In the heyday of Lucknow, say a hundred and fifty years ago, nobles delighted in presenting their guests culinary quizzes. There would be a table-spread of dishes that appeared to resemble lamb qorma and biryani but would in actual fact turn out to be made of spun sugar. In days of yore, says Muzaffar Ali, as he leads me to the simple, yet visually stunning dining table at his farmhouse, there were three ways that aristocrats expressed themselves. Through their speech, through their garments and through their food. And though Muzaffar is a warm host, he confesses that he has never been one for lavish eating. “Rehana will give you all the answers,” he brushes away my multitude of questions on the cuisines of Lucknow and its neighbouring Kotwara. Rehana has virtually been a part of the family for some six decades, and has made the move from Kotwara because a life away from Muzaffar, Meera and teenaged Sama was unthinkable.
I was therefore, rather surprised when Meera and Muzaffar appeared to concentrate closely while I bit into a kebab. It had the appearance of a shami – Lucknow’s bequest to the world. Indeed, it had exactly the same mélange of spices as a shami. But why, then, was I being observed so closely? It turned out that the couple has a friend who is an avowed non-vegetarian, who doesn’t touch vegetables on principle. Meera and Muzaffar would have loved to accommodate his principles, only their farmhouse on the very outskirts of Delhi has no meat supplier in the neighbourhood and their guest had not given them very much notice. So they did exactly what their forbearers would have done: played a trick. The kebabs were made of boiled lauki/bottle gourd/ghia, spiced oh so cleverly with those spices that you would expect in a true blue shami.
Did I know that I was eating a vegetarian kebab? I couldn’t have cared less; in fact, on that afternoon when Delhi’s notorious summer winds pushed the temperature to well over 40 degrees, it was probably a healthier choice. The couple, however, couldn’t stop giggling in somewhat unholy glee as they remembered their guest of a few days before, who tucked into the kebabs and touched not a morsel of anything else, while declaring over and over again how much he disdained vegetarian food!
Kotwara, like other small principalities that form satellites around major star Lucknow, had more to do with the food of Lucknow with one difference. The food of Lucknow was more royal; that of Kotwara paid more homage to its roots in the countryside. Muzaffar escapes out of the dining room to find me a magazine on the great love of his life: Sufism. Rehana and Meera educate me. “Sag paeda is too homely a dish to have made its appearance in the aristocrat kitchens of Lucknow, but look at it on its own terms: it is cooked for over thirty hours and contains mash ki dal and bathua. The latter is a leafy green found all over North India. You certainly cannot make it if you don’t have plenty of domestic help, a lot of open space (it is traditionally cooked over a coal fire) and though it is not a grand dish, it is not inexpensive to prepare, though my hosts are far too polite to tell me that.
The other rustic preparation that Kotwara is known for is rasavar – freshly cut sugar cane has its juice extracted (easier when you are a land-owner than when you need to buy a few hundred grams from the market, though, again, my hosts would never bring up a topic as crass as wealth) and boiled with rice. In time, the pudding becomes glutinous and everyone in the tightly-knit community of Kotwara has a party.
Though the Alis have built themselves a farmhouse in a quiet corner near the Delhi-Gurgaon border, I cannot help noticing on the drive there, that every wall of the neighbouring farmhouses are no lower than ten feet high. It must be the diametric opposite of their beloved Kotwara, but the couple takes off to a variety of destinations. Their summer house in Naini Tal is to escape the blistering heat of the plains; Kotwara is for a break to recharge their batteries.
So, with the couple’s only child, daughter Sama in New York studying design, do they see Lucknow’s fabled cuisine traveling far into the future? The troubled look in Muzaffar’s eyes says it all, though it is Meera who answers me with a touch of sadness. “Truthfully, it is difficult. Take away the context, and who is going to slave away in the kitchen for upwards of thirty hours. And what are you competing with? A Pizza Hut take-away? There’s no competition, even though everyone knows the nutritional value of fast food versus the sheer taste of Lucknow’s fabled cuisine.
The other more real concern is that by definition, Lucknow’s aristocrats and those of its satellite Kasbahs are not hard-headed businessmen. Muzaffar shakes his wonderingly at the other North Indian community of aristocrats – the Rajasthani kings and princes. It is clear that he wants to know how they took to tourism and put their heritage on track for the delectation of visitors from all over the world. Nobody in the largely Shia community of Lucknow and its surroundings have gone into the food and beverage business. Instead, what passes today for Lucknavi food is more or less the preserve of the butcher community: the Qureshis, who have many sterling qualities, but having developed a palate for centuries is simply not one of them. Says Muzaffar with a twinkle, “But look at Begum Kulsum.” He is referring to the wife of fellow aristocrat from Mahmoodabad, also near Lucknow. Kulsum may not be from Lucknow, but by virtue of having seen the life and being able to replicate impossibly tedious dishes, she is the pride and joy of the community.
There are pockets of excellence to be sure. Meera tells me that the entire stretch called Bawarchi Tola in Lucknow’s old city is filled to bursting with freelance cooks who offer their services at weddings and other functions. For the rest of the year, they are snapped up by wily businessmen who are into the catering business for high profile parties in other parts of the country. Bawarchi Tola consists of those who once cooked for kings and princes in Lucknow of a bygone age.
Muzaffar will not be put off from talking about Sufism in general and Rumi in particular. He has a theory that is stunning in its simplicity. Rumi the poet transcended time and space and could so easily be made the patron saint of a city in India, say Lucknow or Delhi. To reduce his presence to a flesh and blood person who lived near Anatolia is to miss the point. “Rumi belongs to all of us,” says Muzaffar, his voice husky with emotion.
I cross the garden one last time. The dogs – a bewildering jumble of collies, Alsations, Rampur hounds and Irish setters – are panting in the noonday heat. Even the more or less antique collection of cars that has obviously been driven by generations look as if they would be happier on their way to the summer homestead of Naini Tal. The Alis retire into the dark coolness of the little piece of Kotwara that they have carefully nurtured over the years while I steer myself for a 35 kilometer drive back in punishing temperatures. ends