The trotternama

The trotternama
Milky days at Netram's in Aminabad, Photo Credit: Shome Basu
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Happily, not much has changed... Lucknow reveals its flaky true essence of the delicious Awadhi cooking

Soity Banerjee
April 23 , 2014
13 Min Read

That Kallu Miyan sheermal-waley and the thieving, na-shukraguzaar milkman were waging their melodious battle of words in the Chawalwali Gali in Lucknow’s Chowk was no minor accident. I didn’t know it then, but the rising, quivering voices, the controlled anger and the abundant euphemisms were, in spirit, an ode to the alley’s original residents... The keepers of eighteenth-century Awadh’s begamati zubaan (refined speech). The guardians of its adab qaida (sophisticated ways). Powerful women, whose offer of a single gilori of paan at the kotha could send its recipient into raptures.

Covered in filth and flour today, the gali is no longer scented with mogre-ka-itr or the wafting strains of a sarangi. But tramping around on a pale winter afternoon, I find it still draws in punters — of a different kind. Lined with sooty shops run by nanfus (bread-makers) who make all kinds of leavened breads through the day, the focus shifts almost entirely to sheermal (Rs 5–9) post lunch. Piled high in flat cane baskets stained with the zaffrani food-colouring of the flaming orange, mildly sweet paratha, the Awadhi sheermal looks nothing like its namesake, the large, sugar-glazed frisbees of Delhi. And even in its crude, derivative, modern form — sans a single strand of saffron — the milk bread holds court like a preening nawab. Congratulating itself on surviving — unlike, say, ananas ka parantha or puris with birds flying out — the hundred and fifty odd years separating Uttar Pradesh from Awadh.

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The Awadhi hangover that still consumes most of Lucknow’s old bazaars is hard to shake off. Even when you tuck into a plate of chaat or drain a glass of thandai, both of which can be as Lakhnavi as qormas and kababs, you’re keenly aware (or at least, I was) that a ‘proper’ meal in the city ought to be insistent in its meaty richness. Particularly, when finding a culinary gem seems as deceptively easy as it does in Lucknow. I knew I was elbow-deep in trouble as soon as I invited recommendations from friends in or from the city. With practically no room to make my own discoveries — because there are just too many places-you-cannot-miss — whittling down a ‘shortlist’ felt like cooking my wits on dum. I did cover a sizeable chunk of Lucknow, eventually. But that’s because some of the best-known eateries in town are found in clusters, and because the bazaars of Chowk and Aminabad yield easily to hungry tourists on a rickshaw.

Yet, mostly, it was my greed that fed more greed. A natural order of things that seems to have inspired most food discoveries around here. Invented in the kitchens of the bread-maker Mahumdu, for instance, the sheermal was created as an improvement on the crisp baqar khani; a bread that even in its heyday was a great equaliser. Bridging the distance between the Nawabi dastarkhwan and the streets — paintings suggest it was distributed from atop elephants as tabaruq (blessing) on Muharram — as a relatively cheap (it’s bread, after all) and more portable (it travels well) alternative, which was easy to produce in large numbers.

In fact, for all its nobility and sheathed imperiousness, Lucknow owes much of its culinary glory to the man on the street. I had read about how having lost the patronage of the nobles — nawabs, followed by the taluqdars — in colonial times, the bawarchis (who cook in large quantities), rakabdars (gourmet chefs) and nanfus had to swallow their pride and prove themselves in an open market as shopkeepers. Most of the well-known eateries in the old city — the Muslim establishments, in particular — are a product of that transition.

I met the descendants of several such royal retainers, who still flog their connections, while keeping their tills ringing with kababs for five rupees a piece. It’s amazing how well the nawabi khana has adapted itself to feed (and feed off) a man of meagre means. Yet, nothing makes this as obvious to me as Idris ‘hotel’ (9415093727), opposite the Pata Nala Chowk Kotwali, a short rickshaw ride from Akbari Gate. A cramped, ramshackle establishment at the edge of a makeshift settlement, where homes breathe into homes, and mosques crouch over chikankari karkhanas, the late Mohammed Idris, and now his sons Abu Bakr and Abu Hamza, have evidently built their reputation on the embers of hard work and consistency. For no matter how incredible it seems at first, this is where the town’s best pulao — arguably a not layered, less spicy, drier version of a biryani — is to be found (Rs 140/plate). A distinction never casually bestowed here. 

