It was 159 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 creator 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 ruler 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 traveled from the royal kitchens of the nobilities and from there, to the kichens of ordinary people.
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 18th 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 the kitchen alone but from five other bawarchikhanas, including that of his mother Nawab Begum and his wife Bahu Begum. These ladies separately spent Rs. 9,000 per 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 he cook announced that 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 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 Haider 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 preserved 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 roti, chapattis, 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 degbos 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 vegetable), 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 in the form of a pulao, chulao (fried rice) or served plain. There would also be a variety of rotis. Deserts 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 saffron).
The Lucknowi’s menu changes with the seasons and with the festival 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 a very popular in Lucknow. The former Taluqdar of Jehangirabad would serve it to his friends on several occasions during winter.
Birds like patridge 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 (paratha 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 the 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 the friends and the poor.
Id is celebrated with varieties of siwaiyan (vermicelli) – Muzzaffar is a favouritein Lucknow. Shab-e-barat is looked forward to for its halwas particularly of semolina and gram flour. Khichra or haleem , a del;icious 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 season and there are those which are a permanent feature, like the qorma, the chapatti and the roomali roti. The test of a good chapatti 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 chapattis are made.
Sheermals were invented by mamdoo bawarchi more than one and a half century 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 tawa (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 Nawabs. Water was normally sipped from copper or silver kato ras and not glasses. The seating arrangement, while eating was always on the floor where beautifully embroidered dastarkhwans were spread on dares and chandnis (white sheets). Sometimes this arrangement was made on a takht or low, wide wooden table.