Family affair

The Qureshi brothers talk to Laura Barnes about their family’s career in catering, and how they have adjusted Indian cuisine to cater to the Dubai market

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By  Laura Barnes Published  October 1, 2006

The Qureshi brothers use their own blends and sauces in order to maintain a certain level of consistency.

Brothers Mohammed Ashfaque and Mohammed Irfan Qureshi come from an illustrious line of caterers. The Qureshi family have been chefs for the past three centuries, spanning the Imperial reign to the modern state, and along the way the family has redefined, created and mastered Indian cuisine.

“We are a truly family orientated business,” says chef Ashfaque, who along with his brother, chef Irfan, act as chef consultants for Zaika restaurant at Al Murooj Rotana Hotel & Suites.

Working in the family kitchen from the age of five, chef Ashfaque never thought that he would pursue a career as a chef, even though this father, uncle, and brother had decided to carve out careers in catering.

“My parents never forced me into this career, but as I am creative by nature, if I didn’t become a chef then I’m sure I would have entered another industry that used creativity,” says chef Ashfaque.

“But I think what really made my mind up was seeing my father on the cover of Newsweek magazine. It was then that I thought ‘wow, if he can achieve this from cooking, I wonder what I could do’.”

Chef Irfan, on the other hand, began working alongside his father from the age of 18. He says this gave him the life experience and knowledge that you cannot learn from a professional course.

Both admit though, that their knowledge of cuisine comes not from working in hotels, but from their upbringing.

“Understanding the sub elements of a dish is very important. Take for example bread; the flour from Pakistan and from India are completely different, but you have to be able to know why. If a dish goes wrong, it may be that one element of the dish is not right, so you have to understand how ingredients work both independently and dependently of each other,” says chef Ashfaque.

Understanding Indian cuisine and how it is implemented in Zaika is very important for the Qureshi brothers and members of their team. Chef Ashfaque says that over the years, his family has contributed immensely to modern-day Indian cuisine, something that both brothers are clearly very proud of.

“Broadly speaking, our family’s contribution can be divided into three parts, stretching from our grandfather cooking for royalty, to what we are doing now,” comments chef Ashfaque.

Now running a global business with restaurants around the world, the Qureshi brothers say it is important to understand the origins of their cuisine, and how they have adapted it for the Middle East market in their roles as chef consultants at Zaika restaurant.

Defining Indian cuisine into two sections; North West frontier cuisine and dum pukht, the two styles are very different. However, chefs Ashfaque and Irfan have combined the two to create a varied menu in Zaika.

“Frontier cuisine mainly deals with kebabs and robust spices, so there are a lot of bold flavours and a heavy use of charcoal grills, spit grills and the tandoor,” comments chef Irfan.

“The food from this region is very nomadic, so there are no real elements of rice. Instead, the food is based around what they carried with them at the time, which would be lamb, spices, fresh yoghurts, unclarified butters, and grains that they could barter with,” he adds.

Although this style of Indian cuisine has been around for centuries, chef Ashfaque says his family members have become the masters of this food by developing the flavours and dishes. His family also helped to create the dum pukht style of cooking, he adds.

Created in the Awadh region of India, the dum pukht style of cuisine was created to feed the villagers during famines. At the time, chef Ashfaque says his family — who were the royal chefs — were asked by the king to create a dish that could be made in large batches.

“The idea behind dum cuisine was to make a single meal using fresh vegetables, meats and certain amounts of cereal in huge porridge-style dishes. This type of dish took more than 30 years to perfect, but it now comes in different styles; in the form of refined gravies, kebabs and beautiful kormas,” comments chef Ashfaque.

“This is the type of cuisine that our family is the creator and master of,” he adds.

Zaika restaurant, however, is a combination of the two, taking elements from the frontier and dum. Trying to keep the cuisine as authentic as possible, but with a modern twist, producing Indian cuisine for an international market has not been as simple as replicating what is produced in each region. Instead, the Qureshi brothers have recreated the dishes to become more commercially viable.||**|||~||~||~|“In India there are a lot of local cuisines, but they are not highly commercial. When we came to Dubai we had to create a restaurant that speaks of true ethnic taste, but with a modern presentation,” says chef Ashfaque.

“It is important for us to keep on translating and changing. It is a bit like music; you have to understand and embrace new technology in order to advance. It is a global world so you have to understand different cultures and respect them in order to be successful,” adds chef Ashfaque.

Because of this, the dum cuisine at Zaika not only hails from the Awadh region, but contains elements from Kashmir, Bengal, Hyderabad and Raipur.

The main courses however, have remained as authentic as possible, although the chilli levels have had to be toned down slightly, as has the sweetness of the desserts.

In order to evolve the menu further, Zaika also offers diners meats and fishes like duck, red snapper and salmon. Although not indigenous to India, neither are tomatoes, capsicums and potatoes, yet chef Ashfaque says they have become staple ingredients in Indian cooking.

But sourcing ingredients in Dubai has proved anything but a challenge for the Qureshi brothers. Unlike in Europe and the US — where they say products and spices can sometimes be hard to source — due to the large Indian community in Dubai and the emirates close proximity to India, raw ingredients have been readily available.

However, both brothers are keen to use their own blends and sauces in order to keep consistency across the restaurants they manage.

“We have a number of outlets in Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, India and a couple of consultancy roles in the US, so one of our biggest challenges is standardisation. If one of our items in Dubai is of ‘x’ standard, then that standard has to be the same across all our restaurants,” says chef Ashfaque.

To ensure that the same level of cuisine is served across the family’s restaurants, all the recipes are graded and standardised. In addition, staff members from each outlet are trained with regard to the cuisine, the ingredients and their history.

To maintain these standards further, for between 15-20 days each month, either chef Irfan or chef Ashfaque will be present at Zaika, with a couple of days crossover in order to hand over operations to each other. Chef Ashfaque says that even though they are brothers, first and foremost they are businessmen.

“It is very important to only have one chef in the kitchen at any one time. If Irfan is the chef, I am not, and if I am the chef then he isn’t in the kitchen,” says chef Ashfaque.

“Although we are artists we are also professionals, so we have to always remember that,” he adds.

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