Kakori has always enjoyed name recognition. It was once a prosperous hamlet known for poets, civil servants, kababs and mangoes; then a train robbery made the place worthy of an Amir Khan movie. Kakori even went interplanetary in 1976 – for some unknown reason a crater on Mars is named after it.
Of late, however, Kakori enjoys a different kind of name recognition – as the somewhat unexpected flag bearer for Lucknow’s Nawabi cuisine. I say unexpected because till fairly recently, the Kakori was a niche product – Tunde’s famous galouti or the more ubiquitous shammi kabab usually led Lucknow’s charge against the tandoori invasion. There are traditional galouti vendors everywhere - Delhi, Kolkata in addition to Lucknow - but kakori till recently had never stepped beyond the mango orchards of its namesake hamlet. However, in the last few years, I’ve notice that the not-so-humble Kakori has stolen the march. The Galouti has melted away and even hole-in-the-walls now advertise the Kakori in trying to prove their Nawabi credentials.
The Kakori kabab first made it to my consciousness at one of the first expense account meals I ever had. Chef Imtiaz Qureshi and the ITC had made Dum Pukht and the Bukhara the two most famous restaurants in India in the early nineties, so visiting Delhi with my brand new corporate Amex that was where I was headed. Bukhara, it turned out, wasn’t open for lunch so I ended up (along with a suitably impressed date) at the tables of Dum Pukht. And of course, Kakori was on the menu but so was the outstanding galouti, which in those days, (like Dharmendra to Amitabh Bachchan in Sholay), occupied a slightly higher pedestal in that multi-starrer. But that was nearly two decades ago. Kakori has since then enjoyed an inexorable climb towards the top of the kabab heap. Its a while before the king – chicken tikka – feels threatened, but all non-tandoori competitors have already fallen by the wayside.
Legend has it that Kakori was created by the eponymous Nawab after insulting references by the British Resident regarding the refinement of the familiar seekh (which, frankly, is usually chewy and in-your-face spicy). The kakori, on the other hand, is melt-in-the-mouth soft, superbly complex and quite deserving of flag-bearer status. The recipe was, for long, a closely guarded secret but eventually leaked out to the greater world. Then, the Qureshi family took it over, then ITC helped spread them all over India. Imtiaz Qureshi has since retired, and Dum Pukht is a shadow of the great food it once was, but his son Ishtiyaque Qureshi still makes earthshaking ones – and you no longer need to pay five star prices.
A few days before I moved out of Oshiwara, I noticed that the hole-in-the-wall at JVPD bus stand was advertising itself as Kakori Corner. Their kakoris looked like galoutis (round patties, not a seekh) and was not particularly exciting, but the interesting thing was - they had clearly taken a regular kabab and called it kakori because it attracted people (like me). Then, a flier in the newspaper advertised the signature kakori kababs at The Grand Nawabs, a new restaurant in Lokhandwala Market. This place did indeed have reasonably authentic kakori, and halfway decent biriyani to boot. Ten years ago, this place would have advertised its biriyani but now it too chose the kakori to hang a reputation on.
No one, however, makes as much of the brand kakori as Kakori House. Ishtiyaque Qureshi has built an empire on the kabab, even though he makes many other things very well (his sublime biriyani is the reason I first started following his progress, and his nihari or galouti were earthshaking too). The younger Qureshi has a long association with Mumbai, having run the restaurant at the Sea Rock till it got blown up, and for a while the kitchens of Sun-N-Sand and Bandra’s now-defunct Copper Chimney. Then, finally, he opened Kakori House – initially a takeaway in a tiny bylane of Bandra but now a full-fledged chain of restaurants at Mahim, Oshiwara and other cities. Meanwhile, kakori sellers sprouted all over the place – as in my earlier posts. Not all survived, but more popped up to fill the gaps.
His signage makes clear where his loyalties lie, and so the question - is Ishtiyaque’s Kakori the best there is? Frankly, there isn’t much debate. Many places in Mumbai make competent kakoris, but Kakori House is guided by cluinary genius. The kakoris there (even the frozen ones) are hyperboles of texture, mouthfeel and complex, subtle, multilayered spicing. Neither ITC nor his old haunt at the Sun-N-Sand makes anything close, leading me to think that maybe father and son keep more of the recipe close to their chests than they admit. Its genuinely one of the greatest kababs there is by an outstanding master chef; gorge on it before the pretenders take over.