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What's cooking, master?

From where does A.S. Qureshi, Master Chef of Taj Palace's Hotel's Masala Art restaurant, procure his stuff? Read on with SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY to find out.

GETTING THE INGREDIENTS RIGHT: Master Chef A.S. Qureshi takes care to buy just the right kind of masalas, fish and more from New Delhi's INA market. Photo: S. Subramanium.

`INGREDIENTS OFTEN come to me. I seldom go to them,' A.S. Qureshi, says at the very outset.

It is a pleasant October morning, showing the way to a nice day ahead. And you are all set to see and soak whatever demands the interest of this Master Chef of Masala Art at New Delhi's Taj Palace hotel.

"But today I would go to get my raw materials," the smiling chef is in the right mood. The meeting of the heart and home. His target destination is INA market in South Delhi. With the purchase list ready, he sets off, at once relaxed and ready to talk. About the ingredients that are locally good. About his 30 year career as chef. About his salad days.

First choice

"Our suppliers provide everyday ingredients. But I handpick certain things. My first choice is INA market or else, I go to Khan market," he explains. As the wheels go round and round, Qureshi too talks of incident after incident at the kitchen of his 100-year-old family restaurant in Lucknow's Lal Bagh area, Said Restaurant. Instead of attending school at age 12, he donned the apron.

"We had to pay, feed and get pushed around by our family chefs to learn cooking. From washing utensils to making dough for roomali roti and more, I began early," the chef states.

On reaching the market, he snakes his way to a shop for olive oil, soy sauce, pastas and herbs. "Diners are now health conscious. They demand olive oil even though it changes the taste of Indian food. Pastas and herbs add a bit of innovation," he replies. To kill the smell of olive oil, he throws in different Indian masalas. "My stress is on the taste and colour," he seems to be talking for all the chefs in the world.

His next stop is Ahujas, a vegetable and fruit shop and he picks the yellow and red pepper on display. A heap of fresh basil leaves, lettuce and ripe melons from Bangalore vie for his notice.

As he walks up to his "usual" outlet for fish and prawns run by "Nadeembhai", the chef passes by dunes of masala for sale. "We procure masala from states in whole and get them ground. I personally oversee mixing of masala," he says. Getting his hands on a bed of rohu, hilsa, pompret, mackarel, lady finger, surmai, katla and more, he tries to check their freshness before calling them his. Prawns too are locally bought, he informs, eyeing them in buckets nearby. Chicken and crabs are imported. "At times, we do buy chicken from here. Those which aren't put on ice are fresh," he adds.

Ingredients first

Ready to retreat now, he adds, "Buying ingredients is the first step to cooking. I concentrate a lot on it." After his brush with fine dining began in 1973 at Clarke's, he moved on to The Imperial in Singapore, Maurya Sheraton and the Radisson hotel here before joining Taj Palace.

"I have experienced life as a restaurant cook and also the glamour of being a chef of a five-star hotel. But even now, I spend about three hours of sleep time on how to make a different dish," he says. In it, you find a sincerity which you know you would not miss in his cooking.

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