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Fit for a KING
The spread at Dumpukht, ITC Sonar Calcutta. Pictures by Rashbehari Das

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daullah of Awadh was known for his love of monuments. During his reign (late 18th century) several architectural marvels were built, perhaps none so imposing as the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, a huge complex started in 1783, a year of devastating famine.

One of the Nawab’s reasons for embarking on this project was to provide food-for-work incentive for the thousands employed in the construction. Huge cauldrons were set up and filled with rice, meat, vegetables and spices and then sealed to make a one-dish meal which was available to workers round the clock. It was slow cooking, depending on embers rather than flames.

The story goes that on a visit to the construction site, the Nawab, passing by these cauldrons, got a whiff of the emanating aromas and immediately ordered the staff in his kitchen to prepare dishes this way. Thus evolved dumpukht — slow cooking in dough-sealed vessels. Refined over the years to please noble palates, dum cooking spread to various other parts of the country — Hyderabad, Kashmir, Bhopal — where the chefs put in their own distinctive signatures.

Dumpukht is, in fact, the name of all the outlets in the ITC chain of hotels in the country where this Awadhi cuisine is served. The menu is standardised across the country, with the exception of Calcutta, where, in addition to the standard menu, they have just recently come up with an innovative, exclusively vegetarian selection in which most items are cooked dum-style.

This menu is the creation of Hafiz Qureshi, master chef at Dumpukht and nephew of none other than the renowned Imtiaz Qureshi, who was in charge when the first Dumpukht opened at the Maurya Sheraton, Delhi, about 25 years ago. While items like Shahi Dum Aloo and Gobi Mussalam are traditional items of Awadhi cuisine, Qureshi has come up with some hits of his own.

Rajma ki Galouti is a kebab modelled on the Mutton Galouti, which is softer than even the softest shaami. In fact, an apt translation of “galouti” could be “ready to dissolve”. For the vegetarian version, the main ingredient is red kidney beans, which are soaked, then boiled, minced and roasted. Other ingredients are onions and garlic (browned and then made into a paste), roasted khoya, hung yoghurt (also dried out on a griddle), the roasted powder of split Bengal gram, finely chopped green chillies and ginger, salt, pepper, mace, cardamom powder and garam masala.

All these ingredients are mixed together and then a small bay is made in the centre of the dish and a small bowl with live coal is placed on this bay. Hot ghee is poured on the coal and the vessel is immediately covered tightly to seal the aromatic smoke, which permeates all the ingredients. When the process (known as dhun-gar or dhuwa dena) is complete, the ingredients are further cooked together, then shaped into rounds and pan-grilled. A delicious kebab, it is served with chutneys and relishes.

Other kebabs — Qureshi originals — are Arbi aur Sabudana ke Kabab (marinated colarissia coated with sago, fried and finished dum-style) and Bhutta aur Soy ki Sheekh (corn and soy nuggets mixed together with spices, shaped around skewers and cooked in a tandoor).

Dum ka Paneer, Gobi Mussalam and Mirchi Baingan ka Salan are excellent main course dishes to try. They are all dumpukht dishes. Each one’s gravy is poured over the partly-cooked item — paneer or cauliflower or chilli and aubergine — and then the dishes are sealed and kept in low-heat ovens till cooked. It is no exaggeration to say that this cooking style is truly special and makes for a unique culinary experience.

Among the breads served, there was the layered Warqui Paratha, Ulte Tawa ke Paratha and Sheermal and we also tasted Subz Biriyani and Gucchi Pulao. Did I think of meat' No. With such rich variety and subtlety, it might even have been an intrusion.

What’s your favourite dumpukht dish' Tell [email protected]

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