In 1981 I was extremely lucky to work at the Moghul Room Restaurant, part of the luxury hotel group of The Oberoi, New Delhi. This was to be my first taste of a classic Indian restaurant with a grand reputation of serving the best of Moghul food, second only to the world-renowned Bukhara in the Maurya Sheraton, New Delhi.
My job as a trainee was to pick up the groceries and the veggies required for the following day, arrange them in an orderly manner and, of course, peel the onions, garlic and ginger by the bagful!!
A few days passed before I realized that the chefs and the cooks worked in perfect harmony and, more importantly, none of them used a printed recipe to cook from. “Chef”, I asked, “don’t you have a recipe, or is it simply ‘a bit of this’ and ‘a bit of that’ – or do you just remember it all in your head?!!”
The chef replies in Urdu, “‘Son’, yeh khaana kitna pyaaz, lahsoon adrak, tamatar ka nahin hai, yeh kalaa hai, kaise aur kab daalne ki!!” So, it was not, after all, about how much chopped onion, garlic or ginger you add but more about ‘how’ and ‘when’. Quantities may change based on the region and the climate; the skill and the technique does not change and that, my dear friends, takes muddattein, years and years of practice, tapasya, riyaaz: Sacrifice!!!
An example of the use of this acquired ‘technique’ is shown brilliantly in a dish called Kachche Gosht Ki Biryani. I first came across this dish at the Banjara Hotel in Hyderabad in 1980 where Ustaad was called in to make it for a very special occasion! No weighing scales, no chopping boards and, of course, no written recipes were used. Onions were sliced by hand, ginger and garlic were crushed in a sill-Batta (mortar and pestle), spices were ground individually, and so the process went on…
Chefs in India were judged on how proficient they were at making a biryani as it was believed that a good chef could make a good biryani whereas a great chef (Ustaad) could make KGKB!!