From the kitchens of Awadh

A valued tradition: The eateries of Lucknow are a sensual treat.

A valued tradition: The eateries of Lucknow are a sensual treat.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Mita Kapur


In Lucknow, cooking is not just about eating. It is an act of reverence.

What would Mushtaq Ali from Sakhawat’s, Lucknow, say if he saw Robert Rodriguez on You Tube in his “Ten Minute Cooking School”, telling people about the slow roasted meat he craves for? “If you’ve got to eat for the rest of your life, you’ve got to know how…” says Robert, director of “Sin City”, as he deftly lines a tin with banana leaves to cook the meat in. Sitting in Sakhawat’s small dhaba in a by-lane next to the Gymkhana Club in Lucknow with Mushtaq Ali was like lunching on an era of epicurean decadence. Mushtaq would balk at the slow roasting meat in banana leaves that Robert so proudly boasted of. And he would shudder if he saw Robert dry grind Annatto seeds with cumin, cloves and black pepper in a coffee grinder.

Familiar aromas

I was in this genteel city after 32 years. The smells of kebabs sizzling silently on the huge tawas in the busy lanes of Chowk hadn’t quite left me, nor had the sweet sensation of paan slowly melting, with gulkand swirling and filling my mouth. Ali Sahib drew my attention, “we’re in food buzzyness since 1911, my son will also stand behind that tawa and fry galaavati…this is not ready made food. We actually cook. We don’t just boil the rice, boil the meat, dissolve the gravies. If 20 items have to be made, 20 fires are lit and each is cooked in copper vessels with silver kalai.” I was slowly beginning to understand what a friend had wisely told me, “Lucknow ki nazaaqat, tehzeeb is a delicacy in itself.”

You shouldn’t have to chew on a kebab, it should simply melt on your tongue and slip inside. For making the finest of Galaavat kebab, they beat it fine in a hundi, add the galaavat (unripe papaya), then grind it on the sil batta. The mince is tenderised to impale itself on the tongue seductively. Charcoal and wood not only provide the heat but also the flavours — these are “our chief instruments”. The aromas that so arrest your senses come from rose, saffron, meetha itr. For Ali Sahib, cooking is as sacred as his religion. It is not about eating, it is a philosophy. Awadhi food is just that. The Nawabs of Awadh used the senses aesthetically, transmitting them into a realm of art. Even the ordinary act of cooking a humble daal was rarified into an artistic process.

Cooking food was an act of reverence. Their bawarchi khanas were epicentres of research and innovation. Cooks were given high salaries, total freedom to create and could lay down conditions. A whole culture existed within the bawarchi khanas. Culinary hierarchy had three categories of cooks — Raqabdars who were gourmet cooks and cooked in small quantities, garnishing and presenting dishes delicately. Bawarchis cooked food in bulk and Nanfus made the rotis, naans, sheermals. The Masalchi would grind the spices and the Mehri would carry the food trays. No wonder Ali Sahib said, “purani cheez toh apni jagah hoti hai.” 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.

It’s something else to be standing on the road, waiting for a shammi or a galaavat kebab served with a parantha. Sakhawat’s menu changes everyday. On a Monday I tried boti kebab and kakori. I watched Abdullah’s face as he spoke about kakori. “Yeh ‘pushtaini’ recipe hai, the mutton has to be very soft, it has to have a constant thinness around the skewer. Raw papaya, cloves and black pepper aid in making the mince velvety soft. Grinding and smoking the mince on charcoal and using wood from either tamarind, babul or a mango tree to cook biryanis, kormas, yakhnis, are a fixed rule.” Spending time with chefs in this city, I realised their sensibilities were easily hurt with suggestions of using a mixie, a grinder — it’s blasphemy!

United by a passion

The charms of antiquity are visible all over the city. If you wish to relish moments of socio-economic harmony visit Tundey miya and you can see a rickshaw-wala, a truck driver, a peon, a bureaucrat, a businessman in a Maruti and a tycoon in his Mercedes eating the same galaavat or shammi with parantha at Rs. 20 per plate. A whole new world springs up, the buzz infects you, waiters shouting over the owner’s head, “ek biryani aur ek kebab roll lagana”…Food links everyone and for those few minutes, a bond is shared — it’s like a kebab, all the masalas fuse into flavours — cacophony helps.

Tundey kebab is a 105-year-old eatery. Mohammad Usman’s great grandfather cooked for the Nawabs. His grandfather had only one arm, hence the name. “Our masalas are our heritage, dil aur dimaag dono ko durust rakhte hai. These are ‘unani’ masalas, kebabs don’t harm our health so much as plain red meat does because of the way it is fine ground, tenderised and the spices help in digestion.” You can spend Rs. 250 on pizza but there is no flavour, tripti nahi hoti. You can have Lucknowi khana cold and you’ll still be content.” I can vouch for that; breakfast for the train journey back to Jaipur was kakori and galaavat kebabs. Kewra and saffron filled the air in the compartment. My daughters said, “Ma, we’ve lived on kebabs only this whole week,” and the driver’s voice echoed in my mind, “yeh Lucknow ki pehchaan hai.”

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