Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan opens his baithak, rolls out the kaleen and gives his gyaan about Hyderabadi cuisine and life. Prabalika M. Borah catches a few snatches.
If the red and gold crystal jhumar manages to grab your eyeballs instantly, so do the hand-knotted kaleens in various sizes. Seated in one of these hand-knotted silk beige kaleen and resting on huge Afghani cushions is Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan. Once you settle on one of them, your attention is drawn to the chime of grandfather's clock every 15 minutes. The baithak of Mehboob Alam Khan is a reflection of the bygone era of the nawabs. Facing the baithak is the ‘shanashan', an elevated stage that is used for ghazal and shayari sessions.
“This is our traditional style of living. I love it here. When the family meets we spread the dastarkhan here and we have our food here,” says Alam Khan pouring his Darjeeling blended tea from a tea-cosy covered tea-pot. As the conversation proceeds the grandeur of the Nawabs unfolds slowly. In the corner of the room are antique farshis, an ittar dan, paan dan and a pik dan, all in silver.
This former Chairman of A.P. Minorities Commission, Director of Hyderabad Deccan Cigarette Factory and member of the Court of the Aligarh Muslim University was also chosen as member of the committee formed under the Ministry of Human Resource Development.
But what makes Mehboob Alam Khan famous is his signature biryani and his expertise in Hyderabadi cuisine.
Now the honorary secretary for Anwar-Ul-Uloom group of educational institutions says: “The secret of good cooking I feel is the love for food. It is an art and taste that cannot be acquired through a quick fix method,” he informs. Mehboob Alam Khan believes he belongs to the ‘twilight generation', “we were born at the fag end of the struggle for Independence. Our family might have migrated from the North Western Frontier Province (now renamed Khyber Pakhtoonwa by Pakistan) but being the fourth generation person here I feel I am a part of the culture, city and people,” he says.
Mehboob Alam Khan likes to be surrounded by the people who attend to him and has no hang-ups about speaking to a caller on his secretary Wajid's phone, “Wajid, tumahara phone se awaz sahi nahi aati, kahan se liye ji, ek dusra phone leyo,” wherever Mehboob Alam Khan sits or goes he likes Wajid to give him company. Another of his loyal domestic help is Akram whom Mehboob Alam Khan is pestering to bring his parents so that Akram can take care of them personally. “Tum apne abba, amma ko laleyo, peeche kamre hain udhaar aram se rahte,” he says in between.
“Our food and style of living is typically Hyderabadi but to cater to all sorts of guests we have different seating arrangement as well. No matter where or when, my baithak is my pehchaan,”
In his Sixties now Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan might have undergone a heart surgery but he doesn't refuse to cook and sample good food.
“Feasting and feeding people makes me happy. And one doesn't need any secret recipe or ingredients to make a fantastic dish. But I am picky about the meat I cook. I take care to buy good meat and treat it in a traditional way in order to get rid of the smell and impurities,” he explains.
Taking pride in his old style of living, Mehboob Alam Khan says, besides a few modern facilities in his house like geysers and western toilets the rest is pretty much traditional.
“I am untouched by globalisation but I can say there is a little influence of the old British Culture in me,” he says.
However, his passion for food is such that his expertise is not restricted to Hyderabadi cuisine only.
Nawab Alam Khan who is a Pathan travels extensively with his wife and each time they visit a new place they bring with them new cuisines and all the pots and pans that are required. This is not all, in his sprawling bedroom which has more than two coffee table sitting arrangement the mini bookcases have in them books on world cuisine, on styles of slicing meat and vegetables and books on knives and even one on covering food. “It is not enough to learn to cook, one should learn it the right way,” he says as he shows his humongous kitchen that is exclusively meant for him.
In the shelves and drawers of the kitchen are condiments, sauces and storable raw materials for Indian, Continental and Middle-East cuisines. His passion for cooking is further reflected in the three table top burners.
But how did a ladle land in the hands of a jagirdar of the pre and post-Independence era, “I used to cook as a teenager but I was not a serious cook. I would enter the kitchen to help myself with something to eat but soon when old age started snatching our khansamas one after the other I decided to learn what they know.
“From here I started my regular trips to the kitchen, took notes, observed and learned from them the secret of the aromatic dishes in our house. Our family was picky about food and we had a chef from Goa for continental dishes, a mama for Mughlai dishes and a khansama for our Hyderabadi cuisine,” says Mehboob Alam Khan as he offers his mouth-watering whole wheat signature haleem sans spices.
After his wedding he and his wife who is equally passionate about cooking toured the state to take recipes and learnt the art of authentic traditional cooking. Once they were satisfied with their tour it was time to go around the country and repeat the process. “Now we travel to Asia, Middle-East, Arabian and European countries and bring with us a new cuisine,” he says.
Mehboob Khan might be passionate about his food but he strongly believes that food should reflect what is available locally.
“In the earlier days biryani used to be cooked in kala bhaat, a type of rice grain which is aromatic and super fine. My friends used to love coming to our house for the food and each time the number of guests increased we were more happy. The secret to good cooking is patience and less spices and correct selection of meat.
“In my haleem I use nothing besides hand pounded whole-wheat. Similarly in my biryani it is the fresh cardamoms that make the difference,” he says as he takes us through a tour of their sprawling several floored bungalow.
If cooking is passion there is a second secret love of this man, “I love collecting hand knotted carpets from all over world,” he says.