Saturday, June 02, 2007

Moinuddin Ustad: A Trip Down Memory Lane

One great thing about writing for your own blog is that you can reminiscence as much as you want, there's nobody to stop you. This piece, for example, recounts events that happened nearly two years ago. It is not even a food story in the strictest sense; the culinary bit comes right at the end. It has more to do with a lunatic quest for a specific eatery.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd write about it here, if for no better reason than that it happens to be a favourite of mine. It certainly involves much that is dear to my heart - classical music; food; vast quantities of beer; inoffensive madcap capers; the Delhi Metro; and rejuvenating a much-cherished friendship.

All this happened somewhere around July 2005. My friend Pranjal had come back to the country after a long while, and we were to get together after a hiatus of four to five years. We arranged to meet at Palika Bazar in the afternoon.

At that time the metro was in a most exciting phase of nascence. The second line, from Central Secretariat to the University, had recently been inaugurated. To most people, it was still very much a novelty. Heck, even I hadn't tried it till then. So I resolved to take my first metro ride that day, a short two stops from Central Secretariat (a.k.a. C Sec) to Connaught Place.

On the way, I discovered I was not the only one thrilled about the metro. Walking past the Press Club to reach C Sec, I overheard a member, apparently a University professor type, telling the Club parking attendant: 'See that black car over there? That's mine, do keep an eye on it. From now on I'll park here and take the metro to college. Aur waapas aake Club mein hi lunch kiya karoonga, meri biwi se mat kehna! (and on my way back, I'll have lunch at the Club, please don't tell my wife)'

[Explanatory note:
the Press Club is one of the best places to drink in Delhi. Small wonder he didn't want his wife to know!]

Meeting up with Pranjal was as joyous as expected. After the initial round of profanities was over, we decided to go to the Pegasus Bar at Nirula's (now defunct, alas!). Apart from a good crowd and hardly any piped music whatsoever, it also featured Sandpiper Draught, one of the few bars in town to do so. I figured that if we stuck to beer and french fries, we could shamelessly let go and not worry about cash supplies.

The beer was just lovely. It set the mood for a long, leisurely afternoon binge as nothing else could. Settled down to the pressing business of catching up on each others' lives, we soon lost count of time and gallonage. By the time we emerged, both of us pleasantly buzzed, it was evening. At Pranjal's suggestion we went to a nearby coffee shop, and had cold coffee with a truly bizarre array of desserts.

That's when I had my Great Idea. I recalled having come across an article on a legendary Kababchi somewhere nearby. In our beer-tinted enthusiasm, we resolved there and then to dig it out. Unfortunately I had read the piece a long time ago, and forgotten most of the details. For one, I got his name wrong; thought it was Nooruddin. More significantly, I messed up with the location as well. For some reason I had got it into my head that the guy operated from GB Road, Delhi's fabled red-light area! That, of course, added to the general lunacy of the entire venture. We set off as soon as we could.

On the walk from Turkaman Gate, we had the time of our lives politely asking passers-by if this was the way to GB Road. Once we reached GB Road, we faced a peculiar problem. Nobody seemed to believe we were after Kababs. Pranjal claims he was twice waylaid by pimps. I was spared that fate, but encountered other forms of disbelief. For instance, I asked a man at a sweet-shop, and all he did was keep exchanging knowing smirks with his assistant.

Some kindly soul directed us to a place called Gali Shah Tara. We walked from one end of the Gali to the other without encountering a single Kabab-wala. Food shops there were aplenty, lots of saucepans and Deghchis mounted on counters. At this point, we were on the verge of giving up and settling for Korma or Biryani instead. We had walked for miles, and were hungry and tired in equal measure. Then I spotted a shop with a picture of a Tabla on its window.

I still don't know what made me do it. Maybe it was the beer, maybe just a disjointed sense of fun. Anyways, for whatever reason, I barged in and asked them if they sell Tanpuras. The two persons behind the counter looked at me very suspiciously, and said no, they don't sell Tanpuras, they deal only with Tablas, and where had I come from? I ignored the question, and patiently explained to them I was looking a specific kind of tanpura: gent's model, six strings instead of the usual four (in the style of Ustad Amir Khan), rounded Jawari, German wires, a stem of length at least five feet - I had the specs down flat.

That baffled them a bit. They couldn't quite fathom what I was up to. Clearly I had a background in music, and yet there seemed to be something not entirely kosher. So they repeated their question.

I said, 'You've heard of Ustad Murshid Quli Khan, I'm sure?' (tug-tug-tug at earlobes) [NB: the only Murshid Quli Khan I know of is the character who founded Murshidabad]

One of them falls for the gag and duly blurts out, 'Yes of course we've heard of Khansahib, but you . . .?'

