Awadhi cuisine: a legendary culinary art of Nawabs

Lucknow was considered the richest city of the late 18th century, not only in terms of wealth and heritage but also in its nafasat (refinement) and nazakat (elegance).

The city became synonymous with luxury, extravagance, creative arts, extraordinary buildings and architectural follies. Lucknow is a striking example of a post-medieval town, with a considerable capital of architecture, dance, music, poetry, and all this enhanced by a tantalizing flavour of a gracious lifestyle.

No wonder it has been described as “the last example of an oriental Capital in India”.

Lucknow’s rich culture mae it distinctive, and gave a special meaning to the adjective Lakhnavi. Used pejoratively, this term suggests – foppishness, fastidiousness, mannerist behaviour, reflected costumes and over-elaborate etiquette, idle preoccupations of a powerless aristocracy with a surfeit of enforced leisure.

The culinary arts of Awadh were incomparable. In addition to delicacy of taste, great importance is placed on the presentation of food. It is made to look attractive through its own colour, and appetizing through smell. Interest in good food is usually confined to a few wealthy people and gourmets, but in Lucknow this interest is shared by nearly everybody.

As a result, not only have a large number of good cooks thrived here, but ladies of noble families also acquired the art. There is no distinguished family in which ladies do not display great skill in delicate and delicious cooking. Here women show great skill in embellishment of food.

Dastarkhwan is a Persian term, which literally translates to a meticulously laid-out, ceremonial dining spread. In Awadh, it is a custom to sit around and share the Dastarkhwan. Laden with the finest and the most varied repertoire of Khansamas, Dastarkhwan of the nobles was called Khasa.

Nazakag was at its peak then – as the saying goes even stepping on a banana skin by mistake would make the Begums sneeze endlessly. And how could cuisine be deprived of Nazakat and Nafasta? Throughriche in taste, the dishes hadall the ingredients, thus making them light on the stomach. Only the extracts of spices were used to make them.

The bawarchies and rakabdars of Awadh gave birth to the dum style of cooking or the art of cooking over a slow fire, synonymous with Lucknow today. The richness of Awadhi cuisine is amplified not only by the variety it offers but also the ingredients used. One example is the selection of pieces of meat for various dishes. The spices are also cut and prepared with great art and care.

Lucknow is proud of its Kebabs. The Kakori Kebabs, Galawat ke Kebabs, Shami Kebabs, Boti Kebabs and Seekh Kebabs are among the known varieties. The Shami Keab was the most important of them all. Nargisi koftas and Pasanda kebabs are popular too.

Korma, a preparation of meat in gravy, is an essential item of Awadh is a meat preparation with thicksiy gravy. In ‘Pai-ki-Nahai’, leg and other bones are cooked and bone juice is mixed with mouth-watering gravy.

Even in peak winters this dish makes a person sweat. Shab Deg, another winter speciality, is a legacy of Kashmiri settlers in the province. Cooked overnight, it’s a rare delicacy.

Zarda, a rice dish, is a picnic delicacy of Basant (spring) when Wajid Ali Shah and his troupe would go dressed in yellow, the colour of spring in boats called bajras.

Kundan Kalitya is a mutton dish prepared with gold leafs, no less! Mutanjan is another invention of the Nawabi era where sweet rice is cooked with pieces of fatless meat and dry-fruits.

The jauzi halwa, habshi halwa, badam-ka-halwa are hot favourites even today, but the art of preparing them is confined to only a few households. Halwa-sohand, prepared from parts of germinated wheat mixed with milk, sugar, saffron, nuts etc, requires a dose of love and patience as vital ingredients.

And don’t forget that it also needs drops of shabnam (dewdrops) on wheat kept out under the night-sky for germination. The roleof the morning sun and the evening dew remains a mystery for many.

The Shai-tukda is another delight. But what takes the cake is the preparation of sevain, which is an art unique to each Khansama. The best sevain, of course, was the one prepared and presented by Zulfain of Laila fame.