Epicurean Delights

It was 137 years ago that the last of the kings of Avadh walked on the sarzameen (land) of their beloved Lucknow. While these monarchs sat on the throne of Avadh, there was nothing that they left untouched, thankfully, for their touch was like the proverbial magic wand. It could raise the most mundane of activities into the realm of art and to unattained heights of excellence. Little wonder that even bawarchis became master-creators of culinary delights. Powerful courts all over India vyed with each other to wean away a cook who had either worked or was trained in Lucknow. To belong to Lucknow was the highest qualification a cook could hold.

The rulers of Avadh engaged in peaceful pursuits since the battle of Buxar, and laid the foundation of a culture which dazzled the world. Under their patronage developed a cuisine which did not remain the prerogative of royalty alone. Recipes travelled from the royal kitchen to the kitchens of the nobility and from there, to the kitchens of ordinary people. Soon the Lucknowi learnt not only to eat well but to spend more than he should on his bawarchi khana.

All the while, research and innovation proceeded unabated in the bawarchi khanas of the royalty and aristocracy where money was no constraint, neither was time. In the mid-l8th century, in the personal bawarchi khana of Nawab Shuja-ud-daula, Rs. 60,000 was spent per month or Rs. 7.2 lakhs per year on the preparation of dishes. The dishes which adorned his dastarkhwan did not come from that kitchen alone but from five other bawarchikhanas, including that of his mother Nawab Begum and his wife Bahu Begum. These ladies separately spent Rs. 9000 every month on the preparation of food. The staggering salaries of the hierarchy of cooks and other kitchen staff came from a separate budget. However, high salaries were not the only reason for the excellent performance of the cooks. They were given total freedom to pursue their work their own way. Examples of cooks laying down conditions of employment before crowned heads, and the latter meekly accepting them, would only be found in Lucknow. And in Lucknow alone would you find cooks strutting off in a huff if the king did not sit down for a meal when told to do so by the cook because the food was hot. A tale is told of a cook employed only to prepare mash ki dal (arhar ki dal) on a monthly salary of Rs. 500. The dal was not cooked daily but once in a while, and the king was condition-bound to sit down at the dastarkhwan when the cook announced that the dal was ready. The king once delayed, so the cook left. Before leaving, he emptied the contents of the dish at a place where stood a stalk of a dead tree. In a few days, leaves started sprouting from the stalk and before long; the tree turned a healthy green colour (source: Abdul Sharar’s `The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture’). The story may appear like an exaggeration but the fact remains that the ingredients that went into the preparation of the royal dishes were very nutritious.

It was an unwritten law that the master would sanction whatever quantity of ingredients the cook demanded. No questions were asked, nor doubts expressed. Another popular story goes that king Ghazi-ud-din Haidar slapped his vazir Agha Meer for reducing the quantity of ghee used by the cook in preparing parathas. The king was no fool. He said that even if the cook pilfered some ghee, so what? The parathas he made were excellent, while “you rob the whole monarchy and think nothing of it !”

It was not royalty alone who pampered their cooks. The nobility, aristocracy and people of lesser means too maintained well stocked and well staffed kitchens from where were turned out the most exotic of dishes. Begums and ordinary housewives too persevered in their kitchens and acquired an excellence that could match the skills of a professional bawarchi.

Broadly, there are three categories of cooks in Lucknow. The bawarchis cook food in large quantities. The rakabdars cook in small gourmet quantities. Rakabdars also specialize in the garnishing and presentation of dishes. The nanfus make a variety of rotis, chapatis naans sheermals, kulchas and taftans. Normally, one cook does not prepare the entire meal. There are specialists for different dishes and also a variety of helpers like the degshos who wash the utensils, the masalchis who grind the masala and the mehris who carry the khwan (tray) to be spread on the dastarkhwan. The wealthy always had their kitchens supervised by an officer called daroga-e-bawarchi khana or mohtamim. It was this officer’s seal on the khwan that guaranteed quality control.