'Oh, I'm a disciple of his.'

'And . . . is he . . . I mean, did he . . . umm, send you here . . .?'

'As a matter of fact he did, yes.'

That did it for him. He thawed down completely, repeated they didn't deal in Tanpuras, and offered to give me the address of a friend in Kashmere Gate who crafted them. I excused myself, said it was too late to go there anyways. Then the other chap says, 'Koi aur seva (anything else we can do for you)?' So I mention this Kabab seller called Nooruddin we were looking for. He says, go down this lane, there's a building called Hamdard. At the entrance to the lane opposite the building, this famous Kababiya sits, go and try his Kababs. We thanked him and left.

Once outside, we stood by a corner and collapsed into helpless, hysterical laughter. Pranjal was especially hard hit, he stayed doubled over for a good few minutes. Eventually, the shrieks subsided into intermittent giggles, and we proceeded to this Kabab stall. And surprise, there he was, the one we were looking for! I recognised him straight off from his picture in the newspaper article.

There was a fair crown milling around the stall, so we duly stood in queue and watched him and his son in action. The son acted as cashier, and also kneaded the meat-mixture onto the skewers. The father would then take them and place them on an angeethi (charcoal grill). He had several skewers lined up in different stages of readiness. So had the fire been stoked into varying intensities along the length of the grill. Indeed, most of the old man's time was taken up in fanning the fire. And he did it with so much care and absorption it was a treat to watch. I suppose the varying heat levels constituted an essential component of his culinary art.

At the left end, where the fresh skewers were placed, the fire was little more than a few embers glowing sullenly. Further to the middle, it perked up. The Kababs placed here would settle down to a dignified broil. The final touches were administered towards the right side of the grill. Here the fire spat tongues of flame at the meat, scorching it and causing drops of fat to fall onto the coals. This further enraged the flame into angry, hissy sputters, which imparted to the Kababs their heavenly smokiness.

About the Kababs themselves, I can say little beyond the fact that they were the best I've ever eaten. Pranjal agrees with me, to this day. They were soft, succulent, flavourful, slightly smoky, and melted in the mouth. For some reason, that day they were spiced quite strongly. This must have been an aberration; on subsequent visits I found spice levels to be well within acceptable tolerance levels. In any case, it did little to prevent us hogging ourselves silly. A round of flavoured milk at the end of proceedings took care of things nicely. Then a rickshaw to Chawri Bazar station, the metro till C Sec, a long bus ride - and I was home, completely sated and exhausted.

Epilogue: The following day I looked up the article on the net, and realised just how inaccurate my memory had been. The Kababchi was called Moinuddin Ustad, not Nooruddin, and his stomping grounds were at Lal Kuan, literally miles away from GB Road. I sent Pranjal the link, and was treated to yet another choice selection of invective. Bloody ignorant Bong, don't you have any shame? You didn't even know that lane was Gali Qasim Jan, where Mirza Ghalib lived? I bowed my head in contrition. Mea culpa.


Scout Finch said...

It's so true that one's blog is the best place to indulge in nostalgia that you want to share. Reading your blog got me blogging after ages!
Kintu bhaya chinte parle ki? [Hint: Ami tor K-tuto Kakima:D]

DD said...

to be very frank, i get reminded of syed mujtaba ali after readings posts of this kind. please keep up the good work!

Amit Walambe said...

For me, this is the best post of the blog. Certainly, there were other posts which talked beautifully about the food. But this one reminded of the 'fun' of one fine day, the things you do with your best of friends and laugh it out for many years to come (probably for all your life). And /that/ made this one very special.
Thanks for a lovely writeup.
- Amit

expiring_frog said...

I told you not to post all these food posts... jibhe jol aashe aar prochondo khide paaye.

ys said...

u madcaps!!!!!!! I had to stop reading the kabab story at one third
because me got into pathetic fits of gasping laughter!!!!!!! till I could settle down enough to continue from the point where you two were politely asking the way to GB lane :)))))))). as if that was not enough, next we find the tanpura enquiry.... gosh, i wish i were there to see you guys in action!!!

aside, some of the gibberish the word verification can throw out leaves a bad taste on the toungue: i have to copy gtbglake for this comment - gah!

Samarth Nagarkar said...

Lovely post, Abhik.
Your brief discription of the old man making the Kababs was superb. reminded me of an old cook in Ahmedabad. He was a wrinkled old man, third generation to serve as a cook in that very family. The sheer involvement and love he put into every thing he did was so overwhelming to watch. The food, of course, was beyond anything I had ever eaten. The taste left you fully satisfied. nothing more could possibly be done to it. you know what i mean? THAT was perfect!
Its over a decade since I ate that meal. Thank you and your post for bringing it back to me.