When you hear that the Quereshi Nematkhana Festival is happening in town, you just know you have to be there, especially if you love good food and good stories to go with it, says Sandhya Ramachandran.
The Quereshi brothers Ashfaque and Irfan are known across the world to whip up some of the best heritage cuisines albeit with some spins. While it may leave many tummies awestruck, they are simply following their father, the legendary Imtiaz Quereshi known for his research on the forgotten cuisines of the Moguls and perfecting its recipes.
Minar Legendary Dum Cuisines of Qureshis, Savera Hotel-Chennai prides itself on having the Quereshi brothers as their restaurant consultants. Minar is the only place in the city where the two ‘Heritage cuisines’ perfected by Qureshi’s – ‘Frontier’ and ‘Dum Pukht’ are available. So when we heard that The Quereshi Nematkhana Festival (on till 6th November) at the Minar, is serving the Chennai public, some of the recipes that the brothers cooked up for celebrities, for dinner, we couldn’t resist but go savour some!
Dressed in kurta pyjama and a topi, the usher welcomes you into the heavily Mughal influenced interiors of Minar complete with jaalis at the entrance, mini jharoka-shaped hanging lamps, Persian patterns on the ceiling, chandeliers and three musicians crooning (with better singing, it would have been a perfect fit to the evening!)
As a basket of papads made its way on to our table, we explored the dips kept. There was one particular Papaya Murabba containing papaya soaked in syrup along with chillies, and a sprinkling of sesame and fennel seeds. Basically, a papaya preserve, its incredible bittersweet taste gained our favour, and we nearly made it a starter to our meal!
Officially, however, we began the meal with a Vegetable Curried Soup. Traces of pepper and jeera in a soup made of ground vegetables on a bed of basmati rice, served with a spritz of lime. This clearly was one remarkable soup one has had! On an unusually cold Chennai evening, this soup lent warmth and wholesomeness to the meal.
The actual starters arrived while we still kept digging into the Papaya Murabba. The Aloo Bharwam which had “spiced potatoes and nuts cradled in roasted barrels, finished on dum with fragrant herb gravy” to quote from the menu was as delicious as you could imagine.
The Lahori Paneer Tikka was average since the spices had not seeped into the paneer! The Kamal Kakri Ke Shami Kebab made out of lotus root minced into a delicate kebab was very similar to the Soya Bean Dum Ke Kebab, made exclusively for Late President of India, Mr. Fakrudhin Ali Ahmed – real dum cuisine, but vegetarian for health reasons. The kebabs were tasty, but were pasty in texture and collapsed on scooping with a spoon, thereby losing its charm. The Gimikhand Ke Kebab also was quite similarly cooked, though a little sweet as it was made from yams.
By the way the Dum Pukht cuisine is primarily a carnivore’s feast and we did find the non-vegetarian food on the menu to be so much better than the vegetarian food on offer. Which is why the Dum Murgh Ki Potlee where a chicken mince was delicately wrapped in a chicken leg skin and grilled after throwing in spices and herbs was what we found fantastic! This classic dish was an absolute work of a genius; the use of chicken skin as a potlee/parcel making it tender and tasty.
Another noteworthy dish is the Mahi Dum Anari which had a red snapper seasoned and stuffed with cheese, capsicum, pomegranate and herbs, and dum cooked on slow roast. Made exclusively for President Clinton’s delegation, this indeed is a delicacy fit for royalty. If only they had avoided or reduced the number of capsicum dices they had stuffed in, we would have written an Ain-e-anari (like the famed book on Akbar Ain-e-Akbari) about this dish.
The Lucknowi Dum Ki Chhaap – a dish conjured for the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Lucknow – is made from mutton chops slow cooked on dum with spices is another dish worth recommending. We then came in to our favourite, the biryani section. The Noormahal Gosht Biryani created for the royal Jaipur wedding of HH Bhawani Singh in the 1940’s, had baby lamb and lamb mince koftas cooked in dum style. It made for a delicious biryani made the classic way.
In the vegetarian section, we had the Sabzi Masala Biryani, a very simple vegetable biryani. The rice was aromatic, although the caramelised onions and the carrots made it a bit sweet in taste. The Sabz Bohri Biryani was what we attempted next. It lured us with a promise of baby potatoes, dry plums, apricots and tomatoes in rice. We ran a thorough search for the plums and apricots, but they were definitely missing in action. However, if we could view it as a baby potato biryani, it was one delightful eat. And yes, we have filed an FIR for the missing apricots and plums!
The dessert sections had the Lab-e-Mahshoukh, a sort of kulfi with rose syrup, nuts with starch noodles twirled around served on a platter. Its claim to fame being that Begum Akhtar favored it and it was created exclusively for the Queen of ghazals herself. Not overtly sweet but rich in taste, the Lab-e-Mahshoukh made for a grand finale.
Must Try: Vegetable Curried Soup, Papaya Murabba, Dum Murgh Ki Potlee, Mahi Dum Anari, Aloo Bharwan
Meal for two: Rs.1200 approximately
Photographs: Samarth Jairaman