Cooked in milk and cream, the meat used in the thirty kilos of pulao cooked every day is kid not goat — an udand or one without teeth, I was told. And the rice is a slender variant of arwa, not the more popular sela or upmarket basmati. Tricky, delicate ingredients that can melt into potage in an inexperienced hand! But here, the gregarious Abu Bakr reassures me — between tales of shooting with the crew of BBC London and Fox Traveller, and eating the ‘aloo-wali’ Royal’s biryani in Kolkata where his in-laws live — not a grain escapes notice. Which is perhaps why they don’t have a signboard or even framed photos of filmstars and political heavyweights to hawk their wares. Their only advertisement is the crowd that gathers at lunchtime and in the evenings, warming their hands around the coal fire with the handi on dum. If you care for endorsements though, Abu Bakr could tell you, that when Atal Behari Vajpayee won his first election from here, or more recently, when Rahul Gandhi was in town for a flying visit from Amethi, the pulao and a special bater or quail qorma was packed and delivered to order. A meaty proportion of Abu Bakr’s business relies on what he calls ‘parcel’. With barely four tables tucked behind the counter, it’s easy to see why.

For most vendors, including some in the old city, home-delivery and diversification — read token presence in food courts of the local malls like Sahara Ganj — have become the norm in these recessionary times. A practice that further reinforces the old equilibrium between the common and high tables of Lucknow. This time in reverse though. Making the commoner’s kabab less common. Taking Chowk and Aminabad to the high-rises of Jopling.

The one shop that has mastered this formula, as it has the recipe of the shahi galawat, is Tundey Kebabi’s (7897861786). Although the original outlet in Akbari Gate — now with a large gaping hole filled with laminated tables behind the counter — sticks to its over-hundred-year-old ways, serving customers who come to them for buff kababs (Rs 25 for four) wrapped in leaf plates, their newer outlet in Aminabad (just off the main roundabout) thrives on home-deliveries (Rs 55 for four mutton kababs). The latter also sells the raw galawat mix by weight. But since anyone with the mildest interest in Awadhi cooking has heard or read realms about Haji Murad Ali or Tundey miyan  —the man who lost an arm after he fell off the roof and rose to fame with his meaty medallions made of 160 ingredients — I won’t belabour the point. 

For all the indolent charms of dialling a phone number though, the best way to sink your teeth into the city in the winter is to take a walk. And the best places to do that are Chowk, Aminabad and Hazratganj, in that order. Chowk can consume your entire day, of course — beginning before breakfast with ‘makkhan’ and ending long after dinner with paan and Kashmiri chai (Rs 5) sold on carts in winter. But save an evening each for Aminabad and the upmarket areas around Mayfair Cinema in Hazratganj.

At the latter, queue up for the local phenomena that is the Royal Café (0522-2627070) basket chaat — overladen with tikkis, bhallas, papris, besan pakoras, moori, curd, chukander (beet), anaar (pomegranate) and even a homespun hajme ki chutney to break it all down (Rs 75). A short detour to the lane behind Tulsi cinema-turned-shopping-arcade will bring you to the dhabas that send out smoke signals customarily at mealtimes — Dastarkhwan (try their boti kabab), Naushijaan (their qorma) and Sakhawat (kakori kabab or khatti machhli), further ahead near the Oudh Gymkhana. Stop en route for a cone or two of wintry peas and tomato chaat or just a bag of warm peanuts from a pushcart. While evenings in Hazratganj have a certain air about them, come back if you can for breakfast at the Sharma Tea Corner in Lalbagh (8423390730). Over sixty years old, the shop resembles Delhi’s Keventer’s closely and sticks to its limited ‘Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh-menu’ of sweet bun with white butter (Rs 16), tea in kulhars, thermocol cups or ‘gilas’ (Rs 16/10/8) and quirky rounded samosas (Rs 8).

In Chowk, the key gustatory landmarks are tucked between Gol Darwaza and Akbari Gate — a surprisingly short walk. One that ought to begin early on winter mornings. Ours began at Gol Darwaza, where we were met by peddlers of the ephemeral ‘makkhan’ — delicate mounds of yellow protected by a parasol of glass. Similar to daulat ki chaat in Delhi and malaiyyo or nimish in Banaras, this buttery, honeyed confection — made of churned milk, pista, elaichi, kesar, badam and chironji — is left under an open sky for dew to work its magic (Rs 220/kg). Guided by a friendly Mr Mehrotra from the Sachivalaya, we arrived at Jiyalal Japani’s cart just a few metres inside the Darwaza. Serving by far the best makkhan, Japani’s middle-aged son, Sri Ram refused to let us ‘atithis’ pay (something we were used to by now) and led us instead to the ageing halwai Sewak Ram’s, in a dark passage next to the Kaley Ram Mandir. 

