We had dared to intrude upon Zubair Ahmad at his world famous outlet a little late in the evening. He was regaling clients and random visitors with an anecdote. A buzz of conversation floated among the oblivious clientale enjoying their meal. All of a sudden, he lost his temper and petulantly exclaimed—“Hey, listen up you guys!” A hush fell. “Firaq saheb (Raghupati Sahai ‘Firaq’, the poet) was reciting at a poets’ conference in the University. Some boys heckled him, saying that he should use Hindi! (the vernacular, as opposed to the courtly Urdu that Firaq wrote in). Firaq said, ‘you want poetry in Hindi?’ They were abashed. Firaq went on—‘…a cup is called a crock in Hindi. Will you have your wine in a crock or a crystal flute?” Zubair and his friends laughed at the anecdote, and went on to lose themselves in exegesis of Firaq’s oeuvre. It took some formal hints to bring the conversation back to the food outlet. “There was a time when connoisseurs from near and far would deign to visit us during the dramatic sunsets of Avadh. Nowadays, people can’t distinguish between a qorma and a stew—both are curry for them. About 60-65 years ago, a Maulana who was an Iranian used to be a regular here. A qorma was served to him one time, and he was offended: ‘you served me the meat of a miserable goat!’ My late father was nonplussed, but he told him a story in reply about a Bengali gourmet. “A Bengali babu was buying mince at the shop I once went to.”, he said. The babu told the butcher—‘don’t give me sheep mutton.’ I thought to myself, this person is buying mincemeat. Does he have the wherewithal to distinguish between mutton and goat-meat in mince? Anyway, the gentleman went off with his mincemeat, but returned pretty soon in high dudgeon. Controlling himself with effort, he said very politely—‘I had told you not to give me sheep’—and with the pernickety attitude that Bengalis are known for—‘there is (a specific proportion) of sheep mutton in this mincemeat!’ This is what connoisseurs used to be!…Today, whatever you feed them is god’s blessing.” Zubair guffaws.
“Our food and Allah’s bounty remain just as they were earlier. Its just that there are fewer gourmets these days. (We) buy good meat; it is a bit expensive, but we insist! Saffron and nuts were available earlier, as they are today; we insist that these things must be bought! When I was a student, we were transiting to English as the medium of instruction. We undergraduates couldn’t speak English properly—today’s kids speak such zipping English! Once my niece told me, ‘here, In London, we get all kinds of food—Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian. What we don’t get is Lucknow food—nihari-kulcha and kabab-paratha.’ Our food is no less than Italian or Chinese food, but we have no international presence. There is nobody to encourage us to try.”