Nawabs and Kebabs

‘Guth-ti,’ Suleiman Mahmudabad noted, referring to the first liquid to pass a newborn’s lips, ‘depends on the mother and the father’s humours, and the family’s characteristics.’ We are in conversation in his office, a spare high-ceilinged room except for the enormous desk scattered with books behind which are shelves of more books. Appropriately, his family’s very own apothecary where such tea was brewed, had been situated across the corridor.

‘The proper herbs were pounded, boiled, liquefied, strained and given to the child by the hakim. This was the first thing given, even before mother’s milk; it purged the child.’

‘That,’ he said, ‘is the beginning of cuisine.’

Meaning the cuisine of Lucknow, where food is not just about food, as in taste, but also context. Lucknow is the city of ‘Nawabs and Kebabs’ as it was first coined to me, the city of royal extravagance and vibrant street life; of the aristocrat’s intricate and playful haute cuisine, and the affordable yet equally satisfying street food and how the two intertwine, particularly through the rituals of Shi’ism. The city where food is spiced specific to the person through the hakim, or doctor of Yunani medicine; where food is dependent on the etiquette and manners of serving, with Urdu sweetly on the lips. The city where a tough bit of meat is ridiculed, and nearly every dish made richer with cream, more fragrant with keora water, and more tender through slow ghee-infused cooking. As Abdul Halim Sharar so elegantly puts forth in the 1880s, in his story-brimming catalogue of its rarified culture, or tehzeeb, ‘Lucknow’s diet is the most salient guide to its refinement.’

Historical Nawabi cuisine is found today in traces, through cobbling together sources: 19th century cookery books, travel diaries, and paintings, as well as histories and stories of the personages of the city; the descendants of the Nawabs, or noblemen to the Mughals who governed Lucknow between 1753-1856, and patronized an efflorescence of the arts as the British usurped their sovereignty; descendents to the taluqdars and zamindars,2 the large and small rural landholders of Awadh who became the ruling elite at the behest of the British after the Mutiny or the First War of Independence, 1857; caterers found in bawarchitola, or cook’s area; and specialized cooks of one or two kebabs, or breads, or rich meat gravies that abound in the network of gullies in old Lucknow.

It is a matter of cobbling also, because food is never as it was even from yesterday to today. Food is about sustenance, weneed it, but it is also the trickiest of arts because it is perishable in nature – it is not recordable, and a recipe does not suffice. Food fluctuates with the ingredients themselves, the climate, the cook, the cook’s mood, the eater, the eater’s mood, the atmosphere.

For instance, I had been wandering in the old city, or Chowk, on the Gol Darwaza side where Raja Thandai is. He offers a milk drink aptly called thandai infused with saffron, khus syrup (the cool grass like scent, syruped), or bhang, which underscores the reason why a blue poison blooded Shiva Shankar sits auspiciously at the back.

Raj Kumar Tripathi of Raja Thandai who I had been talking to about cuisine, turned me around and brought me back through the gate, where men sit curled in the roundels at the top surveying the scene, to turn down a small lane to the jalebi shop, which stands next to a grassy courtyard.

On our way out, laden with syrupy hot sweets and saffron milk, he gestured to the carved balconies above the shops, and then ‘over there’ where ‘chaval gully’ apparently was. ‘This is a place one should not go,’ he warned, ‘but then…’ and he indeed grew misty-eyed, ‘during shaam-i-Awadh’ meaning the twilight of Lucknow, indicating the charming evening hours between sunset and night, when the air cools, and people of all kinds and types wander the streets for food and entertainment.

Chaval gully means lane of rice. Supposedly, the treasure that is pale fragrant rice has no allusion to the women it houses. When I met Mushtaq Naqvi, the Lakhnavi historian later that week, I asked him about this area, and it was he who explained the tawai’fs, or courtesans, and their relationship to food. ‘You have touched upon a very delicate subject,’ he said, with his eyebrows lifted and mouth poised.

