Rising to eminence as the home of “Nawabs of Avadh”, who were great patrons of culinary and other finer arts, Lucknow still strongly holds it’s exemplary stature as a city of culture, gracious living & rich cuisine – also lovingly called the “City of Nawab, Aadaab (Respect), Kebab & Shabab (beauty)”.
The traditional food of Lucknow was highly patronized by the Mughals, giving it a royal touch and thus bringing it to the forefront of Indian cuisine. In fact, its cuisine has its own pronounced personality! Notice how I talk about the cuisine here, as if it were a living person. For it is! This ‘nawabi-style’ cuisine has never been enslaved to the ritzy 5 star or café culture, it has stood its own ground and how.
There’s so much that Lucknow has contributed to what is today recognized as Indian cuisine – Kormas, Kaliya, Nahari-kulchas, Zarda, Sheermal, Roomali rotis, Warqi parathas and above all Kebabs of many, many varieties.
The real aroma of the city & its food simmers in the narrow streets of Chowk, Aminabad, Nazirabad, and Hazratganj. Interestingly, these are the areas of the city where most of the food innovations took place and perhaps still continue to take place.
Anyone who has grown up in Lucknow would describe it as a place for “aaram” (rest) and “itmenaan” (easy) … and a glimpse of this is also seen in the un-hurried style of cooking introduced and made popular by the city – ‘Dum Pukht’. There is an unique and interesting story behind how this cooking style was born. Dum Pukht literally means “slow maturing of a prepared dish.”
It is said, in the 1780s, the kingdom of Avadh was struck by famine and feeding hundreds of people was an enormous task. So the cooks used an innovative way to prepare the food. Rice, meat, vegetables and spices were put in huge vessels called ‘handis’ all together, the top was sealed (using whole wheat dough in most cases) and the dish allowed to simmer in the slow heat of bukhari ovens. On one such occasion, as the vessels were being opened, the Nawab decided to taste the food. Totally taken in by the ethereal aroma and burst of flavours, he introduced it into the royal kitchens, where polished by chefs, this unique Lucknowi style of Dum Pukht cuisine was born.
It is difficult to capture the mammoth grub-fest this city is in one post – there’s so much on offer in the lanes and by-lanes all across the city. However, for anyone visiting this food heaven for the first time, here’s a list of do-not-miss eateries that must be on every itinerary.
Gilawat Kebab at Tundey Kebabi
Tucked away in the bustling street of Chowk, Tundey Kebabi is the undisputed capital of kebabs. It was started by the Late Haji Murad Ali, who used to cook kebabs with a single hand, leading to the name Tundey, almost 100 years ago! While all the varieties of kebabs available here are delicious, the “Gilawat Kebab”, is the softest and the most famous. It was specially made for the then Nawab – Wajid Ali Shah – and legend goes that more than 150 spices were used to make this one Kebab! The secret recipe has been passed down generations and any Lucknowi experience is absolutely incomplete without a visit to this eatery.
Note: The original Tundey Kebabi is located in Chowk (near Akbari Gate). They also have another vintage branch in Aminabad. It is open on all days from Noon to about 4 PM and then from evening to late night. No seating is available. The average cost per person would be around INR 300 – 350.
Seekh Kebab at NaushiJaan
The mouthwatering kebabs, particularly Seekh Kebab served at NaushiJaan, near the very famous Tulsi Theatre Hazratganj, should definitely be experienced when on a culinary trail in this city of nawabs. Of all the different Kebabs served here, the seekh kebab comes closest to the kebabs served at Tundey Kebabi.
In fact the entire street behind Tulsi Theater is a paradise for non-veg food lovers. Several of the restaurants here have very limited seating capability but there is nothing more fun than savoring the exquisite specialties inside one’s car or just standing on the street making the seat of any nearby parked bike your table. Twinkling lights, wafts of enticing, flavourful aromas and the best of food, ideally with a bunch of friends all make for a potent experience.
Note: NaushiJaan is located in Hazratganj (near Tulsi Theater building). It is open on all days from Noon to late night. Limited seating is available. The average cost per person would be around INR 300.
Dum Biryani at Idris Dhaba
Known as the Char Minar of Hyderabad, Idris Dhaba is also famously called the Mecca of Biryani. Lucknow, traditionally, has had a pulao culture as compared to the biryani culture that many other Indian cities are known for. Hence, any “experienced biryani-eater” (well, that’s actually a profession in the business of food!), will immediately recognize that the dum biryani is more of a pulao than a biryani.
The slow cooking ensures that entire natural, and extremely flavourful aroma is retained and hits you, already bowling you over, when you approach the eatery. The first spoonful, after the appetizing aroma, is sufficient to experience the flavours and mild spices of the biryani at Idris.
Note: Idris Dhaba is located in Chowk (near Patanala Police Station). It is open on all days from Noon to about 3 PM and then from evening to late night. No seating is available though. The average cost per person would be around INR 150 – 200.
Mughlai Parantha at Dastarkhwan
Dastarkhwan literally means a big ceremonial dining spread. And that’s just what it is. Its specialty is its “Mughlai Paranthas”, the softest and lightest paranthas in the world. They can be clubbed with any of their tempting kebabs or even their amazing Chicken Masala!
Note: Dastarkhwan is located in Lalbagh. They also have a branch in Gomti Nagar, which is equally good. It is open on all days from Noon to late night. Seating is available. The average cost per person would be around INR 200 – 250.
Apart from the non-veg delicacies, Lucknow is also famous for its various snacks and drinks. Here are a few chosen eateries that should also be included for their specialty dishes and drinks.
Lassi: Shri Lassi Corner at Chowk serves a great variety. And while you’re there make some space for their popular Chole-Bhature.
Thandai (with or without bhang) at Pandit Raja (Chowk again!). Pandit Raja is also the oldest Thandai shop in Lucknow. Their thandai topped with saffron, cashews, almonds and pistachio has no match!
How can I not mention ‘Makhan-Malai’! As a kid, the light and tasty makhan-malai, made with milk cream, was such a beautiful way to greet cold winter mornings. I could never eat just one, repetition was a compulsive reaction. There’s no specific place for this specific delicacy. It used to be and is still served by vendors at door steps though there are places where they set up shop on the streets.
Kulfi Falooda at Moti Mahal (Hazratganj) has no competition. Melt-in-your-mouth kulfi, perfectly flavoured with saffron and stuffed with dry fruits, topped with fine noodle like falooda. Could be a strong contender for the ‘Winner’ position among desserts!
No one can really go back from Lucknow without trying its chaat and meetha-paan. Though the chaats of Lucknow clearly deserve their own post, here’s one extremely popular place that all locals make a beeline for, every other evening. Royal Café at Hazratganj has most Lucknowites swearing by the chaat it serves. From laccha tokris to papdi chaat to dahi bhalla, this is a perfect evening snack stop.
Traditionally, meetha-paan, betelnut leaves filled with a variety of digestive ingredients along with a sweet rose-flavoured filled called gulkhand, was the first thing served to a guest at the time of his arrival and at the time of his departure. A paan serves the purpose of being a two-in-one: a sweet end to a meal as well as a digestive. Fortunately, this custom still remains quite popular in Lucknow and one that I especially embrace.
To wrap up, I would say that Lucknow has much more to offer in terms of food and food culture and that a single post can hardly begin to scratch the surface. As a city I grew up in, Lucknow continues to live in my heart, even though I have not been living there for the last decade or so. Perhaps I will never be able to call any other city ‘Home’ & Lucknow’s food is definitely one of the reasons why!