A city where culture and cuisine meet like nowhere else
11/2/2016 5:07:15 PM
|written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla|
There are few places in the world where the gustatory verb “taste” is so apt for describing an entire culture and history. Lucknow, the historic capital of Uttar Pradesh – and cultural capital of North India - is one of those rare gems.
In Lucknow’s sophisticated Urdu and Hindi (both languages are linguistically related) the word “zaika” or taste encompasses not only the city’s incomparably elegant cuisine – Lucknow’s great gift to the world – but also its poetic language, the courteousness or “tehzeeb” of its denizens and its rich artistic tradition which can be felt everywhere: from initmate “nashishts” to public “mehfils”. The Hindi of Lucknow is as mellifluous as Lucknowi Urdu which is considered the most beautiful and refined in South Asia, just like its cuisine.
This “zaika” was never more evident than in the eateries in which this writer regaled herself during a recent visit. Due to a family bereavement, on the first few days we restricted ourselves to vegetarian food which was not a problem at all because Lucknow – the birthplace of the samosa and chaat - is as well known for its vegetarian fare as its kebabs and biryanis.
And the jalebis, oh, the jalebis! In Lucknow they are eaten piping hot, crisp and juciy for breakfast. Our hotel in Hazratganj served up heaps of it along with rabri and fresh yoghurt every morning. And just a 5-minute walk outside the hotel are two vegetarian landmark eateries where delicious puri-bhaji and jalebis and inimitable chaats are served throughout the day.
But it is kebabs and biryanis that define Lucknavi cuisine. And where there is ‘boti” (kebab) there is always “roti” (Bread). Indeed, Lucknow is also famous for its sheermals, baqarkhani rotis, ulta kadhai parathas, naans and wafer thin roomalis. Unlike many other cities which are defined by monuments or decisive moments in history, Lucknow must be experienced through its culinary heritage. It is essential to spend some time in the food havens of Lucknow to imbibe the true essence of a city that took the rich cuisine of the highest courts of India and elevated it to an art form.
The refined opulence in food cultivated by the pleasure-loving 18th and 19th century Nawabs of Oudh wasn’t only confined to the aristocracy. It travelled around the province and even the common man had access to it as is evident in the crowded little bylanes of the old city where the rich queue and jostle with office workers, clerics and blue-collar workers for the delicious kebabs and parathas straight off the tawas on the roadsides. You know you are in hallowed territory when the fast food of a place is what is served as gourmet cuisine in less gastronomically endowed lands.
My daughter, an evolving vegetarian, reasoned it was alright to splurge on some meat since her next stop was an eight-day satvik retreat in a hermetic yoga ashram in Rishikesh, and joined me on my hedonistic pursuit. We spent two unforgettable days seeking out fabled old eateries and observing up close the preparation of the most delectable kebabs, breads and biryani and pulaos we have ever tasted.
Our gastronomic journey took us from a small eatery called Shekhawat near the Lucknow Golf Course where my husband’s relatives reside, to the upmarket Dastarkhwan in Hazratganj to a deceptively humble-looking Tundey’s in the ancient quarter called Chowk, near the Bara Imambara and Rumi’s Gate.
Tundey, a 100-year old eartery which looks deceptively run-down, is famous for its Galauti Kebab whose storied origin goes back to a 17th century elderly, almost toothless Nawab of Kakori for whom these kebabs were created by a one armed (tundey) chef named Haji Murad Ali.
As we observed row upon row of roti-wallahs and Kebabchis deftly dish up their savoury fares it was almost as transcendental an experience as one gets in the awe-inspiring 17th century Shia monuments to the divine - the Bara and Chhota Imambaras.
Watching the faithful and the curious – our Singaporean airline crew turned up en masse - wend their way along the pathways of the picturesque gardens of these stupendous Indo-Saracenic monuments while waiting for my daughter find her way back through the labyrinth inside the Bara Imambara, I felt a wave of sadness for those who would never get to see such beauty.
What struck me during my sojourn was how well the past and present intermingle in Lucknow. The present is sleek and shining and takes up the cultured tenor of the past without dropping a beat as we experienced in, of all places, a brand new hotel – the Fairfield by Marriot.
After two days of dining and shopping for the city’s exquisite chikan sarees and kurtis, we moved to this hotel on the advice of a friend. It must be the only hotel in the world where a chef is also on hand with the front office people to receive guests at the reception. He noticed at once that I had a mild cough and suggested a herbal concotion.
Five minutes within reaching our room, the doorbell rang and there was the chef himself – Prashant Suryawanshi – with a pot of home-made “kadha”! Lucknovi Tehzeeb at its finest!
1. Rinse the dal and pressure cook it with water and chopped green chillies.
2. Remove the dal mixture from the cooker and add the salt and turmeric powder and bring to a boil.
3. Heat oil in a pan for seasoning. Add the cumin seeds, chopped garlic, hing and broken red chillies and saute till fragrant.
4. Pour the tempering into the simmering toor dal and mix well.
5. Now add the milk and cook for 2-3 minutes.
6. Add finely chopped coriander leaves and switch off the flame. Serve hot.