One of the stories you’ll read in every account of Lucknow of yore, is the one where its best known nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula, ordered the construction of the city’s most prominent edifice – the Bara Imambara. There was a famine in 1784 and the people of Lucknow faced the danger of starvation. The tens of thousands who worked on building the Imambara were paid in kind. However, there was one problem. Cooking for so many was a logistical problem, so huge urns were filled with rice, meat and stock and were left to simmer for hours over charcoal. The lids of the urns were sealed with dough so that no steam escaped. When they were opened, the vessels contained perfectly cooked, fragrant biryani – and thus was born the cooking tradition of dum pukht.
“The story is as multi layered as the city itself”, says Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, direct descendant of Asaf-ud-Daula, and the other nawabs who ruled the kingdom of Avadh till the Mutiny of 1857. “The nawab got his monument, the workers their food and a new style of cooking was developed.”
That, however, is not Abdullah’s favourite story about the glories of Avadhi cooking. The one he’s most fond of relating is about the cook who sought employment with nawab Asaf ud Daula. His speciality was cooking dal and he demanded the astronomical salary of Rs 500 per month. The nawab agreed to employ him at the salary he demanded, which just goes to show that dal was not infra-dig in the Avadhi court, but the cook hadn’t quite finished laying down his demands. “When I call you to the table, you must set aside all your other work and be ready to eat.” Anywhere else in the world, except maybe France, the cook would have been sent off with a flea in his ear. However, the nawab agreed to this condition too.
However, the story ends with Asaf ud Daula being engaged elsewhere when the cook called him to eat, so the cook, in a fit of frustration, threw the contents of the pot out of the window. “That’s my favourite story,” beams Nawab Abdullah, “because it embodies the status of cooks in the royal household.
The story of the glories of Lucknowi culture – at whose heart lies cuisine – begins post Mughal period, when Nawab Sadat Khan Burhan ul Mulk came to India from Persia and was appointed the subedar of Avadh by the Delhi Government. Before long, the dynasty he founded attracted the bold and the beautiful, not to mention the talented. Fabulous tales were told of speciality cooks dishing out banquets of seventy types of pulaos or cooking only parathas that were so light and flaky that you could read your letters through them.
“To the rest of the world, Lucknowi food is all about qormas and kebabs; to us, however, it is just as much about rotis and preserves,” says Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, who delights in quizzing old-timers in the city about how much they know. “I asked Rahim (a popular kulcha maker in “food street” Akbari Gate whether he had heard of <I>luchai ke parathe<I>. He had never even heard the name,” concludes the nawab triumphantly. Like many other components of Lucknowi cuisine, these need a high degree of expertise rather than mere rich ingredients to make them. Luchai ke parathe are flaky layered breads that you can literally eat one layer at a time. Pineapple parathe did not require expertise so much as time: you had to squeeze the juice of a pineapple into the flour and season it with salt for a sweet-sour appeal.
There’s a flurry of activity in Sheesh Mahal, the residence of Abdullah’s family, complete with the royal emblem of a pair of fish over the front door. A troupe of cousins and aunts are leaving for Hyderabad, where a wedding is slated to take place, and the kitchen is the scene of frenzied activity. Dozens of <I>roghinis<I> are being prepared – crisp shortbread-like parathas. Because of the amount of ghee used while the dough is being kneaded, roghinis can keep for upto a month, and are thus perfect for the long train journey. The nawab’s wife is well-known for her navrattan pickle, so she’s bottling vast quantities for all the relatives in Hyderabad. And Bua, the family retainer is making sure that the karela preserved in oil doesn’t leak out of the jars, because there’ll be nothing to eat the roghini with on the journey.
The marriage that was about to take place between a groom from Lucknow and a bride from Hyderabad is not uncommon at all: in fact, it’s the norm. Both places had a highly developed culture that revolved around the royals and the aristocracy, both are largely meat-based cuisines that have little or nothing to do with the food of the surrounding region. Thus, Telengana food is nothing remotely like the cuisine of royal Hyderabad of yore, while Lucknowi food is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the food of the rest of Uttar Pradesh. You’d think that both cuisines, which require hours of painstaking preparation, would be similar, but you’d be way off the mark.
“We keep having arguments about each other’s cuisine,” confesses Rajkumar Amir Naqi Khan of Mahmudabad, whose wife, Begum Kulsum, is from Hyderabad. Khan’s own mother too is from Hyderabad, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a purist in matters of cuisine. “Too many souring agents are used in Hyderabad cuisine,” says Rajkumar Sahib pursing his lips in distaste. “But everything tastes the same in his Lucknowi cuisine,” says wife Kulsum with equal distaste.
