The melt in the mouth kebabs aren’t as simple as they look.
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Driving down the roads of Uttar Pradesh, from capital city Lucknow to Kakori, it is hard to believe that this nondescript and small town has an extraordinary historical and culinary relevance for India. In fact, if one didn’t point the passing town to you, chances are you will bypass it completely. (Thank god for GPS!)

The town of Kakori has the singular accolade of being the location of a train heist that was a catalyst in India’s freedom struggle gaining momentum—the Kakori Conspiracy of 1925. The names of Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan, Ram Prasad Bismil and Roshan Singh are the ones that are etched in India’s freedom struggle till date and, even today, invoke intense patriotism in an Indian.

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Besides taking you back to this historical place of India’s freedom struggle, Kakori enjoys the sumptuous significance of being the birthplace to one of Awadh’s open secret—Kakori Kebab. Pakistani author Shanaz Ramzi in her book Food Prints: An Epicurean Voyage through Pakistan has traced it back to Nawab Syed Mohammad Haider Kazmi, who had invited a British colonialist to enjoy the bounty of the famed Malihabad mangoes and kebabs. Unimpressed with the kebabs, it didn’t take much for the Englishman to share his views, which hit the fragile ego of the Nawab. Before the colonialist’s departure, the Nawab promised him that he would have to take his words back. This sent the royal rakabdars (cooks) into a tizzy where the cooks worked relentlessly to master a kebab that were so soft that they literally melted in the mouth. The debut of this scrumptious delicacy soon became the talk of town, and has ever since, put Kakori Kebab on a global pedestal.

With several iterations of the recipe made, the original is still a heavily guarded recipe, akin to an art that not many can master. Such is the exclusivity that there aren’t many families or businesses taking the occupation of making Kakori Kebabs further. We were lucky to have met one of the very few Kakori Kebab masters on our visit to Lucknow—the father-son duo of Ibrahim Qureshi and Anas Qureshi.

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We caught up with the duo as they set-up for the day’s kebab-making. Wheedling out information from a reluctant Qureshi Senior was no easy task. He does not want to part with their secrets for the perfect Kakori Kebab, but we did get him to spill a few beans on this culinary marvel.

The Making of Kakori
Like all good things, it starts with the basics. The mince—the fine mince of mutton for Kakori Kebab goes through multiple rounds of grinding. It is said that the Kakori Kebab mince goes through the grinder as many as six times! The job was originally done manually by pounding the meat. The tender and rich quality of the kebab comes from the addition of kidney fat, an ingredient that cannot be dispensed off. While the Qureshis use 100 gm fat for a kilo of mince, the proportions may vary according to chefs.

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The science of mixing fat and meat was something that Awadhi rakabdars had mastered long back and clearly plays an important role in achieving the perfect texture of Kakori Kebab. The other key invention these rakabdars have passed along is the use of tenderiser. As the term suggests, it helps to soften the meat and cook faster. Quereshis add 100 gm of raw papaya to a kilo of mince; but if you want a taste of the original Kakori Kebab, during peak mango season, nothing else, but the Malihabadi mangoes will do.

Also Read: Ranveer Brar's favourite food joints in Lucknow 

Since the meat is so tender and soft, they add besan to the mince mix. This helps to bind the meat and also gives a crust to the kebab. But the star ingredient that elevates this kebab from any other kind is the right mix of spices. Qureshi says that 22-odd hand-picked roasted spices and seasonings are used to flavour Kakori Kebab, but the glimmer of a smile on his lips implies otherwise. When it’s a dish that captures all your senses with its taste, texture, aromas, and a royal lineage, we agree, it’s difficult to part with the recipe. 

Inheriting the Art of Kakori Kebab
Qureshi shares his story. It was his maternal grandmother who was the original secret keeper of Kakori Kebabs in their family who then taught Qureshi’s grandfather this unique technique. After her death, Kakori Kebab was the only means of sustenance. The grandfather then passed on this legendary skill of making Kakori Kebab to Qureshi’s father.

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The young Anas Qureshi is a quick study learning this dying art from his father; at just 21-22 years, he has now been assisting his father for approximately 15 years! He is a modern-day man who knows how to make the most of opportunities. Catching up with the current trend of branding, the young lad sports a bright red t-shirt with family branding on the back just to make sure that you register the Qureshi name, long after you have devoured their lip-smacking kebabs. As a matter of fact, when it comes to making Kakori Kebabs and seekh kebabs, they travel to Lucknow, where they end up cooking 10-15 kgs worth of meat.

The father-son duo is a fine team who work in tandem to speed up the process. One fans the charcoal and the other rolls the mince onto the long iron skewers. As they narrate the arduous process, we realise that the process to roll the mince on to the rod is a skill that takes years of perfection. The mince needs to be evenly rolled on to the rods to ensure that the thickness of each kebab does not vary as you bite into the delicate meat, one kebab after another. As the young Qureshi does the job, the father continues to guide and direct him, chiding him not to miss out on quality, in the rush to finish the job quickly. Amongst the many secrets of Kakori Kebab, we discovered one—the iron rod or the seekh used for this kebab is not circular, but square. The reason being that the square rod allows the succulent kebab to be cooked to perfection from all sides.

While the beauty of apprenticeship is that you master and perfect an exclusive family-run craft that has been passed on to you for generations and master it to perfection. But then again, this poses as a challenge for humble folks like the Qureshis, who are dependent on bulk orders and parties, or when they get called to Lucknow. Well, if it’s a tried and tested recipe for success, why not?

Featured image: Sayoni Bhaduri
Other images: Najeeb Aziz

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