During a party for a British officer at the Nawab of Awadh’s residence, a particular kebab became the centre of attention. The officer loved the fine mince skewered kebabs and asked to see the chef. Complimenting him, he asked for the name of the kebabs so that he’d know what to ask for. “But the bawarchi had no idea; he’d just made up the recipe. The chef came from Kakori, a small town near Lucknow, and so the kebabs were given a name,” recounts Shahnawaz Qureshi, sous chef, Saffron, JW Marriot, on how the Kakori kebab originated.
Regaling me with Awadhi tales heard from his maternal grandfather, Qureshi plays the perfect host. But instead of serving up the famed Kakori kebab, he insists I try the gilawati kebab, literally meaning melt-in-the-mouth. Rather than skewered and barbequed on charcoal like the Kakori, these round kebabs are fried on the tawa. According to the menu, the lamb is ground to a velvety smooth texture, marinated and cooked in over 18 different spices. “Oh, that’s just what we write on the menu! We use a lot more spices; way too many to count,” says the chef, refusing to reveal his secret recipe.
One of the oldest and best-known eateries to serve gilawati kebabs in Lucknow’s Aminabad bazaar is Tunday Kababi. The restaurant, which has been around for about 100 years, gets its name from its owner. “He had a slightly disfigured arm so everyone called him tunday. The name stuck,” says Qureshi. The restaurant’s reputation is such that gilawati kebabs are often referred to as Tunday kebabs.
“Aminabad is one of the most popular food streets across the world,” says Qureshi, whose first job was at a restaurant in the area about 10 years ago. “I learnt the tricks of the trade at Arabiya restaurant, right opposite Tunday Kababi.” Qureshi has fond memories of eating mewe ki kheer, harey masale ka kheema, nalli nihari, and bhuna gosht in Aminabad.
Though Arabiya was Qureshi’s first stop in a professional kitchen, he had a head start in cooking. “It is a khandaani pesha (family profession),” claims Qureshi, whose paternal grandfather and father were both butchers. “Butchers are always fine cooks as well. They know exactly which section of the animal to use for a particular dish. nalli nihari, for instance, is made best with the meat just above the trotters.”
The first time Qureshi cooked, he ended up replicating the Hyderabadi kacche gosht ki biryani. “I was barely 17 and didn’t even know the dish existed! I made it by accident and my mother recognised what I’d created. That’s when she gave me all the cooking secrets her father had passed on to her, such as using jaiphal (nutmeg) in mutton biryani, or using spices such as khas ki jadh (dried vetiver roots) or the popular Lucknowi spice pipri to add a sourness to the kebabs.”
Food was always an integral part of his life. “I had two sisters and three brothers and all of us have a passion for food. If the handi (dish) of the day didn’t turn out well, it ruined everyone’s mood,” he laughs. Despite having worked at a number of five-star properties across the country, the nalli nihari his mother made is still his favourite. “The nihari was made of either beef or mutton, which was left to cook in a stock in the clay oven all night long. We would wake up with the aroma filling our home. It always made my day,” he says nostalgically. Although he now cooks nihari in refined oil to make it lighter, he admits that the best way is to cook it in mustard oil. “Heat the mustard oil in the pan, then add a little salt and water. That helps to soften the flavour,” is his tip.
We sample the chef’s special koh-e-Awadh instead. The incredible falling-off-the-bone lamb is served in delicious gravy. “The cuisine of Awadh has no use of tomatoes. The fruit was introduced much later,” he says.
During the course of our meal, I’ve sampled some of the best of his Awadhi starters, as well as his signature dal-e-khaas. However, I have a long way to go before I have sampled all of Awadh’s delicacies. So when Qureshi claims that the cuisine uses spices such as ajwain and saunf to aid digestion, making it summer-proof, he has inadvertently encouraged me to call on him again!