It’s a long post. So let the manager in me summarize
Lucknow and its culinary legacy
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.
But Lucknow owes much of its …er… kebabi reputation to the Mutiny. Were it not for that and the subsequent dethroning of the Nawab, rendering his royal khansamas unemployed, these kababs would have never reached the aam admi. Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a descendant of the wazirs of Oudh(Awadh) recalls “After the abdication of the Nawab, the chefs were patronised by the second line of the taluqdars, the rajware and the nawabeen. Post 1952 however, (that is, after the abolition of the zamindari system) these cooks had no sources of income left. Some of them then ended up opening shops or catering for weddings.”
The immense popularity of these kababs led to further refinements and improvements and one bawarchi from Kakori found much acclaim for his efforts in this direction. Kakori is a small hamlet on the outskirts of Lucknow, in the Lucknow-Malihabad mango belt. During the freedom struggle, it become well-known for the famous `Kakori Case’ when a band of freedom fighters looted the train carrying the British Treasury money at this obscure place. In the same period of British rule, it was also customary in this region for the rich Rajas and Nawabs to entertain senior British officers and ply them with the best hospitality they could offer. And if it was the mango season, a `mango dinner’ was very much in order (dinner in a mango orchard, was followed by a variety of chilled mangoes served in great style). At one such party in Kakori, stung by the remark of a British officer regarding the coarse texture of Seekh Kabab, the host, the late Nawab Syed Mohammad Haider Kazmi summoned his rakabdars, hakims and attars the very next day and asked them to evolve a more refined variety of the Seekh Kabab. Ten days of incessant research and design efforts resulted in the now famous `Kakori Kababs’ which were as far as perfection could go. The mince for the kabab was to be obtained from no other part but the `Raan ki Machhli’ (tendon of the leg of mutton) and rawaz or animal fat was replaced by khoya, black pepper by white pepper and a brand new mix of powdered spices which still remains a closely guarded secret added to the perfect blend. And of course, the Nawab invited the same officer again and presented the new version of the Seekh Kabab and needless to say it met with great applause. Since then the Seekh Kababs of Kakori became famous by word of mouth and even today, though cooked elsewhere, are known as `Kakori Kababs’.
Tunday Kababi – Aminabad
Established over a century ago, Tunday Kababi is probably the best known kabab-maker in the country, specializing in the famous Shahi Gilawat ka Kabab (roughly translating to “Royal Melt-in-the-Mouth Kabab”), which was reportedly created to make it possible for an aging Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to continue to eat meat after he had lost his teeth. The meat is tenderized with raw papaya, imbued with over 100 aromatic and digestive spices for atleast 14 hours, ground over 30 times to a fine pâtée-like consistency, made into patties, and then pan-fried.
A man named Haji Murad Ali founded Tunday Kababi in 1905. “Tunda” is half-pejorative, half-affectionate Urdu slang that’s used to refer to a one-armed man; because Murad Ali’s left arm had been amputated after he fell from a rooftop while flying a kite, he was known as “Tunday Miyan”, or “One-Armed Gentleman” (some say that the galouti was born as a result of his inability to form kababs on a skewer – he would simply use his one hand drop the minced meat onto the griddle instead). These kababs, best had with parathas are now available all over the city but you have to pay homage to the creator by having one here. In my personal opinion, the galouti kababs at Sakhawat (described later) are probably more enjoyable.
Rahim ke Nahari Kulche – Akbari Gate
In the culinary world, a special high pedestal is reserved for a pastry chef for the magic he can weave with subtle flavors and astonishing textures with just flour, butter and egg and few condiments. This wizardry exists in its nawabi form in Lucknow as the popular breakfast meal of Nahari Kulche. The best place to sample Nahari Kulche is Rahim’s shop inside Akbari gate. The shop was established by Haji Abdul Raheem in 1893 and has produced some of the best Nahari dishes for the past five generations. His gilafi kulche and nahari khaas are worth dying for.
Haji Zubair presently in charge of the family business gets the masala powder prepared in bulk under personal supervision, using the family secret of generations, in which he claims, are incorporated 23 herbs and spices. Nahari is a meat preparation with thick spicy gravy. In ‘Paye ki Nahari’, leg and other bones are cooked and bone marrow is mixed with a mouth watering gravy. The kulchas, unlike anything you are likely to have encountered before have all the hearty khameeri flavors of a naan, and the delicate layers of a puff pastry.
What’s with Lucknow and biryani
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 result so thrilled the Nawab that he ordered the royal kitchen to perfect it. The test of a good Awadhi biryani is the aroma of basmati and spices. The choicest cuts include the agli dast or chaap (front shoulder or chops) and the neck.
“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 his favourite story about the glories of Avadhi cooking. The one he is 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 an inferior 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, perhaps punished for his impudence. 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.”
Sakhawat – Kaiserbagh
Now lets get to the best places to eat biryani, here and now. Sakhawat is a Lucknow institution. Opened in 1911, the original restaurant is run from a garage behind the Gymkhana club in Hazratganj. There is a branch in posh Gomti Nagar too. The biryani, although (or perhaps because) cooked in the Kashmiri rather than Awadhi style, is so popular that the supply runs out by 8pm. Sakhawat’s menu changes everyday. It takes him two days to prepare a Biryani. “Aajkal, Biryani ko khichdi bana diya hai.” Lesser the masala, the tastier the food, he said, softly lamenting over the short cuts that people make biryani with.
