I recently made a short but pleasant trip to Lucknow, a north Indian city with a diverse and varied history of song, dance and political intrigue. Lucknow is also famous for its fine cuisine which developed to please the discerning palates of its luxury loving Nawabs. The rulers, appointed by the Mughal kings of Delhi and Agra were of Iranian origin and the royal chefs developed a class of food that is both rich as well as delicately balanced for high flavor. I wish to share some of the photos I took around the city with our readers. Rather than go into the complicated historical details of the place, I will instead share an essay by Sachin Kalbag about Lucknow's famous foods. The article was published in Mail Today, when the newspaper had been newly launched and its website was not quite user-friendly. It is only accessible to me in the PDF format, I can't therefore provide a link. I am reproducing it in its entirety with the permission of the author. Kalbag refers to some of Lucknow's famous landmarks which also appear in my photo montage.
The pictures here are of buildings commissioned by the Shi'a rulers of Lucknow, dating from the 18th century, designed by Iranian engineers and constructed by Indian laborers, masons and craftsmen. Clearly representing the Muslim architectural style, the beautiful edifices were heavily influenced by the artistic sensibilities of the Indian workers as well as existing local architecture of pre-Islamic era. In fact during that period, given the high traffic of Persian notables to the Mughal courts, the exchange of architectural design and aesthetics most probably flowed in both directions - from Iran to India and back. This notion is supported by the comment by an Iranian friend who saw the Lucknow photos on my Facebook. She doesn't claim any expertise in the area but noted the following from her observations.
These are fascinating, Ruchira! Except for the corridor of the Bhool Bhulaiya and some general impressions of that kind of blending of interior/exterior space like the doggie in the window picture, it's striking how different they are from architecture in Iran of that period, which I suppose says much for the influence of the Indian craftsmen and how the engineers must have been impressed by what they encountered in India. If anything, some of it reminds me more of Qajar period in Iran, slightly later. Perhaps they brought back some ideas from India?
(Click on the Wiki links for the history of the monuments featured below and on the images for enlargement)
Bada Imambada: The larger of the two famous Imambadas (The monument of the Imam) of Lucknow. Built in the mid 18th century by the Shia ruler of Lucknow as a tribute to Imam Hassan, the monument was designed by Iranian engineers and constructed by Indian laborers.
A building across the street with a fish motif (the elephant is live)
Chhota Imambada: The beautiful, delicately designed Chhota Imambara, a monument dedicated to Imam Hussain. It was built in the late 18th century by the ruling Shia dynasty of Lucknow. As with the its larger counterpart, this edifice too was designed by Iranian architects and built by local Indian laborers and masons.
The Residency at Lucknow (a major site of the Sepoy Mutiny, India's first war of independence against British occupation)
The last Nawab of Oudh (Lucknow was its capital), Wajid Ali Shah. The hapless, pleasure loving, apathetic ruler was removed from power and exiled in Calcutta by the British just a year before the Mutiny, in preparation for the take over of Lucknow and the kingdom of Oudh.
Now on to the food of Lucknow.
Sachin Kalbag in Mail Today, December 7,2008
To the uninitiated, Lucknow is an intriguing city with an almost fairy-tale past — a city with possibly the greatest historical significance in India save Delhi, a city with some spectacular monuments, a city that introduced tehzeeb1 to this country, a city that gave India some of its best poets whose mastery over Urdu, the most refined of languages, remains unparalleled.
In 2008, it is a city full of paan2 spit, traffic jams where there should be none, an almost ubiquitous stench, and gutter water on almost every street. Clearly, it seems to be a city in decline when, ironically, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country according to most industrial indicators.
It is to this city that a group of eight intrepid foodies — part of a group called Eating Out in Delhi — went to explore its culinary heritage. There was some romanticism about the place — we had read about the Nawabs of Awadh and their extravagant lifestyle, and of course, the city’s prime role in the Independence movement — but this was quickly and effectively dispelled the moment we stepped out of the railway station.
It was with deft use of our feet and quick reflexes that we avoided people spitting on us or hold on to the autorickshaw handlebar each time we saw an SUV or a cow running head on into us. It was only our indefatigable love for food that made us withstand the immense pressure of apparent xenophobia exhibited by the bovines.