If Khan represents the old brigade of aristocrats in Lucknow – his grandfather, the Maharaja of Mahmudabad was also the Prime Minister of Lucknow – and he confesses to have been brought up acutely conscious of his blue blood, Begum Kulsum represents the heights to which royals can rise in modern India. A passionate hobby cook since early childhood, when she wangled secret family recipes from her grandmother, Begum Kulsum now is a consultant with the ITC Welcomgroup for Hyderabadi food.
Lucknowi cuisine was too perfect, too painstaking and too rich to be able to continue in the modern world. Even supposing there were still a couple of rakabdars (cooks in the royal kitchens who cooked in small quantities as opposed to the bawarchis who were responsible for feeding large gatherings) capable of making dry fruit khichdi, where almonds were cut in the shape of rice and pistachios in the shape of lentils, who would be able to pay for it? What is more to the point, who would be able to consume it in these days of cholesterol consciousness? Which cook would be willing to spend hours colouring rice so that half of each grain was the colour of pomegranates, and the other half white? Or who, among today’s gourmets, would sanction the use of thirty seers of ghee for making parathas? Or the use of thirty four seers of meat for making enough stock for one seer of rice for biryani?
Here and there, in the narrow bylanes of the old city of Lucknow, there are the descendants of rakabdars of yore who still cook wedding feasts. Each has their speciality, but in the absence of customers with limitless budgets, they must cook a banquet from start to finish. In the old days, of course, each would proffer only his own speciality, but that was in an era where even daily meals in an aristocratic household came from six different sources, including a dish or two from the begum’s private kitchen, sometimes cooked by the begum herself.
In a couple of decades from now, rakabdars and their art could well go the way of the nawabs themselves: living ghosts from the past, immortalized in the pages of history books. Ends
By far the best thing about the cuisine is how it permeated down to the common man. Because it ensures that even street food in Lucknow is of a remarkably high standard. You can eat for as little as a tenner, though that’s presuming you’re upto eating beef and aren’t finicky about your surroundings.
By far and away the best place for biryani (only mutton, no beef) is at Mohd. Idris, opposite Patanala Police Chowki, Firangi Mahal Pul. No telephone number, no sign board, no pucca structure – just a mud hut covered by a tarpaulin. He does a roaring take-away for all of Rs 20 a plate for the most delicately flavoured biryani you’re likely to taste this side of paradise. (take aways, qorma and beef nihari too, but not in the same league as the biryani). If you have time for just one street-side meal, let it be this one.
Tunde’s kebabs exist at Akbari Gate in none-too-clean surroundings. Definitely not for the faint of heart, they serve beef only here, but mutton kebabs (in addition to beef nihari and qorma) at Aminabad in a modest but spotless place run by the grandson of Tunde Mian – Mohd. Usman. Rs 16 will get you a plate of galauti kebabs, but at the price he’s forced to sell, he has to make compromises on the spices, and he does. Plenty of them!
Mubin Qorma on a main road near Akbari Gate has no name board (none of the really famous places in Lucknow do) and I found the chicken qorma lacking depth of flavour. A well-made qorma has a medley of spices roasted separately and ground together. This one didn’t. Rs 35 for a plate.
Next door Rahim is a nanfu – rotis only. Sheermal is soft, greasy and slightly sweet, kulcha is soft and flaky and as good with tea as it is with nihari. Rahim is reputed to be the best in a city where you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad roti maker.
If you’re out for a gastronomic adventure, your best catchment areas would be Chowk from Akbari Gate to Gol Darwaza and the much more modern eateries around Tulsi Theatre. At Chowk, every second shop sells something to eat. In the monsoon, sweet shops display nothing but andarse goli; the next month it would be something else entirely. Gulatti is a rich rice pudding, balai is the Lucknowi word for malai (cream) that has been helped along by heating.
Just outside Chowk, at the chaotic Gol Darwaza, look out for Raja Thandai who has been selling nothing but that drink for eighty years and Prem Sweets for the freshest, whisper light, not overly sweet rabri. It’s an art form and the best mithai you’re likely to find in the city. Prakash Kulfi at Aminabad Crossroads is overrated, but he’s famous nevertheless.
Food depends just as much on the paying capacity of the customer as on the expertise of the cook. Tunde who does a good job outside Lucknow at high profile food festivals, serves a pale imitation of the real thing in both his outlets because his customers can’t afford the full monty. You’re unlike to face that problem in Taj Residency, Lucknow, where the galauti kebabs are the finest you’ll get anywhere, and even the kakori kebabs are way above average. Their nihari too is thick with the marrow of mutton bones, so if grime and crowds don’t appeal, you know where to head.