‘My brother took me; those were the last of their days (1947-8). I was nine or ten. A woman met us in spotless white dress. I thought she was a fairy. She welcomed me with a deep salaam and asked, ‘May I bring you a cup of tea, or somesherbet, my prince?’ I stammered because I had to beg for such things at home. She presented it in a very beautiful cup with the perfect mix of tea, sugar and milk smelling of flowers. ‘You see,’ he continued, with the reverie still bright on his face, ‘they served this Nawabi food you ask on. It was the same, but when you go to a tawai’fs place whatever they served, as simple as a paan, or a cigarette, they served so nicely, in such a courtly manner that you felt so elevated that you never felt hunger for the food but hunger for the manners.’

Behind the manners, the intimate teaching of the hakim, and the meandering atmosphere of the old city, what were the actual dishes of the Nawabs or later the taluqdars of Awadh? What lay on their das-tarkhwan, a crisp white cloth laden sometimes with seventy pullaos, and numerous small dishes to be filled, taken away and re-introduced, with service timed as invisible, as one nibbled from this or that, choosing one’s fancy? In an haute cuisine that sometimes seems bored of food itself, what regaled its delight?

There were dishes displaying beauty, wealth and subtlety such as the Moti Pullao where the silver and gold leaf are mixed with rawa and stuffed into the neck of the chicken, then wound with string. Before serving they are released as baubles so that the pullao shimmers with ‘pearls’. Or Ananas ki Paratha, each of the twenty-four layers crisply, lightly defined with an ethereal sweetness, a hint of pineapple.

Or of exoticism and uniqueness such as a roghan josh called Aloo ki Bukhara, meaning small dried Bukharan plums, never seen in the dish, just flavouring the sauce, and further beautified by the rare colouring of a flower. Or Uzbeki Gosht, a delicate salan one must step into the Qidwai house to obtain, or Laab-i-Mashooq, Mahmudabad’s, meaning lips of the beloved, a cake so light it disappears as sweetly as a kiss upon the mouth.

Then there were the dishes that showed hunger for trickery and game-playing: the luscious story of the last Nawab crowned King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah inviting Prince Mirza Asman Qadar to dine, and delighting when the Delhi connoisseur purposely mistook a savoury quorma for a sweet conserve. And the reciprocal revenge where the poor king tapped into the 51 dishes laid before him to find, one by one, that they were all made of spun sugar.

Or the drama of a puri breaking and not birds flying out, which yes was deemed an ordinary affair by the Lakhnavi Urdu short-story writer, Nainer Masood, but rather a monkey, who satiated by opium, sat dozing in the deflating bread. Or a meal where everything was white – from bread to salads to pullao to dessert; the layout white, the silver plates reflecting white and all on a full moon night.

Desire for riddle dishes: a lookmi, which was in the shape of an egg, the outside made of rawa, and when cut in half, the inside, stuffed with qeema, minced meat that was shaped as a yolk and painted with saffron and baked. The ‘egg’, beautiful in shape and appearance, looked hard but when put into the mouth melted.

With such a rarefied, even excessively baroque cuisine, one has to wonder as to its origins, as well as to its relations to the people, a closer relationship than appears at first in a cuisine that seems defined by money spent (Rs 60,000 a month in the kitchen of Asaf ud Daula, one of six in his household, an enormous sum4), competition, and the unexpected – gastronomy seems to fit perfectly into the culture of Lucknow, and the list of its leisure: animal combats, pigeon flying, kite flying, story telling, music, dance, drama, poetry in forms both weighty and light, headwear, footwear.

As so many scholars write, Awadh as a region and thus Lucknow as its capital, was in a curious position of essential imprisonment as the British slowly took over the Nawab’s armed forces and other ‘sovereign duties’,5 and their energies turned inwards, towards their city, Lucknow, and onto the arts, inherited from the Mughals, but flowering to a degree of sophistication teetering on the edge of a ‘too much’. The saying goes that ‘the elegant manners of Lucknow are such that even rasgullas are peeled before they are eaten’; refining something that it is barely impossible to refine more.6 Luring poets and artists from a declining Delhi, and offering new inspiration, in particular with the addition of acute expressional devotion to Shi’ism, Lakhnavi culture sang its loss into beauty, sometimes grave, sometimes exuberantly flippant.

