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Seekh and you shall find
A few months ago, a comparative article on the merits of Mumbai and Delhi on the popular local site Mumbaiboss. com generated a furious debate in the comments section. Mumbai's cheerleaders were appalled that the writer, a native who has moved to Delhi, could prefer the capital. The feud lasted for days suggesting that this is one contest that's likely to bore the pants off those of us who watch from the sidelines for years to come.
Now food is one of the theatres of this war. Whatever the outcome (Bombay rules!), it must be admitted that Delhi's kababs are many leagues ahead. For many Mumbaikars, kababs mean Bade Miyan, a shop that operates out of a cabin the size of a phone booth. After 7 pm, it caters to a little colony of diners on Tulloch Road. I've practically been weaned on Bade Miyan but, at the risk of upsetting compatriots, its offerings are nothing compared to some of the stuff you get at, say, Nizamuddin. Let's take the seekh as a yardstick. The average seekh in Delhi yields easily when cut by a wedge of roti. Bade's version is tasty but stiff, requiring some wrist action to break through. It's an imposter, the culinary equivalent of a filmstar's body double. Outside the five star hotels, the only seriously good kababs were available at Sarvi's in Nagpada. This unmarked landmark has been serving superior beef seekh since the time Leftist Urdu poets thronged Nagpada's cafes in the 1950s and '60s. Now the area is infamous for being the address of the underworld's first family, Dawood Ibrahim's clan. But Sarvi's is still known for the right reasons.
Over the last year, however, Mumbai has finally got a taste of quality kabab. Kakori House was a Damascene revelation for diners who haven't eaten in Delhi or Lucknow. It's owned by Ishtiyaque Qureshi, son of Imtiaz Qureshi who is considered the big daddy of Lucknowi food. He started Dum Pukht and Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi. His kakori is a tube of meat that has been tenderised and beaten to the consistency of toothpaste. The galouti kababs are decadently scented with rose water and are so delicate they fracture easily. A plate of three pieces of kakori costs Rs 250. That might seem steep but if you tell yourself that you're actually eating Dum Pukht food, then it seems like an excellent bargain.
The kakori at Neel at Tote on the Turf is as good as, if not a little better than, Kakori House. In its new avatar - Tote previously served modern cuisine - Neel offers Awadhi, Lucknowi and Hyderabadi food. Its chef, Lucknow native Mukhtar Qureshi, also has years of experience cooking aristocratic Muslim food.
A surprise find this Ramzan was Chinese n Grill near Minara Masjid off Mohammed Ali Road, the city's temple of meat. The name is misleading. Yes, it does have some Chinese. But Chinese n Grill is famous for its nalli nihari. The nihari is an intensely meaty soup that, to use a terrible yet strangely apt journalistic clichê, warms the cockles of your heart. The gravy has small chunks of meat that willingly fall off the bone. However the nalli overshadows a lesser known offering, the seekh. It was surprisingly tender and flavourful. As was the chicken seekh, which we would never order but were forced to by our companions.
As much as we like the meltingly soft Nawabi kababs, there's another, less sophisticated kind that we're equally fond of. These are crusty, round kheema kababs that, in typical Bombay fashion, are best had between the folds of pao. Firdos at Crawford Market makes delicious ones that leave you with garlic and onion breath long after you've had them.
Another unrefined but tasty kabab can be had at a roadside vendor at Kemp's Corner. He sets up his grill in the evening outside the hulking Parsi sanatorium. The sizzling kababs smell wonderful but people often hesitate to buy them because they're suspicious of the meat. The general suspicion is that it's either stray dog or cat. (The footpath outside the sanatorium is home to a large family of cats that feed on scraps of fish courtesy the fishmongers who set up shop in the mornings. ) Whatever their provenance, the kababs are spicy, heartburn-inducing nuggets of meat that taste divine when had with crusty pao.
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