Chef Farman Ali Revives The Forgotten Pre-Partition Recipes
Image Credit: Falak, Leela Bharatiya

We live in a country that has such a variety of cultures and cuisines that someone from the north eats differently from those in the south of India and Mughlai cuisine is one such cuisine. This rich culinary tradition encompasses iconic dishes like murgh korma, nihari, kebabs, biryani, sheermal, and taftan. Old Delhi's streets, particularly around Jama Masjid, offer an authentic taste of seekh kebab, nihari, khasta roti, and more.

Mughlai recipes, passed down through generations, found a new home in Old Delhi's eateries, where Mughal court cooks established their restaurants or joined prestigious hotels. Unfortunately, some dishes, like lahsun ka kheer and onion kheer, have been forgotten over time. However, at Falak in Leela Bharatiya, Chef Farman Ali endeavours to preserve the legacy of Mughlai cuisine.

Meaning "sky" in Urdu, Falak distinguishes itself in Bangalore's culinary scene by offering a diverse range of forgotten pre-partition era recipes and lesser-known dishes from Awadh, the undivided Punjab, Old Delhi, Amritsar, and Multan.

Chef Farman Ali, is behind the menu and specialises in a number of cuisines, including Awadhi and North-West Frontier dishes. He shares insights into sourcing forgotten recipes from pre-partition days, mentioning family influences, culinary legends in his career, and traditional techniques.

He also discusses the influence of the Mughal era on his culinary journey, especially in Delhi's Purani Dilli, emphasising the love for non-vegetarian Mughlai dishes. Here are the excerpts from a rare conversation:

Take us on your remarkable journey from being a khansama to earning the title "The Last of the Great Chefs."

The culinary landscape in Delhi, especially among the Muslim community, revolves around non-vegetarian dishes. Vegetarian fare is defined as vegetable-infused meat preparations. My passion for good food traces back to my childhood, when I assisted my mother in the kitchen, igniting my culinary journey. Joining a restaurant on Asif Ali Road in 1969 marked the beginning, followed by two years under a renowned chef.

The years unfolded with experiences at Intercontinental, Delhi, then Hyatt, Dubai, and later returning to Hyatt before venturing to Abudabhi in 1994. A significant chapter began in 2004 at Jamavar in the Leela Palace, Bengaluru, continuing until 2020. Since 2021, I've been shaping culinary excellence at Falak in Leela Bharatiya, Bengaluru.

What are the few unforgettable recipes of your lifetime? And explain why.

With over 50 years of experience, certain recipes have etched themselves permanently in my culinary journey. Rogan-e-Irshaad, Murgh Alamghir, Goshtaba, Korma, and Murgabir stand as unforgettable delights, crafted with unique and homemade masalas.

How has your culinary journey been influenced by the Mughal era, and what aspects of that era do you find most captivating?

Delving into the influence of the Mughal era on my culinary path, our homes in Delhi, especially in Purani Dilli, resonate with the flavours of that rich period. Dishes like korma, shammi kebab, nihari, kheema kebab, and kheema hari mirch, rooted in the Mughal era, dominate our tables.

Growing up with these iconic flavours, my culinary identity has been shaped by the creamy and flavourful dishes that define the essence of Mughal cuisine in Old Delhi—a testament to our hardcore non-vegetarian preferences.

How have you been able to source the forgotten and lost recipes from the pre-partition days in the northwest frontier of India, especially Amritsar, Old Delhi, and Awadh?

My journey to reviving forgotten recipes began by observing my family prepare these dishes in Old Delhi during my childhood. My late grandmother and mother were adept at these age-old recipes. Working in the hotel industry introduced me to culinary legends like Haaji Saab and Chef Mohammed Ismail from UP, who specialised in Awadhi dishes. They were legends in their own right and they taught me some forgotten recipes without hesitation.

Learning from them, I discovered Mughal-era recipes like garlic kheer and onion kheer that were otherwise only prepared at our homes. I learned about employing ancient techniques such as sun-drying mutton for various preparations. Back in the day, the king and his troupes or people in general, travelled a lot from one place to another. And they would carry pieces of dried meat as it would not spoil and could easily be incorporated into gravies or ground to a mince to make a kheema dish on the go, which would be paired with flatbreads.

Flatbreads like bakarkhani and safed roti or khasta roti that were packed with ghee, ajwain, and jeera and integral for long journeys were secrets learned on the job from expert chefs who served in royal kitchens before they moved to the restaurant industry. These were precious recipes not widely known, mastered through the teachings of mentors like Haji Saab.

