Lucknow’s food is as royal as the city itself and in order to satiate my taste buds with some authentic home cooked, comfort food on a cosy Saturday winter afternoon, I made my way to Chowk, one of the oldest markets in the city.
I arrived at my destination, opposite a Mughal style-haveli situated in the middle of a bustling market. I was not sure if I had I arrived at the right place initially. Suprisingly, it was the Uber driver who confirmed it. “Ma’am the women who lives here is quite popular,” he said. The claim was verified by the vegetable vendors outside who, when I enquired about "Sheeba ma’am”, pointed me to the haveli.
Food is what makes Sheeba Iqbal so popular. She is the founder of a home-dining experience by the name of Aab-O-Dana, an extravagance of mouthwatering, classic dishes steeped in Lucknow's famed tehzeeb, and nawabi ambience.The colourful, skillfully done antique-style decor of the haveli includes a room with distressed walls, high ceilings with glass chandeliers, and walls adorned with ayats and antiquities. Visitors are treated to a fascinating adventure into the rich history of Lucknow and the Azim Ali family, and the social legacy and hierarchy of Awadhi cuisines recipes.
As I enter the sunny verandah of the elegant haveli, I see Iqbal’s silhouette. She is combing her hair. She hugs me warmly and I make myself comfortable in a vintage teak sofa.
I jump straight to a question about the house. “This was built in 1901 by my great grandfather-in-law," says Iqbal. "I am carrying forward the age-old traditions and values, and celebrating the cadence of the culture and heritage that my home is bestowed with. At Aab-O-Dana, visitors are served dishes that otherwise find no place in a regular restaurant. The recipes have been preserved and passed down several generations like an heirloom. I am not just keeping the recipes of my ancestors alive but also adorning my guests with everything that highlights Lucknow and its fascinating culture,” she adds.
The home dining idea was conceived by her husband in 2017. Due to his untimely demise, the execution of the same came to a halt. In 2019, Sheeba was encouraged by the popular Mumbai-based venture Authenticook to take part in their Lucknow Food Festival at Condrad, Hilton where she was lauded by food connoisseurs, critics and others for her dishes. “It seemed like a refreshing way to restart my life after my husband’s death. My two daughters were married and living in different cities. I found a purpose with the home dining idea,” she says.
Part of the ‘Heritage Tour’ of Lucknow, Iqbal's Aab-O-Daana has seen its fair share of celebrity presence, from Mani Shankar Iyer to cricketer Charu Sharma and Anand Mahindra’s mother-in-law all praising her enterprising personality and lip-smacking food.
COVID-19 has had a severe impact on her business. With no tourist and in-city movement, it was an isolated affair for her venture. "I miss the conversations, and sharing food with strangers who so quickly become friends." She says they have recently started home deliveries but it's just not the same. "It takes away the essence of our concept. However, with decreasing lockdown restrictions, things are looking up. And I can’t wait to have guests and tourists over again.”
Another person who has been pursuing home-cooked food in Lucknow is Askari Naqvi, a lawyer turned performing artist and entrepreneur. He is a trained vocalist under the tutelage of Pandit Amit Mukerjee.
When not training or performing, he can be found at the home-cooked food place he runs. Naimat Khana is a concept restaurant that specialises in Awadhi food experiences. The place is located in his 1950s bungalow in a quiet corner of Qaiserbagh. The seating style takes inspiration from a traditional Lucknow drawing room and is aesthetically appointed with authentic antiques.“It has been more than a year since we began and the response has been phenomenal," says Naqvi. "We receive a niche crowd appreciative of the authentic Lucknow cuisine, and it gives us great pleasure to serve them. We depend on word-of-mouth publicity of our place. So far, we have had visitors like Mira Nair, Rasika Dugal, and Vidyut Jamwal, among others.”
In its post-COVID avatar, the restaurant is available for exclusive bookings where one need not share the seating space with any other guests. "People can book the entire available seating space with a 24 hour notice, at very reasonable prices. We welcome walk-ins but can only serve them as per the availability of the space," he says.
The restaurant is thoroughly sanitised before and after every meal sitting and one can even ask for a live video of the place being sanitised before booking.
They also have a self-service buffet option available where the staff enters only to set up the buffet, leaving you to relish the food with your loved ones, as if in the comfort and privacy of your own home. The entire restaurant can host up to 30 diners but you can book select spaces separately for smaller groups as well.
The prices of dishes of both the places are quite nominal and the quintessential Lucknowi hospitality is priceless. Lush ambience and topnotch food from people who know what they're doing sounds like the perfect food experience with a dose of history and culture thrown in. There's no doubt that such enterprises can aid regeneration of vanishing culinary traditions, and make a genuine difference.