This expenditure included the arts of gastronomy, inherited from the Mughal court (itself a mix of the Turkish/Central Asian/Persian/North Indo-Pakistan), the declining Safavid Court in Iran, from where the first Nawab of Awadh, Sadat Ali Khan, emigrated from, and the European (French, English, Portuguese), but refining itself further on its own demands.
In a comparison to Mughlai food, its greatest influence, Lakhnavi food has less spice (due to the Persian influence); smoother textures (supposedly Nawab Asaf ud Daula had actually lost his teeth, filling his mouth with a small ball of velvet7 – but there was an equal attitude that considered chewing boorish); multiple strainings (from the French influence); distinct attention paid to aromas and colours (such as keora and rose water; or feeding animals on specific diets, like saffron pills to infuse their flesh, or gaming for Siberian cranes who feast on saffron during migration); a theory of spices that included arrangements with the hakim and ground spices for taste and whole ones, wrapped up in an easily removed bouquet so as not to offend the palate, for aroma; and a predilection towards richness: the generous use of ghee, cream and nuts, besides dish after dish of meat.

The cuisine of Lucknow at the time of the Nawabs is therefore very much a cuisine of fusion, and it becomes even more richly original when the taluqdars move into the city from their landed regional estates. There is another aspect as well, that of Islam and specifically Shi’ism.

For instance, the origin story of dum pukht, the method of cooking made common parlance by the namesake restaurant of the ITC Maurya hotel. Its founding chef, the legendary Imtiaz Qureshi, is from Lucknow’s bawarchitola, or cook’s area of the old city, and his family is historically employed by the Mahmudabad taluqdars.

Though perhaps a meeting of history and marketing brilliance, the menu at Dum Pukht relays the following story: ‘With the dual purpose of providing work (meaning food) and beautification of the city, Nawab Asaf ud Daula commenced the building of the Bara Imambara during the great famine circa 1780. Labourers worked during the day, and those of higher classes during the night, so their shame was shrouded. According to the menu at Dum Pukht: ‘By royal decree, too, arrangements were made to provide food. Enormous containers were filled with rice, meat, vegetables, spices and sealed. Hot charcoal was placed on top and fires lit underneath while slow cooking ensured that food was available day and night. The result was extraordinary, for when the vessels were unsealed, the splendid aromas attracted royal attention and dum pukht as a Nawabi cuisine was born.’

Dum cooking is not native to Lucknow, it is a Persian technique, meaning to slow bake (dum means to breathe and pukhtto cook, dum pukht thus meaning to cut the breath or steam off). The Ain-i-Akbari notes it among the ten types of spiced meat dishes, the third type of cookery basic to the Mughal courts along with food without meat, and meat with rice. However, what is decidedly unique about Lucknow is the intimate connection between the aristocracy, the foods that were ‘gifted’ away under religious auspice known as tabaruk (blessed food, similar to prasad but not a literal transference of blessing) and the foods of the bazaar.

This is the case with the shir mal, also found in the gullies of the old city. Sharar writes: ‘In Lucknow, Mahumdu [a bread cook] made great improvements on the baqar khani [a type of bread] by producing the shir mal which in taste, scent, lightness and delicacy was very much better.’ Mahumdu, at its invention, dashed to the nawab, who tore off a small bite, which is immortalized in the shape of the round shir mal lacking a half-moon bite, signifying Nawabi approval.

Sharar continues, ‘In a very short time the shir mal gained such popularity in Lucknow that any celebration at which it was not served could not be considered perfect… [it] so increased the esteem in which Mahumdu was held that on the occasion of royal majlises and celebrations he sometimes received orders for a hundred thousand shir mals.’

