Osama Jalali's Quest To Revive Lost Recipes Of Undivided India
Image Credit: The Leela Bharatiya City

In an era where Indian cuisine is often dressed up in modern attire and traditional dishes like phirni are passed through liquid nitrogen and served deconstructed, it is seldom that one gets to experience a hearty meal of a bygone era. 

Recently, there was a pop-up at Bengaluru's Quattro in The Leela Bharatiya City where reknowned food writer, historian turned chef and entrepreneur, Osama Jalali, put forth an array of delicacies from the traditional North-West Frontier Province's cuisine from undivided India, which transported the diners down the memory lane of an opulent realm that once existed centuries ago.

In an exclusive conversation with Slurrp, Osama Jalali reminds us of the importance of preserving our culinary roots through his journey. From having reviewed over 2000 restaurants across the country to delving deep into the annals of Indian culinary history, his expertise includes Mughal, Purani-Dilli, North-West Frontier, and Rampuri cuisines with a touch of Rohila and Awadhi flavours, which is both inspiring and thought-provoking.

Having grown up in the bylanes of Purani Dilli or Old-Delhi, Osama is an expert on Mughal cuisine, where his research further delves into reviving the culinary traditions of the Shah Jahani period or realm. With roots in Rampur, which was a getaway hideout for the Nawabs back then, and Osama's mother having learned lost recipes from the royal cooks, chef Osama Jalali has explored the rich culinary traditions of Rampur and is fond of certain dishes from the cuisine that evoke nostalgia.

A Take On Modern Indian Cuisine

Jalalli recalls a moment that sparked his interest in heritage cuisines, which happened during a meal with his daughter. He narrates, "There was an incident when I went with my daughter for a food review and some samosa chaat was served to us. And that samosa came with green foam and red foam on top. So my daughter asked, 'Abba, chutney kidar hai?' (Dad, where is the chutney?). I had to explain to her that the green foam was the green mint chutney and the red foam was the tamarind chutney."

This experience led him to question the direction in which Indian cuisine was headed. This incident sparked a realisation about the fading essence of regional Indian cuisines, which led him to delve deeper into traditional cooking methods and recipes, particularly focusing on Shahjahani cuisine, a rich tapestry of flavours from the era of Shah Jahan, aiming to resurrect the culinary techniques and tools of the time.

How Are The Age-Old Recipes Lost?

It is important to remember that every cuisine evolves with time.  Food travels with time and evolves. Osama Jalali believes that the recipes must be passed on for everyone to learn so they can be kept alive. He shares the culinary techniques and recipes with the people who train under him without keeping any tips or tricks hidden.

He says, "What is authentic food today for me will evolve and will not remain the same or authentic for my children 20 years later. The old recipes stay when they are passed down from one generation to another. It is knowledge that everybody should have. But the khansamas or the cooks in the royal kitchen were secretive about their recipes and would not disclose them, which might have led to these recipes being lost."

As the copper and brass platters were loaded with his signature starters like Afghani Mewa Kebab, Namak Ghosht, and Seekh Kebab at Quattro's buffet counters, Jalali explains how reluctant the royal chefs were to teach or giveaway their recipes. He shares an instance of how the head chef would request the assistant to fetch water in the middle of cooking, only to add the secret spice blend to the dish in his absence. He expressed how his mother was not very open to sharing the recipes until he convinced her that recipes are precious and must be passed down so that they can evolve and not get lost in the times to come.

How Are The Lost Recipes Revived?

A deep interest in reviving lost recipes led Osama Jalali on his quest to uncover and practice traditional culinary methods. With numerous interviews, deep research and a lot of reading, Osama Jalali's core team includes his mother, Ms. Nazish Jalali, and wife, Ms. Nazia Khan. His mother learned cooking and many recipes from the royal khansamas in Rampur.

He says that the revival of lost recipes is a painstaking task that involves much more than just cooking. Jalali talks about the challenges of tracing old recipes, some of which are not written down but passed through generations verbally or kept secret within families. His effort to teach and preserve these recipes for future generations is a testament to his dedication to Indian culinary heritage.

"The most challenging part was to trace a recipe. I have done a lot of research and many recipes are in books like Ain-i-Akbari, whose first manuscript is still kept in the Rampur Raza Library, which is one of the most ancient libraries in the country. One other record is a Persian book called Kitab-al-Tabeekh, which has many Persian recipes in it, which I managed to translate and standardise to recreate the recipes. Although these books are available with recipes, the measurements of ingredients are mentioned vaguely, like tohla, chutki, chataak, and masha, which can be confusing. We have managed to standardise these measurements to bring these long-lost recipes to life," says Osama Jalali.

Traditional Culinary Practises And Techniques

Jalali emphasises the significance of traditional cooking techniques and the authenticity of ingredients. He says that he follows a recipe to the teeth when it comes to traditional recipes and also follows traditional culinary methods to whip up an authentic dish. Rejecting modern appliances like mixers and grinders, he sticks to grinding spices on a silbatta (stone grinder) and cooking in copper vessels over slow flames for even cooking. He sources spices from a hakim in Khari Baoli, Delhi’s ancient spice market, ensuring that no commercial spice mixes find their way into his dishes. One of the main aspects Jalalhi focuses on is the authenticity of spices and the regional specificity of ingredients. He explains how the traditional garam masala varies not just by region but also by season, adapting to the climate and the dishes it is meant to complement.

Jalali also touches upon the cultural and communal aspects of Indian cuisine, where dishes are not just about taste but about bringing people together. He shares memories of dishes like Nahari, originally a breakfast dish for the common folk, which became a culinary staple transcending social boundaries.

In this pop-up that featured North-West Frontier cuisine from undivided India, the array included Memoni Mutton Biryani, where the meat fell off the bone on a bed of fragrant basmati rice that paired beautifully with the maash ki dal (creamy dal cooked in milk and spices), and the tahri pulao for the vegetarians went well with kathal korma. The Multani Paneer Parchay was the size of a mini steak with a melt-in-the-mouth texture. The guests concluded their feast with decadent desserts like Shahi Tukda and Seviyon Ka Muzafer, ensuring a truly unforgettable culinary adventure.

It is not only culinary chefs and historians that are coming together to revive these long-lost cuisines but also the culinary establishments like Quattro in Leela Bharatiya City that are spreading awareness of the existence of these cuisines through pop-up events like these across the country. 

"We aim to provide our guests with immersive experiences that resonate with the soul long-term. Our collaboration with culinary maestros like Chef Osama Jalali epitomises this commitment. These collaborations are beyond a meal, but a deep dive into the rich tapestry of India's food history. Chef Jalali’s spread not only enriches the dining experiences we offer but his food and work serve as custodians of cultural heritage. Through years of meticulous research, recipe development, and gaining a deep understanding of historical gastronomy, Chef Jalali brings to life flavours and stories from bygone eras. This pop-up allows us to take our guests on a journey through time, where each dish becomes a chapter in the narrative of India's culinary evolution. It's about fostering connections, igniting curiosity, and creating memories that linger long after the last bite," says Virender Razdan, General Manager, The Leela Bhartiya City.