A taste of Awadh in Jaipur and Kolkata

Awadhi Food is a dying tradition, I have written earlier. Even in Lucknow there are not too many fine dining outlets left that serve great Awadhi cuisine.
The many delights of Awadhi cuisine. (Photo | Sandip Ghose)
The many delights of Awadhi cuisine. (Photo | Sandip Ghose)

They say Dane, dane pe likha hain khane wale ka naam. Roughly translated into English, it would mean every crumb you get to eat has your name on it. By that token, my last couple of weeks have been assigned to Awadhi food. The first tryst was not in Lucknow but a wedding reception at Jaipur. In this age of cross-continental alliances, it was an alliance between a Bihari boy and Lebanese girl's families. I attended the 'Sangeet'  or the 'rehearsal dinner', as I believe it is called in the United States, which was for family and close friends and, therefore, a more intimate affair than the grand banquet that was to follow the next day. Still, more than a hundred guests from the bride's side had flown in for the celebrations. 

I must say the Lebanese entourage - with their natural flair for dancing and hip movements -  outperformed  the groom's team in the dancing department. They danced not just to Middle-Eastern Arabaian music but also choreographed Bollywood numbers. I tried to spot Salma Hayek and Amal Clooney among them, the only two people of Lebanese descent I knew of. But they were all "so beautiful, so elegant, just looking like a wow!".  The hosts, however, laid out a feast befitting the Ottoman nobility. So, the spread had Rajasthani delicacies at one end (Chakki-Atta - or Wheat Flour - Ki Sabzi was a new discovery about which I shall write some other time) to Mediterranean and Italian at the other. In the middle was an Awadhi table for which a caterer had flown in from Lucknow. 

Chef Mumataj Ahmad hails from Ameenabad Nakkhas - the heart of Lucknow's old Muslim quarters. The business card he shared with me introduced him as a specialist of Galouti and Kakori Kebabs, Ulta Tawa Ka Paratha and Gosht Nihari. The Lebanese palate, I gathered, cannot handle chilly-pepper. But Awadhi food was a revelation for them. It was a delight to watch them getting lured to the counter seeing meat being skewered over charcoal fire but unsure if they will be able to deal with the spices. So they approached the food with some trepidation which changed into a beatific smile as they discovered the subtle taste and melt-in-the-mouth quality of the kebabs. 

Awadhi Food is a dying tradition, I have written earlier. My gourmet friend from Hyderabad, the famous landscape architect - Abbas Razvi - has lamented his frustrating and futile forays in search of authentic Awadhi Food in Lucknow. The problem in my mind is the disappearing discerning clientele who can afford or are willing to spend on food that is by definition expensive because it calls for the highest quality of ingredients and finest culinary skills. Of course, the legendary Imtiaz Quereshi took Awadhi Food to the world through the Dum Pukht chain of ITC. But that is beyond the reach of most people.

Even in Lucknow there are not too many fine dining outlets left that serve great Awadhi cuisine. The Oudhiyana at Taj Gomti Nagar and Falakunama are two of them. The Mughal's Dastarkhwan chain - with its many clones - have come up in the last few years. But for the most part they are commercial and mediocre. Yet the talent still exists in the inner by-lanes of the city who have inherited the skills and hand-me-downs family recipes from mothers, grandmothers and fathers who were "Ustads" - much like the vanishing tribe of Waza Chefs in Kashmir - who cook the Wazwan Banquets. That is why I was so happy to meet Mumataj Ahmad who is keeping the glorious tradition alive. 

My second Awadhi Food encounter in two weeks was in Lucknow itself. It was at the Azrak Speciality Restaurant at the Lebua Saraca on Mall Avenue. The Lebua Group of Thailand has taken over a heritage property to develop a luxury boutique property diagonally opposite the home of Mayawati, the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. The young master-chef, Chef Mohsin Quereshi - also part of the Quereshi clan of the old city - was hosting an Awadhi Winter Food festival. I'm generally disinclined to eat at top-end restaurants - I had heard about the place from some people but was sceptical.  However, I was pleasantly surprised. 

Now a question may arise as to what would qualify to be genuine Awadhi Food. As soon as I posted a picture of the Nihari - a friend contested saying the origins of Nihari are in Delhi and not Awadh. Similarly, another follower from Kolkata wrote to say the original Awadhi Food is available only at a restaurant named Manzilat operated by a descendant of Wajid Ali Shah. But I am unwilling to straight-jacket food as long as it stays true to its genre. Ethnic specialty cuisine cannot be assembly line production. As long as the basic character is not lost, it is those little creative twists in the recipe and minor innovations in form that uplifts a dish to the next stage of evolution.

That is what I found Chef Quereshi has done with his Majlisi Kabab for example. It takes the concept of serving Galawati on small pieces of Shirmal during Majlis (in small parlour gatherings for concerts or poetry) by cooking it in small plates on 'dum' covered with a 'purdah' of bread. Inside the meat he adds small bits of lime with the rind - that cuts the lamb fat ('galawat', which is used to melt the meat).

Similarly, at the centre of the minced meat ball in Gola Kabab, he adds a little Malai. The Bagara Baingan is a tad sweet but also has a tinge of sour - which I suspect comes from the use of Amchur or Tamarind. The Tawa Bhuni Bater (Quail) was the showstopper with a garnish of silver-film. But alas, farm-bred quails are no match for the jungle bird that the Nawabs used to savour. Chef Quereshi's Mutton Burra was boneless. But, he vehemently contested the theory that Lucknow Nawabs had a problem with their teeth. But I let it pass - as the food was far too delectable to merit any further argument. 

However, the story of Awadhi cuisine cannot be complete without talking of the Kolkata Mutton Chaap - invented by Ahmed Hussain of Royal India Hotel of Chitpur in Kolkata. The Chaap is a cousin of the Korma but with a concentrated gravy and soft meat with a near-fried feel - like a Tawa-fried meat kebab. In some ways it may be described as the hybrid of a Kebab and Korma. The trick of making Chaap lies in the long marination - for which Raw papaya paste is used. The preferred meat is the softer cut from the collar and ribs but with a copious quantity of fat which is the main medium of cooking. However, the real secret, as in any dish, is in the medley of spices - mace, nutmeg, white peppercorns, shah-jeera (caraway seeds), black and green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and saffron. The spices are mildly roasted and grated into a coarse powder mixed in milk and added to the marinade.

No onions are used - only fresh garlic and ginger paste. The meat is spread  in a single layer on a large flat metal pan (one can also use a Dutch oven with the lid) and cooked on slow fire for at least two hours. One starts the cooking with a little ghee or white oil of any kind and the fat from the meat does the rest of the job. No water is used - other than what comes out of the meat - if required some more milk can be added to prevent the meat from sticking to the pan or being burnt. Finally, a few drops of Kewra water is sprinkled from the top for finishing. 

Sinful it may be. But sometimes small indulgences are necessary to keep glorious traditions alive for a larger cause of preserving cultural heritage. Taking a conducted tour inside the Lebua Saraca property, I found a small stage being set up for a wedding function. I was told it is for a Mujra performance. I asked if Mujras are still popular in Lucknow. The hotel executive taking me around replied, sadly Mujra performers are now extinct in Lucknow. They bring artists from Delhi who perform Mujra style soirees just for a Lucknowi ambience. Hope there never comes a day when Khansamas have to be flown into Lucknow for Awadhi banquets. 

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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