Through Lucknowi Food, Remembering a Time When India’s Composite Culture Thrived

Filled with over 150 recipes, 'The Lucknow Cookbook' also focuses on the architecture and craft of the city – but fails to give adequate history of its cuisines.

The Lucknow that I grew up in – from the mid-1980s to late-1990s – was one that had already lost much of its nawabi and colonial privilege but continued to retain much of that culture of syncretism that we dub as “Ganga-Jamuni”.

I was still in school at La Martiniere during those tumultuous years when Mandal, Kamandal were born. The old Lucknowi society with its gentler, elite, all-accepting rhythms would change forever after the advent of these phenomena, as would all of India. But just then, while these social and political forces were still new, Nakhlau retained its inherent cosmopolitanism and composite spirit, albeit already fraying.

In the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition, ‘Vasudevan uncle’, a railway employee from distant Kerala who moonlighted as a sought-after private math tutor and whose class I had joined, would insist that we teens always greet him (and one another) with not “Namaste” but a loud “Jai Shri Ram” each time we went to class.

Caste or religion had never before intruded upon our Lucknowi upbringing and even through the tumultuous years as all that we previously knew was being rent, various aunties continued to feed us chashni-sweet shahi tukda with crisp fried bread (so unlike “double ka meetha” at fancy restaurants that is entirely without texture) and everything from pooris to pulao at various meals through the year.

Lucknow’s famous Tunday mian with his galawat ke kabab had not become as much the touristy phenomenon as it is now. His hole in the wall shop in Chowk may have been frequented by young men from Colvin Taluqdars’ College, daily wage labourers or occasional gourmands but the kebabs’s reputation was far from what it seems today. For me, nothing could compare to the shami kebab of my Kayasth home, save perhaps for the tiffin snack that my classmate Fauzia Sarvar, a distant cousin of the actor Aamir Khan (she told us excitedly when Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak released) brought to school – cold shamis sandwiched in white bread, lined with a spicy green coriander chutney.

Mutton tunday. Credit: Twitter

There were parantha-achar picnics at Haathi Park and Kukrail, cream rolls from a Hazratganj store, nuqti laddoos from Ritz (that I preferred to Ram Asrey’s mithai; nuqti being very fine boondi, deriving its name from “nuqta”, the dot in the urdu script), matra at Aminabad, fried crisp, served only with slivers of ginger and a squeeze of lime (no self-respecting Lucknowiite would dunk everything in dahi-saunth), biryani from shops around the K.D. Singh Babu Stadium, kali mirch chicken from stalls near the Charbagh railway station (these shops selling the fowl were set up by post-Partition immigrants) and even fried fish sold by a Bengali gentlemen at a shop in my neighbourhood market. These were the foods when we ate out.

It was a happy childhood. I didn’t think of it as particularly “inclusive” – though, of course it was. It didn’t matter to us who came from which part of India, ate what food, had what religion or whether food had a religion. Instead of the aggression and loud machismo we see all around, there was a gentler rhythm to life.

This is the Lucknow I sought to find in The Lucknow Cookbook by Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli, a personal memoir and collection of recipes belonging to Kohli’s mother and their family friends. In fact, I sought to find the portrait of an even older city where the genteelness and civility remained intact and unthreatened and art, culture and cuisine reached their zenith in an inward-looking society. Sometimes nostalgia is a way of reconnecting with something that we are on the verge of losing.

Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli
The Lucknow Cookbook
Aleph Book Company, 2017

The Lucknow Cookbook offers us that little reminder of a past where India’s composite culture thrived and was not under the kind of siege that we see it under today – For this alone, it deserves to get our whole-hearted support. Then, there are also more than 150 recipes belonging to Kohli’s mother, who was known apparently for her “Continental” style dishes and in general as a good cook. These are family heirlooms that have been collected and preserved through the means of this book and given how lax most Indian families are in recording their culinary heritage, again this can only be a laudable effort.

Is The “Lucknow” Cookbook, really about Lucknow? Kohli seems most passionate when she talks about the architecture and craft of the city in passing, as examples of its great Ganga-Jamuni heritage. These little asides are the best bits about the book for me. If this was meant as a personal memoir, I wish she had paused just a bit longer on these references. I also wish she had journeyed back to give us portraits in greater detail of all the pedigreed Lucknowallahs she and her family seem to have known intimately: Darshi and Ram Advani (of Ram Advani Booksellers), Moti and Gulu Thadani (of Mayfair Cinema), old taluqdars, former chief justices et al. What was the food on their tables? What was that one-star dish of their homes? For vanished-Lucknow’s nostalgia-trippers, such an account may have had its value.

More importantly, if the attempt was to do a grand book on Lucknow and its cuisines (of the many different communities that have inhabited the city) as the title aspires to, then Kohli could have done with better research. What was the food of these different communities, how were similar dishes treated differently or different dishes treated similarly in their homes? How exactly did different influences come together to give us the star “Lucknowi” dishes that we know today? Were the galawat ke kebab influenced by the pate technique of the French? Did the idea of nimish travel from the countryside into refined Lucknowi kitchens because of the taluqdars, or landowners, whose food transformed rustic Avadh ingredients and influences into high culinary art? What were the jaw-dropping treats concocted by the rakabdars, highly-paid cooks, who used culinary arts to entertain a redundant aristocracy and British masters? What has been the impact of the hakims and their secret smells and potions on Lucknow’s fragrant food and so on.

Even more grating than the lack of this research is just dodgy claims to historicity of dishes which a good editor should have questioned. The samosa in its “present form” originated in Lucknow as did the chaat, says Kohli is one definitive sweeping statement attributed to no one. We don’t know for sure and these claims are unlikely.

Sunita Kohli. Credit: Author website

The kakori kebab originated in the kitchen of the “nawab” of Kakori (there was no nawab of Kakori) is a tall story that even Wikipedia has discredited. The kebab is a common snack in the small town of Kakori, where oral traditions attribute it to shops outside a dargah. The do piyaza is Lucknowi even though the mythic mulla do piyaza has been popularly described as a courtier to Akbar, which would make Lucknowi provenance suspect. There is no harm in repeating popular stories around food if they are delicious, but it is necessary to warn readers to take everything with a pinch of salt rather than pass them off as “history”.

Chand Sur. Credit: Twitter

Let’s come to the recipes themselves. I haven’t tried any at home yet, but am tempted to try the “angrezi khana”, old style Continental dishes which were apparently Kohli’s mother’s specials. A quick read through, however, leaves me wishing that the book had more rigour. Basic questions like why is galawat ka kebab called “galawat” ka kebab and what separates it from the shami kebab remain unanswered in the descriptions of dishes provided.

Then, there are astonishing sections such as a section on potatoes – ostensibly because “Lucknow is known for its potato specialities”. I just wish the author or editor had cleared their heads just a little bit on what exactly makes a dish Lucknowi. Is it simply because it was cooked in Kohli’s home? Or is it because it used particular ingredients and spices or cooking techniques common in Avadh but not elsewhere?

God lies in the details. So does the devil. Every single recipe that lists green cardamom, a popular aromat, mentions a literal Hindi translation of it as “hari elaichi”. I don’t know about Kohli’s home, but in Lucknow as in most of Uttar Pradesh, the rightful term is “choti elaichi”. No self-respecting cook familiar with spices will call it “hari elaichi”. Lucknow deserves another book.

Anoothi Vishal is a writer on food and the author of Mrs LC’s Table.