Awadhi Vegetarian Food

During last week’s visit to Lucknow we tried out the two kababs which are special to Awadhi food: the Kakori kabab, named after the village of Kakori a few kilometers from Lucknow, and the Galawati kabab, whose name suggests that it is melted so that you don’t have to chew on it. We tried these two and the shami kabab in all the places which we ate in. After this extensive comparative tasting, we came to the conclusion that street food can be quite nice, but for the subtle craft of spicing one needs to go to some of the more refined kitchens in the city. These were the expected flavourful delights.

What was quite unexpected were two excellent vegetarian dishes we found. One was a kofta with khubani (apricots). Khubani is an important part of Hyderabadi food, and it is not hard to imagine that it entered modern Indian cooking through Hyderabad and Awadh borrowing it from Mughal food. The aromatic gravy with nuts and spices which came with the kofta was clearly related to the spicing of the galawati kabab. So it was not hard to imagine that this was a reasonably authentic dish, or an invention by a cook who was well-versed in the style and technique of Awadhi food.

The other vegetarian dish gives me more to think about. This was a dish with paneer and a paste of figs cooked in a rich curry with aromatic spices and nuts. The curry was again something one could well accept in any Awadhi food. The spare use of the fig paste could have been derived from a Mughal kitchen, and I’m willing to think of it as genuinely Awadhi ingredient. It is the paneer which I am conflicted about. Awadhi food contains a lot of hung yogurt, cream and ghee. Is paneer an authentic ingredient in this kitchen? By the 19th century paneer and chhana had definitely entered the Indian kitchen.

Wikipedia asserts that paneer was known in India in the first century AD on the basis of the following sentences from this paper “People during the Kusana and Saka Satavahana periods (AD 75–300) used to consume a solid mass, whose description seems to the [sic] earliest reference to the present day paneer. The solid mass was obtained from an admixture of heated milk and curd”. This description fits the process for making yogurt. Harold McGee’s famous book describes yogurt, buttermilk and soured creams as being recorded during this historical period in large parts of the world, but gives a later date to the emergence of various kinds of cheese. I think the last word has not been said about the widespread introduction of paneer into Indian kitchens. It is possible that the Mughal kitchen had access to it, and the Awadhi cooks inherited paneer as an ingredient; but the dish that I ate felt more modern.

One of the important components of Awadhi food are the rotis. The layered shirmal roti was hard to find, but the one which we eventually found was lovely and soft, although more infused with ghee than we would tolerate every day. We never managed to find a baqar khani roti, apparently you have to order these in advance. But we found a couple of parathas which seemed to be made in the same style as the shirmal roti. While the roomali roti of Delhi has become common fare even in the heart of Awadh, the art of Awadhi roti is alive.

The late Mughal and early Company years are very intensely studied by historians. I hope someone, somewhere, is thinking of writing a history of food during this time.

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.