Doling out hing and urad-dal-ki-kachori fried in ghee, hot off the kadhai, with a dry, spicy aloo cut into tiny cubes, a rasedaar or wet sabzi and a chutney of imli (Rs 25), old Sewak Ram is also accustomed to follow it up with a dona of kaaley gaajar ka halwa, a fudgy dark winter special (Rs 300/kg) and crisp, fantastic jalebis made with a batter that includes quite unusually a portion of moong dal (Rs 200/kg). Others in the same league as Sewak Ram are Vajpayee’s (in the Ram Asrey gali) and Netram’s in Aminabad (near the Hanuman Mandir on Sri Ram Road). For sweetmeats in Chowk though, Ram Asrey, a two-hundred-year-old establishment known for its malai paan with a filling of mishri and mewa (Rs 15/piece), and Radheylal’s Parampara (0522-4067659) at the mouth of the Gol Darwaza are the go-to places in winter. A season when candy-like discs of halwa sohan — mewa and besan held together by cornflour and congealed ghee (Rs 400/kg), the dark milk-cakey doodhiya barfi (Rs 400/kg) and kaaley gaajar ka halwa dominate the groaning shelves.

But if such innocuous offerings won’t do for you, hunker down at Rahim’s at Akbari Gate for breakfast (9335273451). Famous for its buff and mutton nihari (Rs 50/Rs 80) cooked overnight till the meat begins to meld into the gravy, you can also order a plate of paya or trotters (Rs 80), or a curry of white wisps of gooda or marrow (Rs 80), if you’re feeling particularly brave. Mop it all up with Rahim’s phenomenal kulcha (Rs 9), a beautiful leavened disc, crisp outside and soft in its belly that fogs up your glasses each time you break bread. Biryani-pulao for lunch at Zubair’s (aka Haji Rahim) close by and parsindas, kababs made with pieces of meat cut from the leg and shoulder and flattened with a mallet (Rs 60), with ultey-tawe-ke-parathe called Mughlai parathe (Rs 8) at Mubeen’s (9335273451) should feed any remaining atavistic cravings later.

My siege of Lucknow though ends in Aminabad — its narrow veins coursing with the din of chikankari and kolhapuri chappal shops, ‘mixture’ and pansari (grocery) ki dukaans, carts of balai, a sweetmeat made of layers of malai ( Rs 20), and shahi tukra (Rs 10).... Strolling past Prakash Kulfi (9415083536) and the grand old dame of Burma Bakery (7388733786), I work up an appetite for dinner at Wahid’s Biryani (0522-2611878). Easy to locate, right off the main chowk, Wahid is to the Tundey here (a twenty-year-old offshoot of the original shop in Chowk) what Jawahar is to Karim’s in Old Delhi. A worthy adversary that has arguably upstaged its famous neighbour, not in numbers but in the quality of patrons it attracts.

Young Hasan — manning the fort in the absence of his father Abid Ali Qureshi, who is currently giving Masterchef India a taste of his talent — brings us heaped plates of mutton biryani and qormas to begin with (they have a ‘No beef’ sign at the doorstep). But he insists we try their kali-mirch chicken with a thin, flaky Mughlai parantha. Tucking in, I wonder if the qorma or the chicken is laced with lazzat-e-taam — a local mix of over twenty-five herbs and spices, including the unexpected zarakush (dried lemongrass), sandalwood powder, rose petals and kewra water. A popular ingredient, kewra is a constant reminder of how Awadh’s dynasty began with Burhan-ul-Mulk Sa’adat Ali Khan’s first settlement in the screwpine jungles of neighbouring Faizabad.

More immediate concerns cause a rumble, however, when I spot a Hamdard and an Angrezi Dawa ki Dukan across the street from Wahid’s. Only to realise that I needn’t have caused myself unnecessary heartburn. If the potent spice mix doesn’t tackle the backlash of an oily, heavy meal, a well-made Lakhnavi paan certainly will. Made of the desi, desavri and mahoba leaves — unlike the maghai in Banaras — the paan here is often pitted as a cure for everything from ulcers and acidity to kamar dard (an aching hip) and taakat (a euphemism for virility). A sort of Unani shortcut to good health. But for all its virtues as a multi-purpose totka (solution), the paan takes its other, equally important job, far more seriously.

For in the folds of a Lakhnavi paan lies the very soul and tehzeeb of Awadh. Not many today, remember, leave alone follow, the code of rituals that once accompanied the offering and eating of a paan. Variably an invitation, a mark of fellowship and even an olive branch, it was a way of life. And in Chowk, at Maghai Paan Bhandar (9839706928), next to the famous Raja Thandai (9452128150), in many ways, it still is. In a framed copy of The Statesman printed in 1951, hung low on its walls, is an interview of its original proprietor Jamuna Prasad Chaurasiya. A man who described a good paan as a concentrated poem and distinguished good from bad as “having a vivacious or a dull wife”. One exhilarates and the other stupefies.”

Half a century later, chewing on my own share of elixir, I wonder if the milkman in Sheermal Gali had only offered Kallu Miyan a gilori of paan…


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