How did you get a hold of the recipes for galouti kebab, bakarkhani, and koyla atta chicken that were created especially for Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Lucknow, Mirza Agha Baqer, a son-in-law of Murshid Quli Khan II, and more?

I learned recipes like galouti kebab, bakarkhani, and koyla atta chicken, created for historical figures like Wajid Ali Shah and Mirza Agha Baqer, from UP's popular culinary heritage through my mentor, a renowned chef in the hotel industry who was from Uttar Pradesh and a maestro in Mughali cuisine. Originating in Lucknow, these recipes travelled to Delhi and became renowned in the region. 

Most members of the royal family could not chew and eat meat efficiently without teeth during their old age, although they thoroughly enjoyed meat delicacies. Their hakims advised the khansamas to mince the meat and prepare it for them to be able to eat effortlessly. And that is how galouti kebab, kakori kebab, and other melt-in-the-mouth kebabs became popular.

During the partition, many recipes became part of Pakistan, and the chefs or ustaads that were here improvised on these recipes and their delicacies were sold in some of the most old-time eateries on the streets of Purani Dilli and many royal khansmas became chefs in the famous restaurants across Delhi and UP back then who would teach these recipes to chefs in training and that is how I have learned from a few such legends who mastered the Mughlai cuisine.

Tell us how you put your team together. How do the Raqabdaars from Awadh contribute to the authenticity of the dishes, and what role do they play in maintaining the traditional cooking techniques?

Raqabdaars are personally trained to maintain authenticity and traditional techniques in preparing these age-old delicacies. They play a crucial role in ensuring consistency and adherence to the right cooking methods, which are mostly confined to a vessel called the raqabs. This is how we have built a reliable team that is aware of the right time to incorporate various ingredients into dishes while preparing them and can replicate the age-old delicacies on a daily basis.

Can you tell us more about how Dum Pukht cooking plays a vital role in keeping the authentic flavours alive at Falak?

The magic of Dum Pukht lies in the slow-cooking process, letting the flavours mingle perfectly. In this method, 'dum' refers to 'steam,' and 'pukht' means 'to cook.' We incorporate a variety of spices, including potli masala, and my team is well-versed in crafting these masalas to perfection. It's all about the art of slow-cooking and infusing every dish with rich and balanced flavours.

We've heard you've added quite a few vegetarian options to the menu at Falak. What inspired these creations?

Back in the early 2000s, before my time at Jamavar, the only vegetarian appetiser available at most restaurants was paneer tikka. When I joined, I decided to spice things up a bit and introduced around 15-20 vegetarian dishes to the tandoor menu.

Drawing on my experience from a previous workplace, where we crafted many vegetarian delicacies, I tweaked some traditional recipes. I brought in ingredients like gucchi (mushrooms), cauliflower, and more to whip up some vegetarian delights at the Leela Palace, and they became an instant hit.

Tell us about your experience putting together Leela's renowned Jamavar. How does your approach at Falak differ?

Jamavar is globally recognised as one of the finest restaurants and certainly a top spot in the city. The menu there boasts a variety of North Indian and South Indian delicacies. On the other hand, Falak zeroes in on Mughlai and North Indian cuisine, featuring delights like korma, nihari, and kebabs hailing from the undivided Punjab, Delhi, Rajasthan, and UP.

How do you strike a balance between preserving the authenticity of historical recipes and making contemporary adaptations to cater to modern tastes?

Well, cooking is all about practicing patience. In the past, we used to rely heavily on ghee, with around 250g needed for every kg of mutton. However, today's diners are more health-conscious and may prefer less ghee. Additionally, some people are not keen on an abundance of spices. Taking these factors, along with people's health and taste preferences, into consideration, we make regular adjustments to our recipes.

How long have you been in Bengaluru? And where would you go shopping to purchase the ingredients for cooking in the city?

I have been in the city for about 23 years. We are always looking out for good-quality spices and spice mixes and have travelled to Kerala and many other states in the region. Otherwise, several trips to Russell Market and the City Market in Bengaluru are the go-to places for most of the ingredients that we require.

What is that one comfort dish that you relish on any given day?

Moong dal khichdi is my favourite Indian dish. Or a porridge made from mutton mince and dalia, along with green chillies and ginger, would be my favourite dish to relish on any given day. It is light on the stomach and easy to digest.

How do you envision the continuation of the culinary legacy you've crafted at Falak?

I believe that Falak's legacy will continue to live on through the consistency of the delicacies its menu offers. Our trained chefs will ensure that the dishes will be crafted with the same consistency so that they will taste the same whenever you visit Falak at Leela Bharatiya.