India’s culinary history is rich with stories about hundreds of royal courts and their kitchens, but no one has been able to match the excellence of the dastarkhwan of the nawabs of Lucknow, for it is there that Awadhi cuisine came into being. The nawabs of Awadh were patrons of the arts, poetry, music and all things fine. This fondness for refined things also made its way to their food and lead to the development of Awadhi cuisine that foodies across the country love.
Trivia: It is said that the annual budget for kitchens of the third nawab, Shuja-ud-Daula, was around seven lakh.
Hitting the food trail in Lucknow is nothing less than a pilgrimage for lovers of good food. From kachoris at Vajpayee and chai-samosa at Sharma to chole bhature at Shree Lassi and tokri chaat at Royal Cafe, the city offers a wide array of dishes for food lovers. But you wouldn’t go to Lucknow to eat chole bhature and samosas and kachoris. It's Awadhi delicacies that are the real deal. Although Lucknow is equally renowned for its architectural heritage, most people travel to the city for their love of the local foods.
One could be spoilt for choice when eating out in Lucknow and listing every must-try dish may be a bit overwhelming. These are the dishes we recommend you not miss on your next visit to Lucknow.
Awadh was really known for its meat dishes, especially the tender kebabs. Lucknow boasts of some of the best kebabs in India. The best way to eat a kebab is with Indian breads such as roti, chapati and naan. However, if you are in Lucknow, you can try it with ultra thin rumali rotis. These work wonders with the boti or the galawati kebabs.
Any discussion about the kebabs of Lucknow inevitably starts with the galawati (or galouti) kebab, considered one of the signature dishes of the city of nawabs. These special melt-in-the-mouth kebabs were originally created during the 19th century for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who, it is rumoured, had lost his teeth but still desired the taste of kebabs. A one-armed cook named Haji Murad Ali perfected the recipe of the galawati. His son opened Tunday Kababi (or the one-armed man’s kebab), a 100-year-old establishment that still serves the galawati made according to the original, secret recipe.
The kebab is a circular patty made out of finely minced goat meat. Green papayas are used as a tenderiser and binding agent. Multiple spices are added to the kebab, some of which have never been divulged to the public. The patties are then roasted in ghee till brown.
Another famous Lucknowi creation is the kakori kebab. According to a popular story, at a party thrown by an Awadhi aristocrat, a British official made a disparaging remark about the coarse texture of the seekh kebabs. Angered by this slight, the aristocrat tasked his staff to rework on the texture of seekh kebabs. And that's the kakori kebab was born. What sets it apart? Mangoes are used to soften the meat.
Tip: The original branch of Tunday is near the Chowk on a narrow lane called Phool Wali Gali. They have a few other branches, with the branch in Aminabad being particularly good.
Shami and Boti Kebabs
Shami kebabs are spicy round patties that are tenderised with raw green mango in the summer and karonda, a sour and acidic fruit in other seasons. Boti kebabs are small pieces of skewered lamb that are marinated in a mix of yogurt and spices and then cooked in a tandoor. Your best bet to try these out is Dastarkhwan, a short walk from the Parivartan Chowk.
If there’s anything as famous as Lucknow’s kebabs, it is its biryani. Interestingly, biryani comes from the Persian word ‘birian’ which means ‘roasted before cooking’. The biryani of Lucknow is different as in the rice and meat is cooked separately. They are then layered and baked dum-style in a sealed handi (pot). The biryani is aromatic and has subtle flavours.
View this post on Instagram
A short walk from Chowk, right opposite the Patanala police chowki, is a busy small one-room structure with giant degchis sitting out in front. This is Idris Hotel, and it probably has the best biryani in Lucknow. They serve it with a side of salan (gravy) and sliced onions. The secret of Idris’ exquisite mutton biryani, they say, lies in the use of milk, herbs and saffron and the fact that it’s cooked in a copper deghchi.
View this post on Instagram
Non-vegetarian lovers can’t leave Lucknow without trying this absolutely fantastic and lip-smacking combination. The nihari is a rich but mildly flavoured mutton gravy, and kulchas are a thick leavened bread. Together they make a better love story than Romeo and Juliet. Right next to the Chowk branch of Tunday Kababi is Raheem Hotel, which makes the best Nihari Kulcha in town. Locals fondly call it Raheem ki Nihaari and it’s a ritual of sorts for every meat eater to come here during special occasions, like the holy month of Ramzan.
Bored with the regular rotis?Try Lucknow's sheermal. Traditionally kneaded with milk, it is a sweetened naan rich in saffron. Baked in an iron tandoor, what lends it a special taste is the sprinkling of saffron and cardamom-flavoured milk on the walls of the tandoor. Sheermal tastes great with kebabs, kormas, and even by itself.
The baqarkhani is an elaborate variation of the sheermaal that is fried on a griddle instead of being baked in a tandoor. Other kinds of sheermal varieties include zafrani, and hazri sheermal. Lucknow has an entire lane dedicated to sheermals. Located in the vicinity of the Akbari Gate, the Sheermal Wali Gali is the best place to savour this one-of-its-kind offering from Lucknow.
Almost every speciality of Lucknow has a story behind it and so does Malai Paan or Bilai ki Gilori. According to local lore, it is believed that this sweet dish emerged as a result of a ban on paan by the nawabs of Lucknow. The chefs of the royal kitchen came up with Malai Paan, which looks like a paan but is prepared from milk and malai (clotted cream).
View this post on Instagram
Making the sweet dish is quite a task. The malai needs to be set into paper thin sheets and rolled into the shape of a paan after being filled with dry fruits and mishri (crystal sugar). And no one does the job better than the popular Ram Asrey sweet shop in Hazratganj. They have been in business since 1805 and are the most celebrated mithai walas of Lucknow.
While you can get the Malai Paan packed for home too, sadly ice-creams have to be consumed on the spot. When it comes to our desi kulfis, Lucknow for sure knows how to give a royal treat to the palate of its visitors. For dessert, you have to try the kulfi at Prakash Kulfi in Aminabad. For a reasonable price, you will have a rich, creamy kulfi full of dry fruits and topped off with falooda. It's easily one of the best kulfis you’ll ever taste.