Of Kebabs and Lawsuits: A Case for Authenti‘city’

By Sonakshi Srivastava

Authenticity is a reflexive term, its nature is to be deceptive about its nature.

— Carl Dahlhaus

There is an instance in Intizar Husain’s popular novel, Basti, where, while dining at the Shiraz, a restaurant in the newly created Pakistan, discussion ensues about the authenticity of the identity of the bread seller, Nuru. He boasts of being a ‘pure bred Ambala man’, an assertion that seems out of place to the people in the new land, prodding Karnaliya, a fellow diner to remark that ‘they have added Ambali to their names just for prestige. I’m the only one from Ambala! That’s why they can’t meet my eyes’. 

This discussion is particularly relevant in the novel for its layered connotations of identity, nostalgia, and nation/al boundaries in the face of the partition of the British India. And before one is quick to dismiss any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events, as purely coincidental with a click of the tongue, attention must be drawn to the Rupees 50-crore Tunday Kebab Lawsuit. The lawsuit is one glaring example that teases the boundaries of fact and fiction, and one which can be located in the familiar matrix of identity, authenticity and nostalgia as is the instance from the novel. 

Reel-y authentic glimpse of Tunday Kebabs. Credit: Sona Srivastava.

 

The bone of contention that resulted in the lawsuit was the use of the gastronomic nomenclature, ‘tunday’. In popular culinary imagination that cuts across the Indian subcontinent, tunday kebab is synonymous with Lucknow, the City of Nawabs. The story of the origin of the kebabs is almost mythic – dating back to 1905. The kebabs were the brainchild of the Bhopali rakabdar (gourmet chef), Haji Murad Ali, whose recipe of delicately minced lamb patties in 160 spices particularly appealed to the decadent palate of the then Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula. When Haji Murad Ali fell off the roof of his house, he lost an arm. Yet he continued perfecting the mixture of shahi galawat, working expertly with one hand, so much so that the shahi galawat came to be known as tunday (adapted from the Urdu tunday, ‘without an arm’) kebabs.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, was between Mohammed Usman of Tunday Kababi Pvt. Limited, the grandson of Murad Ali, and Mohammed Muslim, who ran a chain of restaurants under the name, ‘Lucknow Wale Tunday Kababi’. The judgement was declared in favour of Mohammed Usman. The judge noted that Mohammed Usman had maintained the original taste of the kebab for the past 90 years, and that he had the exclusive statutory right to use the Tunday Kababi trademark and logo, and that the use of the said trademark by any other entity without his consent or license would cause confusion as to the source or origin. Mohammed Muslim was found guilty of infringing on the trademark, and had to rename his outlets nationwide. 

Postmodern consumer culture has numbed us to the idea of the real, the authentic, with the excess proliferation of imitations. Regina Bendix notes that our quest for authenticity is particularly nostalgic, and is simultaneously modern and anti-modern.(1) It aspires to the ‘recovery of an essence’ in a time that is characteristically demythologized and disenchanted. The Tunday Kebab lawsuit serves as a prime example of this theory articulated in gastronomic anxiety, and the question of the authentic, the ‘recovery of an essence’ underpins it.

In the local memory, Lucknow and Tunday kebabs are inseparable. No mention of the city is possible without the mention of the food. It may be that the two draw authenticity from each other. Moreover, historicizing food by associating it with a particular place or a story aids in lending it a flavour of authenticity. To attempt to duplicate authenticity is nothing less than a gastronomic blasphemy, of which Mohammed Muslim was deemed guilty. 

It becomes significant to note that the judge considered historical parameters in his assessment of the case, tracing the genealogy of the kebabs before delivering the final verdict. The desire to maintain the sanctity of the kebabs, for them to remain firmly grounded in the place of their origin, and the home of their creator’s descendants, conveys an attempt to keep memories alive, at least gastronomically.

The lawsuit can be read as a nostalgic gesture for our times, where the spectre of imitations haunts us, and our only recourse is the law. Partaking of the trademarked, authentic kebabs is our restorative attempt to feed our nostalgic souls, an attempt at recovering a feeling of ‘essence’.


References

1. Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 319.