Until we reached Lucknow, we had only heard of this mythical preparation called nimish, whose closest Delhi equivalent is the supersmooth Daulat ki Chaat, available at Chawri Bazaar. You could almost mistake it for a soufflé. It is not, and let it be said here and now — in milk-based preparations, nimish stands alone. It is lighter than a soufflé, almost weightless. It has very little sugar, possibly a hint to tempt you eat the next spoonful, and an expert would add just the right amount of saffron to give you a tingling taste.
We ate nimish at the busy main Chowk area of Lucknow, close to the King George Medical College, and about a kilometer away from the Bada Imambara (a majestic monument, but parts of which are in a state of disrepair). At Rs 15 a plate, it was a steal. We had to rush, of course — nimish is usually available only until 8 am; 9 am if you are lucky.
When the group reunites later this week, there will be a debate as to whether we should have had the nimish before heading off to Mubeen’s, also at the Main Chowk near the Akbari Gate, or afterward, perhaps as dessert. What we won’t debate is how blessed we were to eat the nihari-kulcha at Mubeen’s. It is said that Mubeen’s kulchas have the same degree of excellence as any of fresh-off-the-oven breads at any Parisian deli. I disagree. I have not been to Paris yet, but surely nothing can better these kulchas? The meats — both goat and buffalo — are soft, and the nihari gravy has just the right consistency.
It is a mystery how Mubeen’s still operates out of a dingy place. Ambition, apparently, does not come in big supply here, just good food. It is just as well he does not expand; Mubeen’s purity of taste shall have to be sought, not bought over the counter from dispassionate summer-placement staff at a thousand different outlets.
Not that Lucknow is stranger to temporary employment. The Bada Imambara, one of the city’s grand buildings, was a monument erected by the then Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daulah, in the 1780s, during a great famine. He embarked on this project precisely for one reason — to give people gainful employment. And how gainful it was! For nearly a decade, he made the poor build the edifice through the day, while the unemployed elite came on night shifts to demolish what was built during the day. Why? It was all because the rich had no manual skill. This went on for a decade, until the famine ended. Thankfully, the Imambara was also complete by then.
As we made a tour of the Imambara — and got lost in its labyrinth — we soon realised that hunger pangs were staging a comeback. It took us a 15-minutes autorickshaw ride to reach Tunday Kababi at Ameenabad where, we were told, the world’s best meat kababs are made. Honestly, they were a disappointment. I mean, they were not bad at all, in fact, they were far better than most kababs you get in Delhi. But they did not fit the world’s best kabab’s title. We left the place a tad unhappy, but eating at Tunday’s is like a foodie pilgrimage. We simply had to do it. To cool down a stomach fed on kababs and biryani, you need to head to Prakash Kulfi, 50 metres from Tunday’s, which serves sugar-free kulfi. Purists would balk at sugar-free kulfi, but it is a sign of the times, I guess.
Tunday’s food, to put it lightly, is rich. It takes quite an amount of hard work, to get you hungry again. It is no exaggeration, but when eight diehard hogs spend almost five hours without food, it must take some doing. Not that we wasted the five hours. Lucknow’s greatest contribution to our Independence movement heritage is the Residency, where the Siege of Lucknow took place in 1857, as part of the first war of Independence.
History records the courageous defence of the Residency by Sir Henry Lawrence, the first British Commissioner, and his troops of pensioners. Indian rebels — angry at being given the infamous Enfield rifle, whose cartridges were made of pig and cow skin — bombarded the Residency relentlessly. After two sieges, the British took back the place. The Lucknow Residency was key to retaining British power in India, and its loss would have possibly paved the way for early Independence.
The Residency is quite something; it is quiet to the point of being a religious place. The ruins are like a time machine, and grown on history textbooks that record the bravery and revolutionary spirit of the Indian rebels, we were both overwhelmed and humbled by the premises. Only if the English at the boards explaining the ruins was, well, actually English.
It was well past dusk that we left the Residency to head to our final eating destination — Dastarkhwan at Hazratganj. It turned out to be the most wonderful goodbye to Lucknow. Its chicken kaali mirch is almost heavenly and so are the shami kababs. The biryanis are far better than Tunday’s and dare I say, even the kababs. It was only with — and I can’t avoid a cliché here — a heavy heart that we headed back to the railway station. Expectedly, we were greeted by more paan stains, more stench, and a extremely delayed train. Sadly, for Lucknow, it was par for the course. But we shall return some day, if only to eat. Lucknow may be a city in moral decline, but it is a city that has few culinary parallels.