Succulent shammi kebabs, tender mutton shikhampur, rich tamate ka kut and dum ka murgh, and decadent qubani ka meetha — the menu of Khassa, a catering service, is full of mouthwatering dishes. The roots of these dishes are tied to authentic Hyderabadi cuisine, and go beyond just the traditional dum biryani.
At the forefront of this culinary journey is 56-year-old Shahnoor Jehan from Hyderabad, a home chef and caterer, who is also affectionately called Noora.
“I’ve been cooking since I was a young girl,” she tells The Better India, adding, “My driving force has been the simple fact that I enjoy it so much. Eventually, I got married, and had kids. My husband and children would call people home to eat what I had cooked. My son’s friends would always tell me, ‘Aunty, you should take up cooking (professionally)’. The recipes I use were passed on from my great-grandmother and so on, and finally came to me.”
Shahnoor, who has no professional chef training and is a BA graduate, began Khassa, which is urdu for ‘cooked food’, in 2015. The daughter of an IAS officer says, “At first, I used to take small orders from family members and friends who had been enjoying my cooking for years. With the advent of the internet, and after encouragement from my children and their friends, I thought I would take my cooking forward, and started Khassa.”
Steeped in history
The recipes used in Khassa have been a part of Shahnoor’s family legacy for generations, and are over a hundred years old.
“My (maternal) grandmother’s cooking was influenced prominently by the flavours of Yemen, where she was from. I picked up her techniques and recipes,” she says.
Her cooking dates back to her childhood home, Shah Manzil, which is the present-day Raj Bhavan. This home, which belonged to her grandfather, was so called because he was affectionately known as Shah Nawaab.
“Whenever I came back home from the hostel, I would watch my mother cook and would sometimes help her out,” says Shahnoor. Her mother, Faiq Jehan, has also been a catalyst in Shahnoor’s penchant for cooking regal Hyderabadi dishes.
Her grandmother, Muzaffar Unissa Begum, was the daughter of the Sultan of erstwhile Yemen, and her grandfather Nawab Ahmed Baig, was the son of late Shahzore Jung. As a result, Shahnoor’s food has heavy and combined influences from both Yemen as well as India. “I also picked up a few techniques from my mother-in-law, Shaheda Begum,” she adds.
Bringing something different to the table
Having learnt how to make these dishes with familial influences, Shahnoor’s century-old recipes are now bringing hidden elements of Hyderabadi cuisine to critical acclaim.
“I never took up biryani in my cooking,” she says, adding, “It’s available everywhere, and I wanted to bring forward something that was different.”
Among the dishes that Shahnoor enjoys cooking the most are haleem and mutton roast. The former is a stew of meat and lentils, which are pounded into a thick paste. The dish is synonymous with Ramadan, and is the traditional hors d’oeuvres served at weddings and other social celebrations. These dishes are adored by her children as well, and Khassa receives the most orders for them.
“Dum ka murgh is also very much in demand,” Shahnoor says, adding, “But touchwood, so far, a lot of my dishes do well. The orders I get follow no pattern — sometimes I get one a day, sometimes they can be two to three also.”
Noorani seviyan, the latest dessert addition to the menu, was created by Shahnoor’s grandmother. “The dish is made of vermicelli,” she tells The Better India and adds that it uses sugar, saffron, milk and cream. It is garnished with pistachios and vark. The dish is delicate and crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside, owing to the sugar and saffron soaking in the middle layers.
She goes on to share, “I’m grateful that people like my food so much. And while I do receive a lot of orders for biryani, maybe in the future I will start serving that as well.”
‘Asal nizam cuisine’
The expanse of Hyderabadi cuisine is wide. From the confines of Shahnoor’s home, Khassa brings to light hidden treasures that many other Hyderabadi home chefs have also kept away from. These century-old recipes are a journey through asal nizam cuisine, kept alive by a few like her.
Shahnoor keeps away from reinventing them, and all the original recipes are kept intact. As a result, she remains firmly planted in her lineage. Her venture is thus deeply rooted in the City of Pearls.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)