The air is thick with agitated clouds of spices.

Surrounded by tear streaked faces, incessant sniffles and the odd sneeze, a visibly unfazed Chef Ghulam Quereshi nimbly negotiates the serpentine streets of Purani Dilli’s vibrant spice market oblivious to the press of people as he breezes past vendors, traders, residents and mildly masochistic tourists.

He is clearly ecstatic. “These spices are so fresh and potent, you need just a pinch to bring out unimaginably intricate and strong flavours” he says, as sacks upon sacks of passing spices release stinging swirls of aromas that you can almost taste. In your sinuses and other-than-tongue places.

After a somewhat agonising survey of the market and a handful of precious purchases, Chef Quereshi is finally ready to return to calmer air and share a treasure of carefully guarded secrets that veil the world of dum cooking.

While the art of sealed cooking is timeless and traceable across the world, the very particular style and tradition surrounding dum cuisine in India can be traced to the royal kitchens of Awadh from where it spread to other regions across India, including the courts of Kashmir, Rampur and Kolkata, among others.

The pivotal principle at the heart of dum cuisine involves dum and pukht. Dum which means ‘to breathe’, and pukht, which mean ‘to cook’. Therefore Dum Pukht. The stress is laid on slow cooking so that the natural flavours of the food are retained, while infusing the flavours of spices in the dish subtly yet thoroughly.

Sometimes a dish is cooked entirely on dum, and in other cases, dum is applied only in the last stage of cooking, as a finishing touch.

Back in the ITC Hotels kitchen, Chef Quereshi describes the subtlety with which the menu at Dum Pukht, ITC Hotels’ award winning cuisine brand which promises the ‘Grand Cuisine of India’, has been conceived as he delicately pats a smooth paste of finely ground meat and “other secret ingredients” onto a skewer. “Years of research have gone into working out the exact balance of spices. Of course these are dishes that have been around for years. They were cooked using elaborate methods in royal kitchens with the finest ingredients. But every chef worth his salt has his own secret way of arriving at a precise texture, a precise flavour. You cannot reproduce that anywhere else.”

As Chef prepares the skewers, a junior Chef stokes the fire in the charcoal grill. Fifteen minutes later a plate of arguably the finest kakori kebabs in the city sits before us. “Thirty five years, and no guest has ever complained about our kakori,” Chef says. Perhaps it is a sign of old Awadhi tehzeeb, such understatement. Far from complaint, the kebabs and biryanis at Dum Pukht have won ITC Hotels many accolades. But there’s a lot more to the cuisine and menu.

Exquisite qormas, qaliyas and salans are part of the repertoire. As are refined shorbas and muqawwiyat dishes – which combine sehat (health) and zaiqa (taste) – such as the delectable Nehari, traditionally slow cooked overnight in pots buried underground with burning coals on their lids.

But what’s particularly exciting, and the Chefs nod vigorously in approval, is the tantalising purdah. Brought to your table, straight out of the oven, purdah dishes, as the name denotes, are sealed with a drape of dough. Unveiled at the table, by ripping open the dough covering, they unleash a cloud of aroma, which as the chef will inform you, is the correct tehzeeb of appreciating dum cuisine – first you savour its aroma, then you take it in with your eyes and finally, you taste it.

The purdah itself is delicious. Made from flavoured dough kneaded with ghee, it forms a crisp outer crust while the inside is soft and soaked through with the steam borne flavours of the dish.

Another favourite is the Habibia Chop. To see how it is made, watch the video, and for the recipe look below.

For how it tastes, let’s just say: there is jannat in each bite: a juicy, subtly flavoured and meltingly tenderised mouthful of bliss. But how did he achieve this, you ask Chef, how does it taste so...so... refined, for lack of a better, more nuanced word, you’ll say, because you are still processing how a million spices and a dozen cooking steps can produce such clean, fine flavours.

“The trick is in the dum,” he winks.

***

INGREDIENTS
Lamb Chops(120 gm each) - 720 gm
Salt – To Taste
Ginger Paste – 20 gm
Kashmiri Red Chilli Paste – 40 gm

SECOND MARINATION
Cumin Powder – 10 gm
Coriander Powder – 10 gm
Royal Cumin – 5 gm
Mustard Powder – 10 gm
Red Wine Vinegar – 15 ml
Fig Paste – 10 gm
Clove Powder – 5 gm
Kebabcheeni Powder – 5 gm
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – 30 ml
Garam Masala Powder – 5 gm
Black Pepper Powder – 5 gm


ACCOMPANIMENTS
Onions – 200 gm
Synthetic Vinegar – 100 ml


METHOD
1. Marinate the chops with the first marinade of salt, ginger paste and Kashmiri red chilli paste. Keep it aside for 1 hour. For the accompaniment, peel and cut the onion into thick slices, and soak them in synthetic vinegar for 2 hours.

2. Add cumin powder, coriander powder, royal cumin, mustard powder, clove powder, kebabcheeni powder, black pepper powder and fig paste. Mix it thoroughly.

3. Now add red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil and mix it thoroughly. Keep it aside for 1 hour in a warm place if the lamb chops need to be cooked at the same time, fig paste will help lamb chops tenderise.

4. Cook the lamb chops on a griddle till 70% done, place the lamb chops on a food pan, cover it with an aluminium foil, cook it on till 100% done.

5. Cook the soaked onion slices on the griddle until the onions start getting brown on the outside.

6. Garnish with finely chopped green coriander and ginger juliennes.

Enjoy!