Updated: Oct 9, 2019
There's more to Awadhi cuisine than kebabs and parathas. Friends visiting us and guests at our homestay are often surprised and delighted with dishes that they had never eaten before - and would never have come across, except in a Lucknow home.
I am married to a man from Lucknow. On our first trip, he ensured I had a taste of every one of the “popular” dishes on the Lucknow foodies checklist - from the famous Tunday kababs to Prakash ki kulfi, Rahim's nihari to Chowdhary ki chaat to the Chowk ka paan. There were a few solemn promises I made to myself thereafter - to learn the cuisine and enjoy and share the exotic yet mild flavours of Lucknow.
Apart from the famous headliners of Awadhi cuisine, not many people I know are even aware of home recipes which have carefully been handed down from generations, yet never popularised in main stream restaurants and thus never exposed to food lovers outside the charmed circles of those who live (or lived) in the city.
A mildly flavoured and distinctly succulent meat and potato saalan (Aloo Gosht), simple to make yet delightful when served with simple roti and white rice. Versions of the meat saalan are season specific, Arvi Gosht to Gobi Gosht to a plain khada masale ka qeema (I wont get away with the “k” spelling, has to be qeema, from the pit of your throat) are all everyday dishes served in self-respecting Lucknow homes, with a humble sliced salad. The popular kababs, be it galawati (referred to as kacche kheeme ka kabab) or shaami, home cooked versions are definitely more flavourful and balanced.
One of my home favourites, the mutton korma, is on menus at almost every Mughlai eatery - from the famous Kareem's in Delhi to fine dining restaurants across India. Having tasted a few of these versions, nothing comes close to the delicate fragrance and flavour of the home cooked version – a hint of sweetness from the fried onions, the creamy texture of the gravy and the fine aroma of infused saffron are a match made in heaven.
Surprises keep making it to the table as age old recipes are rediscovered and served among close friends and family
Nihari, another of my favourites is a slow cooked stew with a blend of saunf (fennel) and sonth (dried ginger) and of course the magic ingredient of fried onion paste, served with fresh, oven baked naan. Although the predominant (read popular) dishes are meat, the vegetarian food has its own unique spell. A simple arhar ki daal with a tadka of zeera (not jeera), sliced garlic and chilli flakes in ghee, or a not very popular dish called sagpetha, which is urad daal and bethua (a variety of spinach) leaves, cooked together are comfort food beyond compare. Surprises keep making it to the table as age old recipes are rediscovered and served among close friends and family.
The desserts are decadent and shop or restaurant ones are on a mission to overdo the richness and flavours. A shahi tukda, a basic bread pudding with finer ingredients added make it my all time favourite. Another not very well known dessert and a tedious one to make, channe ka halwa, has to be my sure shot way of keeping my husband proud of cooking skills. Qimami sevai, an eid delight, is a ten minute warm dessert spruced up with a sheet of warq (silver foil) and chironji. Simplicity is the underlying theme of Lucknow cuisine, making it one of my favourites in the world.
Before wrapping up this write up, a worthy mention of the melt in the mouth paan is critical, usually bought at a hole in the wall joint, selling in excess of fifty variations and each claiming to out do the other. From ten rupees to five hundred, the simple paan, a digestive aid, has been glorified by every variation possible - including wrapping it in gold foil.
Lucknowis love food and love to talk about food. Every visit to that charming city and every conversation peels away new layers of food knowledge for me, and once you start exploring Awadhi food, you will soon discover – like me – that there is a hundred times more to this treasure trove of foodie delight than just kebabs and parathas.