Want to sample Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s true culinary legacy? Try the food market in Lucknow this Ramadan, says chef Mujbeer Rehman
As a chef, and a seventh-generation Lucknowite, I am often asked where one gets the best food during Ramadan (Ramzan) – places that aren’t on the tourist’s list but have a history to them. Interestingly, during much of my earlier years as a self-taught chef, I would fail to answer this question. Lucknow, in spite of its culinary legacy, has remained a city where people prefer to eat indoors – and that’s where the best dishes have always remained, their recipes privy only to families, who have cooked, shared, relished and preserved them through ages.
In fact, until 1970, attending an Iftar party was only through invitation. That year former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna invited Shia leader Ashraf Hussain to break his Ramadan fast with him. That one invitation brought Iftar out of the kitchen to the streets – much like old times when, at the behest of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula (the fourth Nawab Wazir of Awadh and during whose reign, Lucknow flourished and became a great knowledge centre) the erstwhile capital was changed into a food market that served everything from dates and fruits to paya, kebabs, sheermal and Kashmiri chai every Ramadan. It is said that the best of old hands were summoned to cook for the chief minister’s party, and Lucknow revived an old tradition. It wasn’t just the food, but also the ambience. The choice of the area – Old Chowk – came as no surprise. After all, it was in the bylanes of Akbari Gate, Moulvi Ganj, Hussainabad, Wazirganj and Nazirabad that the food of Lucknow evolved. It was here that the Ramadan food bazaars popped up and came to be known as the hub of Awadhi food. Of these, only a few survive. Here are some of them:
Akbari Gate ki lassi
Despite being a landmark in itself and the shop existing for more than seven decades now, no one remembers its real name! But it is here that most old-timers come for a taste of authentic Lucknowi lassi – made from half milk and half fresh curd. And while lassi is what got the place its reputation, it is also known for its Kashmiri chai, served with three layers of fresh malai, or cream. It stays open all night especially for Ramadan, and serves a platter of light balai (whipped fresh cream) for Sehri.
Situated next to the quaint Firangi Mahal, this 100-year-old shop is known for its chaats – especially matar (pea) chaat, which is served on a flaky suhal (a puff pastry made of flour and deep-fried). It is the first stop for old-timers after they break their fast. In fact, if you ever wanted to have the authentic dahi phulki – essentially doughnuts made of mildly spiced chickpea flour, which masquerades as the dahi bhalla in Delhi – this is the place for you.
Chowk and Nakhas
Back in historic times, the Chowk and the Nakhas were two areas that sold the best fruits and dry fruits. Nakhas, in fact, was known for its dusseri mangoes. Not much has changed since then. Not only do you get a variety of dates here and fruit platters dressed to suit every occasion, the place is also replete with stories of how these lanes were popular among memsahibs (British women), who would come here for sweet mangoes. Today, Chowk is the best place to find the sweetest dates to break the fast. It is also the only place you will find khaje and lacche (cooked sewiyaan or a form of vermicelli), which is mixed with milk and had as Sehri.
Jaan Mohammad and Umar Bhai Rotiwale
If you are looking for something vegetarian, this address at Akbari Gate will be worth your while. Run by two brothers, these old eateries are known for their romali roti, sheermal and khamiri roti – and, of course, its vegetarian fare. What also makes them special during Ramadan is the line of little shops that serve the traditional Iftari kheer – creamy and laden with dry fruits and nuts. Interestingly, these are as good as the legendary Rahim Hotel and the Sheermal Gali.
Haji Sweet Shop
In earlier times, Hindus often celebrated the beginning of the month by sending a special kind of laddu to their Muslim neighbours. Sweet, soft, these golden oblongs were made with fragrant khoya and boondi. Such was the addiction to these laddus that it remained for the longest time the sweet distributed during various occasions. And the best place to taste it is Haji Sweet Shop – the last of the old hands.
What Tunde is for Tunde Kebabi, Akbar Kebabi is for Kakori. Run by the descendants of the chefs who invented the Kakori kebab, this is the one pop-up that denizens wait eagerly for during Ramadan. Famous for their flavour and aroma, Aghameer Diwohri doles out kebabs by the kilo – whether it is the famous seekh, boti, pasanda or Kakori.