her visiting in-laws. With that info, and amongst laughter, went in a spoon of mirchi keema. There’s actually no mirchi, just melt-in-the-mouth keema and I had rolled this in a piece of khameeri roti. I was quite disappointed to know that the khameeri could only be made in a tandoor and I don’t possess one. Sheermal is a little sweet roti but I liked it with urad kee dal which was a sot dry mixture. Going with the meal is a chicken curry and mutton biryani which you are to eat with chilli garlic paste which is hot. What we learned is that tomatoes are not a mughlai favourite and neither is a lot of curd.
The meal ended on a sweet note with zarda and my hot favorite, imratis dipped in hot milk and served in earthern cups or better known as kullads. This is one sweetie that mother would treat me to often at home with left over jalebis.
Even though, he has been a critic, Osama shies away from criticising flavours. He says we should not hit but suggest, as food is a personal choice. As we were gearing to say goodbye, Naazish told us that even as a child Osama would not waste food and she taught his wife to cook.
A paan in our mouth to end this Sair, we were saying our goodbyes but I was reminded of the nawabs of yore, chewing their pan and playing chess, remember the film Shatranj ke Khiladi. Till another Sair and another fest, or maybe a platter at Osama’s home, as Nazish offered to feed us again. After all, who can refuse food cooked by a mother!
Shahjahanbad ke Sair, priced at Rs. 1,900/- per person, is only for dinner. And just two days are left for December 21, 20I4.