The shir mal, because of its nature as an easily mass-produced bread that keeps, travels well, can be used to roll up kebabs, and is both a luxury item (of the Nawabs) as well as an economically feasible one (because it is bread after all) was handed out as tabaruk specifically during Muhurrum, the mourning period for Shias – in fact we see paintings and references to shir mals being handed out from atop the elephant that ends the procession during Muhurrum.9 This does not mean that either the method of cooking or the bread is religious in nature; simply that certain aspects of Shi’ism in Lucknow allowed for the distribution and popularity of certain items. The shir mal, like dum pukht, also indicates that a food of the street can enter into the kitchen of the palace – that chefs, themselves divided into specific trades or specialists in dishes, cooking for large or small numbers, were richly rewarded for their inventions.

Juan Cole and C.A. Bayly have argued that the massive distribution of food on religious occasions was an integral part of the ‘late Islamic kingship’10 economy. The king’s expenditure on luxury needs created markets and employment; the construction of huge religious buildings, such as Lucknow’s magnificent Imambaras, tombs, mosques and palaces, provided work for grain, and to relieve famines; and festivals, multiplying during the Nawabi period, were occasions for mass public feedings as well as ritual display. Indeed one of the things that makes Lakhnavi cuisine fascinating are the connections between the decadent cuisine of the court and noble families, and the ordinary people and shops of the bazaars. The fact stands that the most famous items from Lucknow, like the Tunday and Kakori kebabs, shir mal, nihari, dum pukht, pullao (more common than biriyani as it is deemed more refined), grace both elite and common tables.

You can, in fact, map the above dishes onto the streets of the old city, much how Francois Bernier describes the bazaar of Delhi in the 1660s: the bakers, the nihari makers, the roasted meat sellers11 etc. For instance, on the Akbari Gate side of the old city there is Rahim’s for nihari, the rich meat broth cooked overnight, strained multiple times and flavoured by a spice bouquet. Labourers traditionally eat this in the morning to sustain them through the day. But the Nawabs equally ate it for breakfast, when they had no visitors, so that no one could bear witness to their indulgence in a common food.

To the left of Rahim’s is shir mal gully, where Mahumdu’s successor’s shop of Ali Hussein still stands. And to the right down a street and to the left is the famous Tunday Kebab, his small meat patties crispy on the outside, smooth and spiced on the inside. The kebab boasts 80 spices, but only 30 for taste, the other 50 are prescribed by the hakim – so it digests well. If you continue down this road that cuts a clean slice through the old city, likely an intervention by the British after 1857 to make the myriad incomprehensible streets and gullies more ‘legible’ for troops and governance, you are back at Raja Thandai.

There is an equally interesting relationship in the post-1857 influence of the taluqdars, who brought the local cuisine of their regional forts, the qasbahs, to meld with the cuisine of Lucknow. For instance, a Kakori kebab is meat tenderized to the feathery lightness of whipped cream, just solid enough not to drop off the skewer. A nobleman of Kakori’s chefs spent weeks toiling on this invention after a British official declared a kebab at his mango party ‘too tough’. Now known as the Kakori kebab, it traces an older lineage to the dargah, or saint’s tomb in Kakori, where visitors are given this kebab plusrotis, as tabaruk or blessed food. The nobleman’s kebab was likely an innovation on this food of more humble origin, but with the move of the taluqdars, the Kakori kebab left the context of blessed food at a saint’s tomb, and entered the haute cuisine of Lucknow.

Many taluqdars trace their regional roots back farther than the Nawabs, and felt greater allegiance to the Mughals, perhaps because the Nawabs did not entertain them in dialogue for political reasons. Thus ‘the landholders made courts of their own, centred on themselves and drawing on both the cultural patterns of the Mughal and Awadh courts and also upon local forms.’13 This is similar to the Kayasths in Lucknow proper, the Hindu scribes and accountants to the Nawabi rulers, who mixed the Nawabi with their own cuisine, which included more vegetables, less meat, and different spicing. Again, their cuisine is a mixture of the court and the local, which yields surprising fresh tastes.

