When it comes to food, Lucknow has few parallels in India. While times have changed, and Lucknow of today, lacks the athletics, artesia, sensibilities of its previous avatar; it still retains its ‘adab’ and its foodie culture. The food culture in Lucknow was never a slave to swanky 5 star culture, it always had its own aroma which still simmers in the names now synonymous to ‘culinary revolution’ in India.
I had been doing on-and-off in Lucknow and have had good chances of savouring every culinary surprise the city has thrown at me. Food in lucknow has its own distinct individuality and identity. Lucknow has given this country kormas, kaliya, nahari-kulchas, zarda, sheermal, roomali rotis, warqi parathas and above all kababs – of different types. It is not just the ingredients that are used to cook them but also the expert tutelage that is been handed over from generation to generation now.
I am here presenting my list of the lucknawi cuisines to savour:
Kabab Parantha at Tundey’s – This had to be first on the list. This is surely a palatte from heaven for any non-vegie and the best place to have them is the obvious Tundey Kababi, tucked away in a corner in the bustling Aminabad area. This 100-year-old shop serves the best kebabs you can have in India. Started by the Late Haji Murad Ali, the shop was named Tundey which means one arm because Ali sahib prepared kebabs only with one hand due to an unfortunate kite flying accident in which he had lost one of his arm. Kebabs have their own legends, there is a story behind each variety. The most famous of all – the Gilawat kebab (the softest kebabs) was especially made for the nawab of Lucknow – Wajid Ali Shah by his rakabdar (royal cook) after he had lost all his teeth. It is said that the authentic Awadhi recipe used more than 150 spices to make this one kebab.
Apart from Tundey, one can try Dastarkhwan and NaushiJaan for their kebabs. I would personally rank kebabs of NausheeJaan especially the Seekh Kebabs parallel to that of Tundey’s. Adding more to the list, are the Kebabs at Shekhawat. The smokey and perfectly crispy char on the Kebabs at this ‘hole in the wall’ small restaurant, makes all the difference.
While savouring Kebabs in Lucknow, remember the old saying ‘Nawab ka beta Kebab to Khayaga’ (If you are royal, you will eat kebab)
Mutton Biryani at Idris – I went in search of Lucknawi biryani and for a person who spent days devouring biryani near Char Minar in Hyderabad, the Mecca of biryani, lucknawi version comes closer to pulao than real biryani. The real flavor of Dum Biryani had not stricken my mouth, till I landed up at a small shop in the Chowk area – Idris Dhaba. Forget the class and quality for some time and deluge yourself in the soft aroma of Dum Biryani as it is cooked over low fire in a sealed in a heavy bottomed pan. Cooking slowly in its juices, meat retains all its natural aroma and becomes imbued with the richness of flavours. As legend grows, this ‘slice of heaven’ was a culinary artifact of Mumtaz Mahal, who used it as a ‘complete meal’ for the army.
I you want to savour the real Awadhi flavor, look no further than Oudhyana where chefs give their due and credit to the Awadhi culinary tradition. The long list speaks of many cuisines worth trying.
Handi Chicken of Kalika – As the name suggests, the chicken is cooked in an earthen pot over coal in a one meter deep hole dug. The original Kalika Hut is in Azamgarh but the one in Badshah Nagar and Gomti Nagar in Lucknow serve the same taste. The aroma of the dish hits you. Served with the best shreemals in Lucknow, it makes it the best combo to have.
Lucknawi Chaat – Lucknawi cuisine is incomplete without its lip smacking chaat. If you are in Lucknow and not having chaat, you are wronging yourself. Chaat is Lucknow’s favourite. Crawling along pavements, you will surely be hit by strong signals from these snack monsters. The dahi-vada, papdi, ghugni, aloo dum, bhujia, onion, chutneys and, merciful jumble-de goop of pani-batasha will set a bomb exploding in your palatte. I couldn’t stomach this idea. In Lucknow, you are served pani-batasha in five different flavours. In no other city, (Indore being an exception, where you are served eight different flavours) can boast of a greater display of culinary dexterity at a humble batashawala shop. Indore can also boast of a rich display at batashawala shop, but the three extra flavours in Indore, the lemon, hajmola and khat-meetha flavor didn’t impress me much.
The best place to have chaat in Lucknow is surely, Royal Café in Hazratganj (Lucknowites will surely swear by this name). Have the basket chaat here – that’s a delight. Otherwise Neelkanth at Gomti Nagar, Radhey Lal in Aliganj, Pandit chaat house in Aminabad are all good.
Prakash ki kulfi – Located in Aminabad, close to Tundey Kebab, this is among the best places to have dessert. However, Kulfi faluda is the main attraction of this small shop, which can make you forget all your prior experiences of this dessert, it also serves some creamy fruit kulfi. I indeed found kulfi of Moti Mahal, a known veg hideaway, famous for its puri-sabzi which it serves in the morning; also good, but obviously no match to Prakash ki Kulfi.
Sai ki lassi – I can see my eat-out for desserts growing long. Located in the Chowk area, Sai Lassi corner serves variety of lassi. I really want to write a column on places to have good Lassi across India. I am sure, Sai lassi would surely figure in that. What makes this place a little special is the thick cream and a top layer of dry fruits. And if you think this is it about this place, then try the chole bhature of Sai – the restraint in spices in black chole that is served will make you say ‘wow’.
Pandit Raja ki Thandai – The list is getting longer. Again a must visit point in Chowk, this is the oldest shop of Thandai in Lucknow. You can both normal and masala (with bhang) thandai here. Atoped with saffron, kaju, almond (badam), pistachio (pista), cardamom (elaichi) and some secret masala powers, this sets the bomb in your palatte.
Malai Ghewar at Neelkanth – Though it is not my personal favourite; for lucknowites it is what Rosgulla is for kolkatans. And the best place to have malai ghewar is Neelkanth confectionary. Chappan Bhog is another good option for this. Infact, these two places, to me, are the best places for sweet mouths in Lucknow. Do try Neelkanth’s rasmalai, it’s highly recommended. You can also get their outlets in the airport.
Makhan Malai – The name itself speeds up hormones in my body. This signature dish makes the winter morning in Lucknow delicious and longed for. Available only in early mornings till 9 am in the chowk area, Makhan Malai is a dish to have. I am sure you just can’t eat one, the repeat session go as rituals.
Gulabi Chai – Surprised! Well don’t get, Lucknow has a food culture to speak of. Try Nakhas market at night to get a taste of it. During id, you will find Gulabi Chai served with hot imarti or andarsey in the market. And don’t go with the thought of a ‘typical chai’ in your mind, it has a taste worth falling in love with.
I can go on more, but I will limit myself to this, keeping the option open of going on another food trail to some hide-out in Lucknow to add-on my list.