The Lucknow dastarkhwan would not be complete unless it had the following dishes: qorma (braised meat in thick gravy), salan (a gravy dish of meat or vegetables), qeema (minced meat), kababs (pounded meat fried or roasted over a charcoal fire), bhujia (cooked vegetables), dal, pasinda (fried slivers of very tender meat, usually kid, in gravy). Rice is cooked with meat in the form of a pulao, chulao (fried rice) or served plain. There would also be a variety of rotis. Desserts comprise gullati (rice pudding), kheer (milk sweetened and boiled with whole rice to a thick consistency), sheer brunj, (a rich, sweet rice dish boiled in milk), muzaffar (vermicelli fried in ghee and garnished with almonds and saffron) and halwas garnished with balai (cream). The varieties of dishes would increase with one’s status.

Lucknow is known for its large varieties of pulaos. Seventy types of pulaos were cooked at a wedding banquet thrown by Prince Azimushan (son of Muhammad Ali Shah) and attended by king Wajid Ali Shah. There was a nobleman in Lucknow who belonged to the family of Shuja-ud-daula’s Begum, Nawab Salar Jung, whose passion for pulaos earned for him the title of Chawal Wale. Even the king looked forward to his banquet of pulaos.

There are two broad methods of cooking pulaos that are followed in Lucknow. For the yakhni pulao, a thick meat broth (yakhni) is prepared in which the whole spices like pepper, cloves, cardamoms, aniseed, cummin, ginger, garlic and onions are not added directly into the broth but wrapped and tied in a muslin cloth and then dropped into the broth. After the dish is cooked, the spices are taken out and thrown away. This way the aroma of the spices is absorbed by the meat and the broth gradually. The rice is then cooked in this broth over a slow fire. This process of cooking is called dum. Burning coal is also put on the lid of the vessel for even heat. During the process of dum, a wet muslin cloth is sealed with flour paste along the mouth of the vessel before covering it with the lid, to contain the flavours. In keeping with the Lucknowi’s disdain for masala, chillies are never put in pulao. This pulao is light and easy to digest.

The other variety is called qorma pulao. Here, the qorma and the rice are cooked separately. The water in which the rice is boiled is poured out so that there is no starch in the rice. For the qorma, finely cut onions are fried over a very slow fire with the spices and ghee till the ghee separates – this very slow shallow frying is called bhunoing. The meat is then added and allowed to cook in water. Then alternate layers of rice and qorma are spread in another vessel and the latter put on a slow fire.

In Lucknow, the yakhni pulao is preferred. The yakhni should be made of meat which has some fat (not lean meat). The quantity of meat should be at least twice the weight of rice used. There are instances of one seer of rice cooked in a yakhni of 34 seers of meat. Abdul Sharar has recorded that a couple of morsels of this pulao could satisfy one’s hunger. The rice would almost melt in one’s mouth.

Lucknowis believe in quality and not quantity. It is considered uncultured to eat large quantities. They believe that the food eaten should be rich and nutritious. An interesting incident is told about a well-known wrestler who was invited to lunch by Hakeem Banday Mehndi, a connoisseur of good food, and was offered just a small plate of pulao. The wrestler whose daily diet included about 12 kilos of meat, an equal quantity of milk and three kilos of dried fruits, was taken aback and felt insulted. He quietly ate the small quantity. A little later, an elaborate dastarkhwan was spread before him and other guests. But the wrestler could not eat another morsel. The little plate of pulao had satisfied him completely. The following day, he came to his host and reported that he never felt so fit before!

The Lucknow aristocracy derived great pleasure in extending invitations to friends to elaborate meals where a couple of items on the menu would be camouflaged. The discomfiture of the guests at not recognizing the dish would give great satisfaction to the host. It was taken as a proclamation of the host’s culinary expertise.

