New Delhi’s Crowne Plaza has just had an irresistible food festival. It showcased the cuisine of Jaunpur in UP. I myself heard many guests asking the staff in the restaurant how Jaunpur was spelt. It was clear that this faded little town was not in the forefront of public memory: for one reason or another, even Rampur is warmly remembered as a centre for its distinctive cuisine.
The festival was masterminded by my old friend Chef Devraj Halder, who can be trusted to think out of the box, but the person who actually went to Jaunpur to research its cuisine was Harsh K Prasad, a food impresario who has dedicated his life to researching little-known cuisines that branched off from the Mughals as well as India’s tribal cuisine. Thus, not only Lucknow’s fabled cuisine, but also those of Rampur and Jaunpur are grist to his mill.
Lucknow may have its kaliyas and qormas and Rampur its signature taar ghosht, but Jaunpur’s trademark tastes are a pungency that comes from using a blend of aromatic spices, virtually no onions and only a whisper of curd. Prasad, a self-taught cook and a foodie who practically redefines the term, is of the opinion that these three cuisines of UP can be compared because all of them started with a royal connection, that of Jaunpur being the oldest. It was established in the year 1360 by Firoz Shah Tughluq in memory of his cousin Jauna and continued as an independent principality till Sikander Lodi annexed it to the Delhi sultanate.
Prasad managed to unearth a bunch of cooks who are still called for weddings and other celebrations in the town. For the rest of the year, they are unemployed. This means that short of a miracle that overturns their fortunes, their sons will be tempted to seek refuge in some other trade, and so, yet another lesser known cuisine of India will have been lost.
As it is, only the breads seemed to have a remarkable difference from Lucknow and Rampur. Lal roti and roghni nan were fluffy while sheermal and taftan were made with yeast, the better to mop up rich gravy. One member of Prasad’s entourage was a dedicated roti-maker; I was told that the tools of his trade were a couple of mud pots with coal in one of them: that was his home-made oven.
To be sure, the sweet flavour of Lucknow’s onion-rich cuisine was replaced by a sharper, more aromatic taste, but what took me by surprise were the similarities. When Jaunpur was established, Lucknow was just another town in UP, but neither place uses as much turmeric as the rest of the country. Neither does Rampur; nor does Varanasi’s Muslim population, nor indeed do the Muslims of Delhi. According to Prasad, you cannot compare Varanasi, which was never ruled by Muslims and his research is specific to Muslim-ruled kingdoms, to keep the Mughal thread intact.
If, one day, restaurant menus all have Jaunpuri Lal Murgh in them, we’ll have the redoubtable Prasad to thank.