Nazim Ali, the great grandfather of the present owner, Mushtaq Ali, was the chef of a Brigadier in the British Army. He was also a cook of several ‘Nawabs’. His legacy was handed down through the generation and, in the year 1911, his son, Wahid Ali began operating a ‘Dhaba’ near a ‘mazaar’ in front of Avadh Gymkhana Club, Kaiserbagh. In the year 1936 he obtained the rights to operate the canteen of Avadh Gymkhana Club which he continued to run for 36 years. On June 9, 1960 Wahid Ali passed away. At about the same time differences developed between the club’s management and his son Haji Sakhawat Ali which led him to terminate his relationship with the club and establish a restaurant named ‘Sakhawat restaurant’ outside the club’s premises. He operated this for three months. At that time King Ajit Pratap Singh of the estate of Pratapgarh intervened and helped him obtain from the British India Association access to a shop near the Kaiserbagh Baradari where Sakhawat Restaurant was established. There it continues to function to this day being managed presently by Mushtaq Ali and Mukhtar Ali, the son and grandson respectively of Haji Sakhawat Ali.
While every kabab place in the city carries the signature galouti kababs of Lucknow, at Sakhawat these kebabs are a lot more delicately spiced and as a result stand out head and shoulders above the rest. He is also famous for his gamey ‘Bater’ dishes and Chicken/Bater Khada masala (which I never had the good fortune to try- as his menu for the day depends on availability of ingredients and ‘Bhaiyaji ka mood’).
Nondescript but with their own fierce followings are the likes of Wahid’s biryani/Bismillah eating house, Idris Biryani Corner; and Lalla ki Biryani, owned by a Hindu, in Chaupatiyan in the Kashmiri Mohalla.
Bismillah Eating House – Aminabad
Wahid’s journey began 50 years ago, when a young lad started selling biryani at the famous bird market at Nakkhas on Sundays and at Shahmina Shah dargah on Thursdays. “I had learnt the art of making the biryani from my maternal uncle, Abdul Majid pehalwan, who was the head cook at the palace of Raja Sahab of Tilhar. And since I did not have a kiosk or a shop, I used to carry the deg on my head,” recalls 70-year-old Wahid. After years of hard work, he managed to buy a small shop of around five feet by seven feet at Aminabad, which he aptly called ‘Bismillah.’ Today, he has two outlets at Aminabad which cater to a large number of people from across the city. Unusual in this day and age, but his biryani is still made of desi or free range chicken and that itself lends a flavorful twist and curiously no matter how many times I visited it or how many plates of biryani got ordered, they always came with one peice of chicken leg and one peice of chicken thigh : the most moist and juicy bits of the chicken that are perfect compliments to the delicately aromatic basmati rice of the biryani.
Idris Biryani – Patanala
Contentiously proclaimed as the best place for biryani in Lucknow is 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 the most delicately flavoured biryani you’re likely to taste this side of paradise. He also serves qorma with the biryani if requested. Which gets me to another lore about the famous khansamas of Lucknow. A famous rakabdar was offered employment by the nawab. The chef less, inclined to the offer, quoted an astronomical salary to discourage the nawab. But to the rakabdars surprise the Nawab agreed. The nawab, as was customary, invited a few guests to showcase the new prowess of his kitchens. The rakabdar prepared his best dishes. When the feast began, the guest helped himself to some biryani and poured some qorma over it. This enraged the rakabdar and he quit his position immediately. Moral of the story – It is ok to have qorma with your biryani, it can enhance the taste and experience. But never douse your biryani with qorma before you have tasted its delicate flavors - a bigger insult to the chef doesn’t exist.
Lalla Biryani – Chaupatiyan
Unquestionably, the best Biryani in town can be found at Lalla Biryani, Chaupatiyan Chauraha, a shop that has existed for some years now. Only two items are made here, shami kababs and mutton biryani. Lalla is the only Hindu biryani maker(amongst the famous ones anyways) in the city and his kababs and biryani have a taste that you will not get anywhere in the city. The moist and delicately flavored biryani, very similar in texture and appearance to Idris, differs from Idris in that it has a bit of a stronger kick and bigger flavor. If there is one place that will always be on the itinerary, no matter how many trips I make to Lucknow, it has to be this one. He is open only after 4:00 pm and his popularity ensures that he stocks out by 8:00 pm. So that there is your window. If you are in Lucknow in the evening and there is just one meal you could squeeze in – THIS IS IT.
Lastly, there are tons of Lucknowi delicacies that went abegging, for the lack of time and appetite : like Shuklaji’s chaat, Kale gajar ka Halwa, Khasta Kachaudi at Hazratganj, Lab-e-Mashook , Raja’s Thandai Lassi in Chowk. But I had just enough time and desire to go hunting for one sweet dish to end it all. Rabadi – and not just any Rabadi – Tatpatti ki Rabadi in Yahiyaganj …. I looked here and I looked there … I asked him and I asked her … but couldn’t find it… and it was raining. One helpful samaritan offered an alternative – Prem Misthan Bhandar, which by his assesment was the proverbial “rising sun” in the rabadi market in Lucknow. We were not dissapointed. Sure it was rich and thick and heavy. But that’s the way it should have been. To illustrate the point, another story comes to mind. It was an unwritten law that the Nawabs would sanction whatever quantity of ingredients the cook demanded. No questions were asked nor doubts raised. Once Agha Meer, the minister of Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din instructed the rakabdar to reduce the quantity of ghee used in preparing parathas. The nawab was no fool. When he got wind of this he slapped his vizier and said -
“Even if the cook pilfered some ghee, so what? The parathas he made were excellent. You on the other hand, didn’t think twice before robbing your master of this pleasure”
As promised, heres the google map to help you unearth these treasures.
View Lucknows culinary treasures in a larger map