Its popularity has withstood the currents of time, from the days of the Sultanate and Mughals to today’s eateries and ‘factories’.
Talk about kababs invariably leads to Peshawar, land of Kipling’s water-carrier Gunga Din and known for its chapli variety. But one has to go further north to trace the kabab’s history in Afganistan, Iran and Turkey. The first kababs were popularised by the last named country and came to India with the Turkish invaders, though the writer Kingslake tasted them only after crossing into Istanbul of the Pashas in the 19th Century, where he was fascinated by the unveiled faces of pretty women and the exotic food available. In Delhi one supposes during the Sultanate days kababs began to be grilled in Mehrauli and later Nizamuddin Basti. They probably came to Kali (Kalan) Masjid, now famous in the Walled City for its nahari, at the time of Ferozeshah Tughlaq. Prince Juna ate them with the rotis distributed by Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia at his khankah (hospice). Hasan Gangoo or Kangu, who later founded the Bahmani Kindom (1347) in the Deccan, also ate the same rotis when he was a half-famished boy in Delhi, caring for his mother and sister, and nearly died of grief when the latter succumbed to pneumonia.
It is not far-fetched to imagine that the kababs then were cruder compared to the succulent ones that became popular during the Mughal period. Akbar, who preferred to eat alone, had a small appetite, but not his son Jahangir who enjoyed the Persian kababs made by Asmat Begum, mother of his wife, Nur Jahan. The begum is credited with the discovery of attar-e-gul (rose scent). This perfume wafted in the royal dining room when Jahangir ate kababs aplenty and drank to his satisfaction. It was on one such evening that he came out with his famous exclamation, “Ek lukum kabab ho, ek pyala sharab ho/Sulanate Nur-e-Jehani/Abad ho barbad ho’. By that time the reins of the empire were virtually in the hands of his shrewd queen, with Jahangir exercising only nominal control.
Came Shah Jahan and Nur Jahan’s influence ended, with her niece Mumtaz Mahal’s ascendancy as the new empress. Shah Jahan was not frugal in his eating habits either, but drink he gave up eventually as he became pious. But the Persian kababs prepared by Mumtaz Mahal from the time he was a prince, and at times a fugitive because of the machinations of Nur Jahan, he never could give up even after her death. The old guide Ismail Khan used to tell visitors to the Agra Fort that in his last years kababs were sometimes served to Shah Jahan when, ill and old, he sat contemplating the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna from the Mussaman Burj. He still liked to drink Ganga water, like his father and grandfather.
Aurangzeb, for all his piety, also enjoyed kababs, for which he had developed a fondness from the time of his mother. Even while making merry with the love of his youth, Hirabai Zainabadi (who nearly tempted him to drink before relenting) he washed down Shammi kababs with only plain water – or so say popular tales from that time. The story that he had dog meat served surreptitiously to the saint Bhure Mian in order to test his sagacity is however suspect. So also the comment by the saint (whose dargah is below the walls of the Red Fort): “Halal hai ya haram hai, tu hi jane” (whether it is permitted or forbidden meat, thou alone knowest).
In decadent Mughal times Mohammad Shah was a great gourmand of the 18th Century; Shah Alam and Akbar Shah Sani were also relishers of good food, but Bahadur Shah Zafar surpassed them with his “dastarkhwan” always having venison kababs (from the meat of the deer he hunted across the Yamuna) and moong-ki-dal (Badshah Prasand) of which he was extremely fond. Mirza Ghalib’s liking for Maseeta’s kababs is well known, though he found it extremely difficult to get them after the Uprising of 1857, when Maseeta’s shop was closed and dogs howled in it. Tunda of Lucknow is famous for his kababs but in the Jama Masjid area it was the Meerut kababias who held sway later. Zulfiquar was one of them and it was to him that women who had not prepared the food of their husbands’ choice sent the half-wit Mohammad Ali to bring seekh kababs (colloquially kawabs) before their spouses’ arrival.
It was much later that New Delhi began to be the rendezvous for kabab (now kabob or kabab) lovers, with the opening of the Karim joints. In Chanakyapuri Al-Kauser of Zeenat Kauser, wife of erstwhile Shama magazine owner Yunus Dehlvi, was a popular place. It is so even now though other branches have been opened after she handed over charge to her khansamas. The kakori kabab that Nabbu Mian started making in 1896 is now popularized by his great-grandson Ashfaq Ahmed, who has created Alkakori with 52 exotic spices and a secret recipe. However “Aap ki Khatir” restaurant in Nizamuddin, a craze at one time, has ceased to function. Kale Baba of Suiwalan is dead but in Ballimaran the son of another gola kabab maker still sits near the late Bhai Siddique’s paan shop to maintain the kabab tradition, along with so many others in Matia Mahal and Bara Hindu Rao. But where, oh where will you find a connoisseur like Jahangir who was content to barter his kingdom for a kabab!