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Why do Lucknowi chefs have such an affinity for keema?

There are many ways in which the cuisine of Lucknow differs from the food of the rest of North India.

But one of the most intriguing is the uses to which keema – in Lucknow, this usually means minced goat – is put to.

 

You find keema in most Indian cuisines. Normally, it is a way of using cheaper or tougher cuts of meat. If you feel that a piece of mutton is not going to get tender enough to eat when you bhuno it or put it into a curry, you mince it.

 

   Once it has been minced, the possibilities are endless. First of all, you can play around with its tenderness. One old trick is to add minced fat to the lean meat. The more fat you use, the more tender the keema can get. If you have eaten inexpensive roadside kebabs and marvelled at how tender they are (“melts in the mouth, yaar”), remember that (if you are dealing with a minced meat kebab) all this often means is that lots of fat has been added to the keema.

 

   Another advantage of keema is that it is nearly always cheap. Not only is the cut that is usually minced inexpensive but mutton fat costs almost nothing. So if you add, say 200 grams of minced fat to 800 grams of lean keema, you end up with a kilo of minced meat that is at least 20 per cent cheaper than good quality minced meat would be.

 

   Moreover, you can put keema to a variety of uses where the quality of the meat does not matter so much. You can use a cheap keema mixture to stuff a samosa. Add things like onion or garlic and lots of masala and nobody will notice that the meat quality is pathetic.

 

   In Lucknow, however, none of these tricks are employed by the great chefs. They will make their keema themselves. (The best Awadhi chefs often have a background in butchery; the Qureshi surname is associated with butchery and after Imtiaz Qureshi became famous, every second chef in Lucknow has begun calling himself Qureshi.) They will always use a piece of high-quality meat that could have gone into a korma, not a cheap cut.

 

   Though they do make a keema in a curry style, Lucknow’s fame rests on its minced meat kebabs. The most famous traditional kebab is the galouti. It is the subject of legend and fanciful stories: it was invented for a toothless nawab or for poor Wajid Ali Shah whose name has been appropriated for scores of bogus food origin stories, and so on.

 

"While the galouti is an everyday kebab, made at home and at street corners, the kakori is a big deal, which only the best chefs can master and is hardly ever made at home."

   You will be told about the secret spices that go into a galouti but basically, the principle is to use high-quality keema and a little goat fat, and then fry on a tawa. Different chefs have different methods but the top guys believe in repeated mincing. Some will mince the meat at least thrice and I have heard of chefs who will mince it over a dozen times.

 

   Then there is the more recent (about a century or so old) kakori kebab, which is to a seekh what a galouti is to a shami. In fact, Awadhi chefs will brag that their cuisine is more refined than the food served at the Mughal court because they took such Delhi staples as the shami and the seekh and turned them into the galouti and the kakori.

 

   The kakori is subject to as many dodgy origin stories as the galouti and that old “toothless nawab” chestnut turns up here too. What is indisputable is that there is a real place called Kakori but whether this version of the kebab was invented there is a matter of some debate. People who have eaten the kakori kebab at the dargah in Kakori, which claims to have invented it have told me that the dargah’s kebab is not the smooth, melting kebab that we now call the kakori. (I have not been there myself so I will suspend judgement.)

 

  While the galouti is an everyday kebab, made at home and at street corners, the kakori is a big deal, which only the best chefs can master and is hardly ever made at home.

 

   But once again, the key to the kebab is the keema. Chefs must use a particular cut and then must add relatively large quantities of goat fat, most of it from the region around the animal’s kidneys – what the English call suet. (Doesn’t sound quite so appetising now, does it?)

 

   Why do Lucknowi chefs have such an affinity for keema? Well, because all too often they regard meat as no more than a vehicle to transport the magic of their spices and to show off their mastery of their craft. (Awadhi chefs don’t worry about how tender the meat pieces in their curries are – they take that as a given. It is the gravies they make a fuss about.)

 

   When you are only interested in showing off your secret masalas, then keema is the perfect medium. You can bend it or shape it to your will. To this day, there is a lot of bragging about the ‘secret’ potli masala that goes into a kakori. Personally, I reckon that the dish is more about technique than it is about any secret spice formula.

 

   I yield to nobody in my admiration for the food of the Awadhi court. But my liver is not as admiring or courageous. After two days of royal Awadhi animal fat, it usually resigns in protest and I have to switch to lighter food. When I went back to Lucknow last week, I was careful to only eat tiny portions to avoid terrifying my liver. (A decade or so ago, when the great Ghulam Rasool was cooking in Lucknow, his food was so good and I was so greedy that I had to take to my bed after a few days of enjoying his rich gravies and the delicately spiced goat fat he disguised as a kebab.)

 

   In the rest of India, the Lucknowi fascination with keema is rarely to be found. In fact, I know people who do not buy ready-made mince because they know that it is made from second-rate meat, supplemented with third-rate fat.

 

   I take their point. But the food of the poor is often much better than the food of the nawabs. One of my favourite Mumbai dishes is pav-keema, the naughty grandfather of the more popular but more recent pav bhaji. This used to be made at open-air carts and stalls in such areas as Mohammed Ali Road on large open tawas with cheap meat. It was the cooking that made it so delicious and customers were offered variations. The strong hearted could have liver or other nasty bits of the goat added to the tawa. Faint-hearted Gujaratis like me were content to let them scramble an egg at the end of the cooking process to create the famous Mumbai dish that is called ghotala.

 

   Ghotala is a Gujarati word that is hard to translate but it means something like confusion or problem. (In Hindi, it is usually used to describe a scam but Gujarati is a much subtler language.) And many of the keema dishes of Mumbai came from the city’s Gujarati Muslims (Bohras, Khojas, Memons, etc.) who were not as wimpy as my kind of Gujarati.

 

   They also created great dishes that are still only to be found at their homes. One specialty that is getting harder and harder to obtain commercially is the Bohra mutton samosa. Made with keema, it is distinguished by the fried crisp outside casing, which is nothing like the stodgy batter of North Indian samosas. (The original samosa, brought to India from the Middle East, was not vegetarian. It used a minced-meat filling and was baked, possibly using a thin, filo pastry-style covering. The Bohri version, though fried, comes closest to the elegant original.)

 

   Elsewhere in India when you find keema dishes, rarely are they minced as finely as the Awadhi versions. In Bhopal, for instance, the nawabs liked their keema roughly minced so that they felt a little bit of texture in their mouths. The same is true of the keema dishes of Punjabi cuisine, such as keema mattar, where a little chewing may be required. And as we know, the most famous Delhi kebab, the seekh, relies on chopped rather than ground mutton.

 

   You can argue about which kind of keema is better. Of course, the fine Lucknow keema is the haute cuisine version. But haute cuisine is for once in a while.

 

   If I have to eat keema more regularly, then it is the roughly chopped version I like. I want to be able to get my teeth into it. I don’t want something that slithers inoffensively down my throat.

 

   Give me texture. Give me taste. And I don’t really care that the meat has not been finely minced 12 times. Do you?

 

 

Posted On: 07 Sep 2019 01:00 PM
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