In Barabunki, a series of small townships and landed estates close to Lucknow, meat is not always available, and the produce changes with the seasons, so a speciality in winter might be rakchochi, a chana daal pasted onto leaves, rolled, and fried, which is common in villages throughout the UP. Or saag gosht, which Fatima Rizvi, the bright eyed scholar on Urdu women’s literature, explains ‘would be made only with spinach [the most refined green] in Lucknow, but in Barabunki there are different greens from the garden we just throw in.’ Another differentiation is with ingredients. In Lucknow there are exotic condiments and produce. ‘In Barabunki you will have mashk gosht – mashk kaliya – mashk ka salan… because that is what is available.’ It is frequently this seasonal aspect of food, or regional availability – besan roti with garlic chutney in winters, or numush, the whipped cream with a layer of dew that is celebrated and awaited – whose roots are in the countryside.

Fatima continues on another thought, ‘The whole qasbah might prepare a single dish, though each will be prepared a little differently not just 5-6 miles down the road, but next door.’

There is a dilemma in saying what exactly Lakhnavi cuisine is, even it if is limited to the specific cuisine of the Nawabs. Be it reading numerous glorifying anecdotes in memoirs or novels from the time, perusing recipes or speaking with people who perhaps remember tasting the dish at age eight, or conversing with a chef who is in a lineage going back five or six generations – even then you cannot say that the dish is as it was, because invariably it was different next door. Because of what was there are questions as to whether the Lakhnavi cuisine that was still is, even if there are food festivals, restaurants and shops that sell its name.

Suleiman Mahmudabad, with a drawn forehead, because he is musing on the slippery was, the was that in Lucknow is almost a culture in itself, mentions that, ‘Attempts can be made to preserve skills, tastes, recipes, but people can invent anything from a name. We have to recognize that the time has passed. It will never be the same, it cannot be the same, for there is a context.’

There has been loss. Not only loss of the recipe but loss of the context. The Mutiny, Partition, changes in patronage, time itself – these events have shifted Lucknow so it only resembles Lucknow. No reason to mourn, time changes. But there is something to be prized in the continuation of tradition (if it’s given room to grow), which is still seen in the old city, in the attempts by families to remember ferociously and to make something living again. Still there is an overwhelming sense of was. It makes me wonder whether there ever was an is. Then you come across a memory.

Suleiman continues, evincing the struggle to cobble together the remnants of a culture: ‘There is one thing we are trying to recreate,’ and he pauses, delighted. ‘A whole bitter gourd, an achar or murabba made of that. I had it in my childhood. The wonderful thing was that the bitter gourd is extremely bitter, and in this dish the bitterness could not be tasted. The second amazing thing was it looked as if it were a fresh bitter gourd, completely green, but it was filled with nuts, garlic and chillies, and it was sweet and salty. We have tried, but it has gone.’


Footnotes:

  1. Abdul Halim Sharar, ‘The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture’ in The Lucknow Omnibus, 2001, p. 155.
  2. I will refer to both taluqdars and zamindars as taluqdars only.
  3. Abdul Halim Sharar, ‘The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture’, op. cit., p. 157.
  4. Sharar, p. 155.
  5. P.C. Mookherji, Pictorial Lucknow, 1883, p. 42.
  6. Veena Talwar Oldenburg. ‘The Making of Colonial Lucknow’, in The Lucknow: Omnibus, 2001, p. 17.
  7. Muhamad Umar, Muslim Society in Northern India, 1998, p. 403.
  8. Sharar, 161-2.
  9. Mrs. Mir Ali Hussein, Observations, 1832, p. 87; and Mildred Archer, Company Paintings, 1955.
  10. C.A. Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, 1983, p. 276.
  11. Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1891. Reprint, Asian Educational Service, 2004, p. 250; and Umar, p. 32.
  12. Veena Talwar Oldenburg, ‘The Making of Colonial Lucknow’, op. cit., chapter two.
  13. Michael Fischer, A Clash of Cultures, 1987, pp. 225-6.