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 ‘aadaab’ 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 kebabs – 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, which makes eating out in Lucknow a memory.
I am here presenting my list of the lucknawi cuisines to savour:
Kebab 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 arms. Kebabs have their own legends, and there is a story behind each variety. The most famous of all – the Gilawat kebab (the softest kebabs) was specially 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 kebab.
Apart from Tundey, one can head to 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. And while you are savoring Kebabs in Lucknow, remember the old saying ‘Nawab ka beta Kebab to Khayega’ (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 (with due apologies to every Lucknowite). 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 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.
If 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. Their 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 serves almost the same taste. The aroma of the dish hits you. Served with the best shreemals in Lucknow, this could be listed as the best combo on my list.
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 favorite. 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. Frankly, I couldn’t stomach this idea, and overindulged in trying out the different flavours. 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, in the famous Sarafa Market) 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. My word – if you are a samosa or Kachori fan, you might be left disappointed, so keep yourself focused and try the aloo-tikki and Dahi-bhalle.
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 in Hazratganj, famous for its puri-sabzi which it serves in the morning; also good, but obviously no match to Prakash ki Kulfi. But yes, don’t forget trying Kali Gajar Ka Halwa in Moti Mahal.
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. A born Punjabi, I can write an entire column on places to have good Lassi across India, but for now, let’s be restricted to Sai Lassi. And I am sure, Sai lassi would surely figure in that list. 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 it serves will make you say ‘wow’.
Pandit Raja ki Thandai – And you see, the list is getting longer. Again a must visit point in Chowk, this is the oldest shop of Thandai in Lucknow. You can have both normal and masala (with bhang) thandai here. Atoped with saffron, kaju, almond (badam), pistachio (pista), cardamom (elaichi) and some secret masala powers, this is like your heart’s desire quenched.
Malai Ghewar at Neelkanth – Though it is not my personal favourite; for lucknowites, this 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 – This signature dish makes the winter morning in Lucknow delicious and one to long for. Makhan Malai is available only in early mornings till 9 am. Be there, and you will know why this is a signature dish of Lucknow. One can’t stop with one serve, repeat sessions are a ritual.
Gulabi Chai – Surprised! Well don’t get, Lucknow has a food culture which has brought in the best from different parts of the country. 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. Topped with saffron, and spices from the secret kitchens of Kashmir, the tea alone is worth a night outing.
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. I have deliberately restraint myself from writing on the chic restaurants, for a strong love I have for local culinary culture of the place.