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Kababs off skewers, biryani off degh...

You would never have seen a billboard announcing Babu Khan's food festival. But any time is festive time if the food is prepared by Babu Khan, who runs a quiet but flourishing catering business near Pragati Maidan. MADHUR TANKHA speaks to the grand old chef...


Babu Khan... maintaining age-old tradition. Photo: S.Subramanium.

BABU KHAN, better known as Babu Shahi Bawarchi, has seen nearly a century of the sub-continent's struggle for freedom and tryst with democracy. He continues on the footsteps of his ancestors -- stirring dishes in cauldrons to feed hungry bellies. Not that he doesn't charge anything but what is extraordinary is that he charges a nominal sum and spares no effort to see that requisite amount of mutton is used. He charges Rs. 200 for a mutton biryani, in which one k.g. mutton and commensurate rice is used. Sounds amusing but true!

Says Babu Shahi, who operates his food business from Dargah Matka Peer at Bhairon Marg-Mathur Road intersection, "Ultimately I am answerable to the Almighty. I distribute money to madarsas and masjids. Very little I keep with myself. I deposit my money in Allah's bank. I don't want to earn ill gotten wealth for which I will be hauled over the coals by God." To prove he is a philanthropist he shows a receipt of Rs. 200 he has given to Jamia Arabia Shamsul Uloom at Shahdara.

He says, "For one kilo of biryani we use 250 grams ghee, 15 grams chilli, 20 grams dhaniya, 10 grams garlic and 10 grams ginger. One k.g. mutton costs me Rs. 100. I make a profit of only Rs. 40. Besides this I use rice and masala also. In shami kababs I give 40 pieces at Rs. 125, one kilo Seek Kababs are sold for Rs. 125 and Chicken or Mutton Korma are served at Rs. 150 a kilo. However, Mutton Korma and Mutton Biryani are the most sought after."

One might wonder about his nomenclature. Well, his ancestors served as chief cook under the Moghul Emperor, Shah Jahan. Sultan Shamshuddin Altamat Bilaudi, who Babu Shahi claims completed the imposing Qutub Minar, was so impressed that he gifted his ancestor Aulia Masjid on the Mehrauli Road. However, his family is no longer the custodian of that mosque as the Waqf board is looking after it.

Ensconced on a charpoy, with flowing white beard, Babu Shahi, says, "Earlier I used to serve food for parties as big as 5000 guests. I used to call my relatives also, who are also cooks. But now, I don't have the strength to make food for so many people. However, I leave no stone unturned to see that my dishes whether it is Shabdaag, made out of mincemeat taste the same as they did during the Moghul era. Unique thing about it is that it is stirred throughout the night during winters. Then there is Tarkaliya, made of chicken or mutton. Four boys, who worked under me, are preparing this dish at Maurya."

Babu Shahi claims that herbal beauty queen, Shahnaz Husain, former police commissioner, Ved Marwah, General Manekshaw and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi have given catering orders to him.

He has vivid memories of the good old pre-partition days, when both Hindus and Muslims were united, to fight the mighty Old Blighty. He bemoans that communal conflagration between the two communities in violence-ridden State of Gujarat has vitiated the atmosphere. He says, "As a young boy I naturally followed my ancestral profession, which was cooking meals for the ruler of India. Those days Delhi was called Shahjahanabad. During the time of British we witnessed great trauma and life got stifled. I was a neighbour of Pandit Nehru's uncle, who used to put up at Chitli Qabar, near Jama Masjid. I used to go to his house and he served me not only the finest quality of milk but also instilled in me a feeling of patriotism to take up the gauntlet against the colonial power. Englishmen used to whiz past us in jeeps. Many of my colleagues were shot dead by the British when they went to burn down Peeli Kothi, near Novelty cinema. All administrative records were reduced to ashes. I was one of the participants."

He takes a break from our conversation and instructs the autorickshaw driver about the location of India International Centre. Along with two young lieutenants, he has cooked 10 kg. mutton for a function at IIC.

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