What is Awadhi cuisine really?

Awadhi cuisine refers to the style of cooking which developed in the Awadh region after the capital of the kingdom shifted to Lucknow and until Wazir Ali Shah was overthrown by the British East India Company in 1857. But is there really an Awadhi cuisine, or is it the product of a marketing campaign? Between the hype and the plagiarism which one finds on the web, it is very hard to make out the truth.

Two bits of hype

Wikipedia’s article on Awadhi food repeats the story of the famous Tunday’s kabab shop being a hundred year old. If this were correct, the eponymous one-armed cook would have set up shop only in 1915; sixty years, and two generations, after the reign of the Awadhi nawabs ended. The article also says that the kababs are famous because of the 160 ingredients which go into the secret recipe. This is directly contradicted by an article in Indiamarks which states "Awadhi cuisines are not a concoction of hundred odd spices instead the difference lies in the preparation of the food by preserving all the nutrients in the cooking [sic]". Clearly both sources cannot be right.

The second article seems to plagiarize other sources on Awadhi food. It is difficult to decide which is original: the article quoted above, these slides or this self-published article. Perhaps none of them are.

Then there are the famous chefs, whose pronouncements are always made with an eye to a bottom line. An article in the Times of India discusses the Awadhi cuisine produced by a big-name chef, then at the Hilton, including "khatti macchi (fish braised in yoghurt gravy) [sic]". The mixing of yoghurt and fish is such a strong taboo for Muslims (and Jews) that this cannot be an Awadhi speciality. The real Lakhnawi khatti machhli is quite different.

A search for the truth

Awadhi food is important to us because it is the beginning of modern Indian cooking. Most of the ingredients we use today would have been available two hundred years ago, and the techniques developed then would still be in use. So the taste of Awadhi food is perhaps not very different from what we think of as our "fancy cooking".

Awadhi food developed on the Mughlai style. One of the source books for Indian food, namely K. T. Achaya‘s Indian Food: A Historical Companion tells us that although many of the Mughal emperors were abstemious near-vegetarians, their courtiers would have eaten naan, keema, kababs, rice and phirni. Travelers mention do-piyaza, meat and rice cooked together, khichdi, lemonade, dahi and dinners with fifty dishes, including fruits, wild animals and birds.

One way to trace the history of food is to follow the names of dishes back as far as one can. A search of Google ngrams reveals that in the Google corpus the name shirmal roti debuts in 1959, seekh kabab in 1947, shami kabab in 1921, and dum aloo in 1966. In this corpus, the word kabab can be traced back to an English cookbook printed in 1831. According to this source, the minced meat for the kabab has to be marinated in a mixture of salt, ginger, coriander, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, onions and saffron mixed into a paste of hung yogurt, cream and a whole egg. The marinated meat is to be cooked in ghee. This mixture of spices recurs through the book. Moreover, this kind of garam masala is precisely what we would turn to in our own kitchen now and then.

Until a modern Achaya publishes research into 19th century Urdu, Hindi and Indo-Persian texts on food, I can only dredge my own memories of what an occasional brush with a khansama or bawarchi in my childhood would bring: baqar khani roti, shami kabab (not the version described in Wikipedia), pasande, murabba, and zarda.

The truth is never simple, but the search for it can be amazing. I plan to be amazed by my search for true Awadhi food next weekend in Lucknow.

What does one do in Lucknow?

As a tourist in a new town you want to do four things: see what there is to see, eat what is special to the place, shop local, and watch what people do in that place. Our aim in Lucknow is no different. So what do we do?

What there is to see

The tourism posters have just a few things to show off. The Rumi Darwaza is a gateway to heaven, they promise. Romantic tourists write informative but breathless posts about the Bara Imambara, the Chhota Imambara, Shahzadi ka Maqbara and the Dewa Sharif. I came across a very informative blog post with lots of photos and a long list, with descriptions, of places to see in Lucknow; this is by far the best link I’ve found till now.

The Bara Imambara has a lovely genesis story attached to it. The blogs about it talk of the Asafi mosque and the maze called the bhool bhulaiya. I discover that there is a baoli (step well) inside the Imambara. I remember a childhood story of my aunt and mother being startled by a conversation heard inside the whispering gallery, carried right around it by the unusual acoustics of the place. This story stayed with me through school when I studied acoustics.

The Chhota Imambara is often only mentioned in passing. But a photoblog showed lovely photos of the hamaam (baths) in it. Others mention the chandeliers, and the tombs of its builder, Mohammad Ali Shah, his mother, and daughter, Zeenat Asiya.

What there is to eat

Awadhi cuisine is legendary. I cannot believe a food blog which counts Shahi Tukra with Pineapples among Nawabi Lucknow’s cuisine. This lapse makes me believe that the same blog is also wrong in counting chicken curry among the traditional Nawabi recipes.

The roadside eatery known as Tunday ka kabab has become famous in the last decade. It must be good, but it is certainly less than a century old, and I’ve not read a convincing article which connects it to the old cuisine. In fact an interesting blog connects Tunday with Bhopal. I have great memories of a shami kabab in Bhopal, so I can well imagine that Tunday’s kababs will be good.

Rahim seems to be the noor in this taj. We will not be able to taste the winter specialty of Nihari at Rahim’s, but certainly we plan to stop by to taste their other kababs and Pasande. The description we read made us think that Rahim would deliver on the true Awadhi cuisine. Descriptions of the food in this city take me back to childhood memories of baqar khani and shirmal rotis, chaat and Lakhnawi biriyani.

Life in the city

Is Lucknow really the second happiest town in India? Which is the happiest? Patna? [Surprise! It is Chandigarh.] No matter, people watching will be fun, if there are people out during the monsoon.

Little is said any more of the courtesans of Lucknow, whose time passed long ago. Their music, thumri, and their dance, kathak, has now been absorbed into mainstream culture. Bollywood has won, and Lucknow has its share of multiplexes. Is there other entertainment? Theatre everywhere seems to wilt under the shadow of Bollywood; but, delightfully, there is an attempt to nurture theatre in Lucknow.

Uttar Pradesh has about one sixth of India’s population. So it is not a surprise that in Lucknow, its capital, construction is booming. One construction company’s website tells me that Lucknow is a hot-spot of job creation. This could be the reason for the mall boom, at a time when they are going bust in Mumbai.

UP gets a bad press for crime, although for years statistics have shown that per capita there is more violent, and sexually violent, crime in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. But there are some new developments in Lucknow which leave me cold. Apparently Lucknow is India’s most surveilled city. Also, Lucknow police has acquired pepper spraying drones to control mobs.

Shopping

We are unlikely to wander into the malls of Lucknow. I guess quite a bit of our shopping will be devoted to chikankari. Around the main tourist spots, ie, the two Imambaras, the chowk, and Aminabad, I’m told that there are jungles of small shops selling cheap chikan and minakari. These are probably interesting places to soak in the atmosphere, although in the monsoon one will probably soak in a lot of less savoury material. But maybe the quality of work is better in Hazratganj and in SEWA outlets. Of course, we can be surprised, and we will definitely keep our eyes peeled for pleasant surprises. Then there are the boutique shops which are whispered about in the grapevine which The Family’s whatsapp is tuned to.