Situated on the banks of the Gomti River, Lucknow is home to the remains of one of the most sophisticated and celebrated cultures of the Indian subcontinent, the kingdom of Awadh. It was in 1775 that the fourth Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, shifted the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. What unfolded was a celebration of learning and the arts, a genteel culture and an unabashed love for all things beautiful. Be it the graceful pirouette of the nautch girls who danced in the jasmine-scented courtyards of the aristocrats, the slender arches of the imambaras, the sheer poetry of the spoken language, or the lilting fragrance of saffron and kewra (screw pine essence) that wafted from a delicate pulao, it was an age marked with elegance and sheer refinement—a lost lifestyle immortalised on celluloid by Lucknow’s own Muzaffar Ali in Umrao Jaan, Satyajit Ray in Shatranj ke Khilari and Kamal Amrohi in Pakeezah.
While much has changed in the city, something that has endured is its culinary reputation. The highlight of old marketplaces, such as Chowk and Aminabad, is the famous Awadhi food that you will find in the most unlikely of places. Lucknow’s gastronomic history continues to live and breathe on its streets.
What is unique about the city is that the food available on its streets is not ordinary in any way—it is part of the same refined culinary repertoire that was served in its most affluent homes. The food evolved under the patronage of the nawabs and aristocrats, who treated it almost like an art form. Even as time wrought havoc on the fortunes of these families, the cooks behind these skilful preparations found a new lease of life on the streets of the city.
The tradition of secret recipes and inimitable dishes has passed down from generation to generation. The 108-year-old Tunday Kababi, in Chowk, is a good example of this. The great grandsons of the original chef, Haji Murad Ali (he only had one functioning arm and his kebabs came to be identified by that handicap), lure the hungry in hordes with the delicate patties of meat and spices that sizzle in an enormous pan. I remember hearing the story of the ageing Nawab, Asafud- Daula, who could barely chew his food, as I wolfed down piping-hot galawati kebabs in the back seat of my father’s car.
The ingenious chef made mince so fine and tender that it would simply melt in his master’s mouth. Since then, the kebabs have continued to live up to their legendary reputation. Another Lucknowi delicacy is the pasanda from Mubeen’s at Akbari Gate. Escalopes of meat are beaten into submission, then treated with a marinade of spices that come to life over a charcoal grill. Now that you’ve whetted your appetite, move a few lanes further and get lost in the parathe wali gali, a lane dedicated to shops churning out a bewildering variety of breads—from fluffy kulchas and bakarkhanis to wafer-thin roomalis, ulte tawe ka parathe and spongy sheermals kneaded in milk.
But don’t fill yourself up, as it would be a sacrilege to leave Lucknow without a plate of its fragrant biryani.
Many claim the title of being the best in town, but Idrish Hotel in Nakhas Market gives serious competition to the others with its technique of layering lamb and rice, and then cooking them with delicious spices that never overpower the palate. If you can resist a second helping, then save some room for the nihari at Raheem’s in Chowk. Cooked overnight, the sealed pot of mutton and spices is only opened in the morning and served with kulchas to mop up the incredible gravy. While it was traditionally meant to be a hearty breakfast for the working class, the dish is anything but ordinary.
While it’s the Awadhi non-vegetarian menu that has put Lucknow on the gourmet map, the city’s sweet offerings cannot be dismissed. The cold thandai, a spicy milk concoction sold by the glassful in Chowk, and kesar dudh, hot milk thickened with saffron and served in earthenware cups, are utterly delicious—as are the creamy slabs of kulfi served with fragrant falooda at Laddoo Chanakya and the malai paan at Ram Asrey, where folds of cream give way to nuts soaked in syrup.