Once upon a time, there lived a king and his prime minister. Each had a slew of palaces and mansions, one more fairy tale-ish than the other. Cars, retinues of helpers, suitcases full of fabulous gems—they had it all. Even when the privy purses were abolished, they lived happily ever after. Because they were self-contained, no mere mortal could penetrate the bubble that enclosed them. This was a pity, because the king, his prime minister and their descendants had a cuisine that was worthy of being preserved for posterity.
Chef’s special: (top) Begum Kulsum; and her gajar ka halwa made painstakingly with steaming whole carrots slit lengthwise. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
That’s where Begum Kulsum comes into the picture. As the granddaughter of Salar Jung, the erstwhile prime minister of Hyderabad, she entered the kitchens of the ITC Welcomgroup eight years ago as consultant chef. Today, she has obviously found her métier, and her employers have found a treasure no less in value than the Golconda diamond.
Kulsum cooks only the food of her family. While the foundation is undoubtedly Hyderabadi, the refinements are purely aristocratic. Imagine making a gajar ka halwa by steaming whole carrots slit lengthwise so that the central yellow fibrous stem can be detached, so as to obtain a rich red colour.
Listening to Kulsum talk about her childhood is like entering a magical world of princesses who lived in vast mansions surrounded by enormous gardens. The dinner table was never set with fewer than five dishes, not even for a strictly homely, family meal. While there was an army of cooks, it was Kulsum’s grandmother who doled out spice mixes. Secrecy was of the essence then, as it is now; whole spices outsourced for grinding to a member of the Bhoi community. One cook was responsible for the biryani, another for the kebabs, a third for the rotis, and so on.
Saffri khana (which refers to the food for a safar, or journey, according to Kulsum) was an important branch of cookery for a family whose male members had to travel to all parts of their extensive land-holdings. This was essentially composed of food that would not spoil for a week or so. Today, it sounds like the fantasy of a gourmet, but Kulsum’s family considered it hardship food: roghni roti, tomato chutney, tala boti. Each of these had to have minimal moisture, which means that they were cooked on low heat for hours together.
Kulsum remembers that though the base of many gravy dishes was onions, these had to be completely invisible, through a mixture of grating and slow cooking. The dishes would be cooked on babool embers, over 6 hours or more. Kulsum, the only member of her extended family who has ventured into commercial cooking, says that it will soon become economically unviable, even if there are takers.
1kg atta (wheat flour)
250g pure ghee
1 cup milk
½ tsp finely powdered green cardamom seeds
Salt to taste
Mix the ghee with the atta, into which salt and powdered cardamom seeds have been added, with your fingertips till the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Now, add the milk, a tablespoon at a time, and knead to a firm dough. You may require only half the milk. Roll out the dough into quarter-plate-size rotis (with the same thickness as a plate) and cook gently on a thick-based tawa (griddle) over low heat. Expect one roti to be ready in about an hour. Eat as a tea-time snack; it keeps for a week without refrigeration.
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