At a dawat (banquet) given by Wajid Ali Shah for Mirza Asman Qadar, a Mughal prince from Delhi, a dish was served which looked like a morabha (a spicy conserve of vegetables) but was a qorma. Even the prince who was a discerning gourmet was fooled. The king was very pleased, but not for long. Very soon Prince Asman Qadar invited His Majesty for a meal. The king was extremely cautious, there were bound to be camouflaged dishes. His expert eyes surveyed the dastarkhwan, but only found a magnificent spread of qormas, pulaos, kababs, sheermals, a variety of salans and kheers. He suspected no danger! But lo and behold! every item on the dastarkhwan, qormas, pulaos, katoras (little bowls) and spoons included, were made of caramelised sugar!

A similar dawat, where the food and containers were made of sugar, was given by the Raja of Mahmudabad in the early part of this century. These dawats were a common feature in Lucknow. The scale of grandeur varied with the status of the host.

The Lucknowi’s menu changes with the seasons and with the festivals which mark the month. The severity of winters is fought with rich food. Paye (trotters) are cooked overnight over a slow fire and the shorba (thick gravy) eaten with naans. Turnips are also cooked overnight with meat koftas and kidneys and had for lunch. This dish is called shab degh and is very popular in Lucknow. The former Taluqdar of Jehangirabad would serve it to his friends on several occasions during winter.

Birds like partridge and quail are had from the advent of winter since they are heat-giving meats. Fish is relished from the advent of winter till spring. It is avoided in the rainy season. Lucknowis prefer river fish particularly rahu (carp), for fish bones are the last thing they would like to struggle with! For this reason, fish kababs (cooked in mustard oil) are preferred.

Peas are the most sought after vegetable in Lucknow. People never tire of eating peas. One can spot peas in salan, qeema, pulao or just fried plain.

Sawan (spring) is celebrated with pakwan (crisp snacks ), phulkis (besan pakoras in salan), puri-kababs and birahis (parathas stuffed with mashed dal). Khandoi (steamed balls of dal in a salan), laute paute (gram flour pancakes, rolled and sliced and served in a salan) and colocasia-leaf cutlets served with salan add variety. Raw mangoes cooked in semolina and jaggery or sugar, makes a delicious dessert called curamba, in summer. These dishes come from the rural Hindu population of Lucknow.

Activity in the kitchen increases with the approach of festivals. During Ramzan, the month of fasting, the cooks and ladies of the house are busy throughout the day preparing the iftari (the meal eaten at the end of the day’s fast), not only for the family but for friends and the poor. Id is celebrated with varieties of siwaiyan (vermicelli) – muzaffar is a favourite in Lucknow. Shab-e-barat is looked forward to for its halwas, particularly of semolina and gram flour. Khichra or haleem, a delicious mixture of dals, wheat and meat, cooked together, is had during Muharram, since it signifies a sad state of mind.

There are dishes which appear and disappear from the Lucknow dastarkhwan with the seasons and there are those which are a permanent feature, like the qorma, the chapati and the rumali roti. The test of a good chapati is that you should be able to see the sky through it. The dough should be very loose and is left in a lagan (deep, broad vessel) filled with water for half an hour before the chapatis are made.

Sheermals were invented by Mamdoo Bawarchi more than one and a half centuries ago. They are saffron covered parathas made from a dough of flour mixed with milk and ghee and baked in iron tandoors. No other city produces sheermals like Lucknow does and the festive dastarkhwan is not complete without it. Saffron is used to flavour sweets too.

Utensils are made either of iron or copper. Meat kababs are cooked in a mahi tava (large, round shallow pan), using a kafgir which is a flat, long handled ladle for turning kababs and parathas. Bone China plates and dishes were used in Lucknow since the time of the Nawabs. Water was normally sipped from copper or silver katoras and not glasses. The seating arrangement, while eating, was always on the floor where beautifully embroidered dastarkhwans were spread on darees and chandnis (white sheets). Sometimes this arrangement was made on a takht or low, wide wooden table.

As recently as October 1991, a grandson of the Raja of Mahmudabad organised a food festival with varieties of Avadhi delicacies. Inspite of the best efforts to recreate the original taste, it was not possible to put in the ingredients which were originally used. For, how many of us can today feed chickens and goats with saffron tablets to create a pleasant aroma in their flesh as was done during the time of the Nawabs?

Credits : Parveen Talha / For The Taj Magazine