It is no doubt that food has evolved over the years, and so have the dining and serving styles across the world. For instance, Indian food has been influenced by Mongolian, Persian, and Chinese cuisine. And when we talk about serving, till 1970 all meals in most parts of India were served on the floor, including Rajasthan and Hyderabad's Chawkis, low four-sided tables.
People sat on the floor with bolsters to lean on. Now, there are dining tables and food is more fusion. But in the age of fusion menus, Dilnaz Baig, a connoisseur of authentic Hyderabad Nizami cuisine from Hyderabad has been winning hearts with her food and putting the long-forgotten dishes back on menus. The home chef was in Mumbai for a special Nizami spread at Ummrao of Courtyard by Marriott.
The restaurant invited us for testing last week and we were charmed by 76-year-old Dilnaz when we learned she had been cooking for the last two days to prepare the special menu. Carrying her royal grace with a chiffon sari and pearl set and earing to complete the look for the evening, Dilnaz, very politely sat with us for dinner.
Our five-course meal was paired with some delicious conversation about food and her love for learning new things yet serving authentic Hyderabad Nizami food. “I like to cook royal Hyderabadi food and like to spread dastarkhwan (traditional floor sitting),” says Dilnaz, who started her journey as a home chef by chance and in little over 15 years, she has become a favourite among some of the well-known families of India and abroad.
Keeping the legacy alive
Dilnaz served three-course meal at her beautiful home in Banjara Hills in Hyderabad, where she cooks Shikampur (mutton patty stuffed with onion), Diwani Handi (mixed vegetables), Dum ki Murghi (semi-dry chicken flavoured with almonds, cashew and khoya), Tamatar ka Kut (thick tomato curry usually served with eggs), Sheermal (sweet bread), Haleem (pounded wheat and mutton cooked overnight), Khubuli (chana dal biryani-type rice preparation), Bot ka Halwa (made from almonds), Khubani ka Meetha (stewed apricot pudding), and Ande ki Piyosi (baked egg, almond and khoya dessert) and is finished with a Hyderabdi paan made from a Paan-daan.
For the special spread in Ummrao, she prepared Asparagus and Walnut soup as appetiser paired with saffron bread. We loved the soup and the small portion of it got over too soon. For our starters and mains, the menu comprised Vegetable Cheese Kebab, Hyderabadi spice marinated potato and arbi cooked in clay over, Litchi Ke Kabab, Nadru ki Shammi, a lotus root patties, and Bharwan Guchhi, cheese, dry fruit, couscous stuffed mushrooms.
For main course we sampled Dal-E-Umrao, overnight cooked black lentil dal with cream, Hyderabadi Mirch Baingan ka Salan, chilli and eggplant gravy with spices, Burrani Raita, garlic flavoured yogurt, Roohani Biryani, Chole with fenugreek chapati. The slow cooked meal was delicious to our taste. The Biryani was the highlight of our meal while the dessert Shahi Tukda, two small pieces of fried bread dipped in thickened sweetened milk, saffron, and nuts was perfect for a delightful testing. She prepared a separate three-course non-vegetarian meal as well.
“This is the basic food we eat at home. I didn't want to make it exotic. Indian food is exotic, you don't have to do anything but to cook it the most authentic way and you get the best taste. I didn't want to make it heavy but easy so there's no much spices or ghee. Everything is used in moderation but I have followed the traditional slow cooking method,” explains Dilnaz as she begins her conversation with us.
Dilnaz follows her instinct when she gets requests to prepare meal for them. “I don't do it for free now. It's Rs 3,000 per person. I follow my instincts when I get calls from people, if I don't feel like serving I politely decline it. The food should be served with love and it takes a lot of time to prepare it. I do not compromise with the ingredients and quantity that I want to use for my menu,” says Dilnaz, who is fond of poetry and ghazals and is also the founder of Hyderabad's Shaam-e-Gazal chapter.
Dilnaz finds happiness in feeding people and has come a long way from barely finding her way through the kitchen. Though, the mother of three sons has never been interested in starting her own restaurant, for she says, “I don't want to start a restaurant. I know my limitations and I am happy with small things. I never asked for money from my father as I managed from whatever I got as pocket money. After marriage, I would save all the Eidi (gift money from relatives on festivals). I don't ask for money from my children as well who spoil me to the core,” says Dilnaz, who hails from one of the prosperous families of Hyderabad and has her roots in Iran.
Following her roots
Her association with food goes back to her childhood days when she would see her father preparing the menu for the entire week and the cooks in the house would religiously follow. “My father would create a ruckus if anything was missing. In my home everyone loved food. We used to have luxury food at my parents' home. After I got married, I saw my in-laws cooking for many people. We won't know how many people will be dining at dinner so it was always a huge meal in the house. When the guests would eat, they would love my food,” recalls Dilnaz, who doesn't like herself to be addressed as Chef, “I like to be called Begam (a Muslim woman of a high rank).”
It was one of the instances when she cooked for her husband's banker friends and family where one of the girls clicked pictures and published a story in a magazine. Later, she prepared dastarkhwan for some of her friends followed by some hoteliers who loved the food and the word of mouth spread. “It started from my home and through word of mouth. I never did any promotion,” she says. \
A knowledge bank
While talking about Nizami cuisine, Dilnaz says that the food has evolved over the years and so have the preparations. However, she personally maintains the style and the traditional recipes. Speaking of the Nizami cuisine, it is incomplete without the Khatti Dal, which is a household staple to date and was also part of Ummrao. Dilnaz tells us the dish was savoured by the Qutub Shahis, who were Irani. They used to eat very bland food and everything was about vegetables including Fennel leaves. When one of their princes married a princess of the Vijaynagar dynasty, she would eat Sambar and Chutneys. “That's how the sour element was introduced to the cuisine. And today, it is an integral part of Hyderabadi food,” she says.
Over the years, Dilnaz has served many prominent people from across the world. She has travelled to most of the neighbouring countries to learn more about different cuisine including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore, China, Russia, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and the US. She loves different food and likes eating Malaysian Roti Canai, Turkey, and Thai food. “I like Iranian food too. But nothing like Hyderabadi food,” Dilnaz says adding, “Indian food will never lose its charm and it is popular across the globe.”
What is that one miss conception of Indian food?
That it's very greasy. Indian food is healthy but depends on who is cooking.
One tip that you got from your mother about cooking?
Don't make it very heavy. I like cooking in pure ghee but less than needed.
One dish that's an essential part of your menu?
Mirchi ka Salan.
What is your favourite dish to eat?
Khichdi, Kheema, Chutney
Your Life Mantra
You should be happy in whatever you do.
(To receive our E-paper on WhatsApp daily, please click here. To receive it on Telegram, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)