Tunda’s Magic Taste
He introduced Lucknowis not just to kababs, but to a whole culture
BY :SUNIL MEHRA ON HAJI RAEES AHMED KHAN (OUTLOOK INDIA)
IN Lucknow, what do Rahman the Butcher at Chowk and Jimmy the Raja of Jahangirabad have in common? What does Raffo Apa, 53, of La Place in Lucknow have in common with Times FM deejay Roshan Abbas of Lalbagh? What indeed is the shared passion of the Shias and the Saxenas, the Rastogis and the Rahmans, the Usmans and the Umajis of the cuisine capital of the country? Tundey Ke Kabab!
No mean feat that. One that current proprietor of the grubby Tundey Ke Kabab shop at Chowk, the patriarchal Haji Raees Ahmed’s father, the late Haji Murad Ali Saheb alias Tundey Miyan accomplished a half century ago. Why ‘Tundey’? Murad Sahib, a legendary Luck-now kababchi (Lucknowspeak for kabab maker) fell off the roof while flying kites and fractured and lost an arm. Became a tunda (physically handicapped person). Albeit, one who turned his adversity into an advantage. Tundey and his kababs soon became the very stuff of Lucknow’s culinary folklore.
Recounting that tale, boasting about a bloodline that he claims connects him to the fabled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s 19th century kitchen, Raees, 63, puffs with justifiable pride. His origins like his winning recipes remain shrouded in mystery. But it’s not so much for his pedigree as for his product that the man is revered today. A product whose ingredients he guards fiercely and refuses to pass on to anyone other than family. “So what masalas do you use Haji Sahib?” “Nothing but the best,” is his cryptic reply. “Best of which, Haji Sahib?” you persist. “Of everything,” he says scowling before putting paid to any efforts to elicit masala on his masalas. “Apni betiyon ko nahin batate hain to aapko kaise bataa dein hum?”; (I don’t reveal recipes to my daughters, how can I reveal it to you?) Makes sense: daughters, like us journalists, may spill the beans to “outsiders”. Out goes the recipe, kaput goes the family business.
A business that’s booming. Lucknow wagers are about how many tundeys you can eat at one go. Come evening and begums and bandits, darzees and diplomats, mazdoors and memsahibs alike queue up in front of the tiny Chowk shop and lately also at the Nazeerabad branch to eat four, six, twelve or even more tundeys. All priced at a ridiculously low Rs 4 for a plate of four. So cheap? “Badey ka gosht hota hai na (its beef meat, you see),”; Raees explains delicately.
That notwithstanding, people eat it like beef’s going out of style. “It’s fresh, it’s fragrant, it’s delicious, it’s cheap. Poor man’s redemption, rich man’s passion. The most democratic food we know in Lucknow! Where else can one eat a galvat ka kabab and a paran-tha for Rs 4?” asks renowned gourmet, Begum Raffia Hussain, 53, of Chowk. “My earliest memory is of going to Tundey and gorging on kababs with my Dad. Old General Umrao Singh of Rajast-han, an old family friend, would get off the train, first visit Tundey, next he’d come visiting us.” Faisal Khan, self-employed businessman, fourth-generation Luckn-owi explains how to best savour the Tunda Taste: “Eat them fresh. They are tender because of the papaya he puts in the meat, delicious because he’s a master blender of masalas. They’re fragrant because of the kewra, rich because of the tallow he uses.” The kabab masala is a family secret incorporating 160 ingredients and costs over Rs 2,000 per kilo to make. Says an oldtimer: “Freshness is the essence. ”
Also change as Tunda’s descendants have realised. A new branch at Nazeerabad has twin floors, sit-down tables and a menu variation. “We serve chicken tikkas and mutton biryani too.Kya karein, waqt ke saath chalna padta hai (have to move with the times),” sighs Raees. His sons have already learnt to do that. The elder one, Usman is a chef at the Delhi Oberoi, the younger son Rizwan helps run the two Lucknow outlets. Raees recently had his moment in the arclights when Jiggs Kalra and Hotel Oberoi persuaded him to come to Delhi to teach a trick or two to their chefs before their Avadh Festival held recently. More plans in the offing: Tunda Kabab Corners at Bombay’s Juhu and Delhi’s West End that Raees plans to open in partnership with Kalra. “He’ll be our very own McDonald’s,” grins Kalra.
In time Tunda will become a food fashion. To everyone else. Not to the Luck-nowi though. “It’s tough for outsiders to understand,” says Faisal. “To you Tun-dey is just kabab. To us he is culture!”