Chef Mohit Bhowar delves deep into the secrets of the city’s opulent culinary traditions, discovering some rare gems
Recall the popular English nursery rhyme that spoke of “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie”? While most trace the poem’s origin to 18th-century England, some say this spectacular dish was prepared by a very skilled royal chef from Lucknow! Culinary legends say that this recipe, locally known as bird pulao, was first prepared in Lucknow by a chef who later migrated to Hyderabad’s royal kitchens and served the rice dish there. It contained a flock of small birds that would flutter and fly away once the top layer was removed, delighting distinguished Englishmen and their wives!
This and many such anecdotes can be found in The Lucknow Omnibus, partly written by Abdul Halim Sharar, an acclaimed essayist, historian and novelist, who described the culture and way of life in Lucknow during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Commenting on the culture of Awadh and the Nawabi preoccupation with food in Lucknow, he wrote: “The most important activity in human life is eating.
As any community or nation progresses, its diet is the most salient guide to its refinement.” Sharar’s vivid account takes the reader on an aromatic trail of the city, through winding lanes lined with bubbling cauldrons, kitchens serving fragrant food, and lush fruit orchards. Lucknawi or Awadhi cuisine (parts of modern Uttar Pradesh were known as the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh during the British Raj) boasts rich heritage and aesthetics. And though kebabs and biryanis from Lucknow are popular today, there is a lot more to the city’s culinary repertoire.
While Lucknow’s cuisine rose to fame from its royal kitchens, there are several factors that make its culinary traditions stand out amid similar elite cuisines in India. First, Awadhi cuisine is not just about serving meat with breads or rice. Even its biryanis and kebabs use an elaborate mix of spices that makes them starkly different in taste from those in other parts of the country. Some experts say that Lucknow’s cooking style is more sophisticated, much like its aristocratic culture. Once the city became the capital of Oudh and was also home to many British residents, there grew a culture of refined social mingling among royalty, senior administrators and British officers. A suitably refined cuisine was a natural outcome of this. Royal chefs became popular, showcasing their innovations at elaborate meals organised for the elite.
While many of these culinary traditions and recipes have been lost, a few practices from those times are still followed, with contemporary twists. For instance, the Lucknawi biryani is about flavouring each grain of rice with spices.
In this tradition, the meat and rice are cooked separately, then layered on top of each other and cooked again on dum (a traditional style of slow cooking). This style is known as pukki biryani, unlike the Hyderabadi offering, called kacchi biryani. Javitri powder is a staple spice used in Lucknawi biryani. Other spices include paan ki jad, khus ki jad and kachri powder. Another basic rule of Awadhi cooking is to balance spices in such a way that their flavours are not too strong for the palette. Also, it is kept in mind not to let spices overpower the flavour of the main ingredient.
Interestingly, Lucknawi cuisine is not only about meat-based dishes. Several innovative vegetarian dishes also form a part of it. From mutter ka nimona (where green peas are dum-cooked to a mashed consistency) to paneer gulnar (a Persian-inspired, mildly sweet cottage cheese dish), the choices are deliciously varied.
Traditional desserts are also famous in Lucknow – a must-have is gulab ki kheer. In this, a paste of various dry fruits is used to thicken the milk and the delicacy is served with dried rose petals. Another local favourite is malai makhhan, which is best had in the old part of the city. Prepared during winter, this whipped malai (milk and cream) dish is served with a sprinkling of khoya (reduced milk) for an interesting texture.
The author is the executive chef of Hilton Garden Inn Hotel Lucknow and the views expressed in this article are his own