On an October afternoon, vehicles honked as they tried—unsuccessfully—to escape the gridlock that had formed in Aminabad, a busy marketplace in the heart of Lucknow. Exposed cables hung low on streets whose pavements had been claimed by construction debris, and pedestrians darted between oncoming cars and autos.
Yet, the chaos barely made a dent on the impassive demeanour of the man sitting in front of a large griddle at Tunday Kababi, arguably Lucknow’s most famous purveyor of galouti kebabs. With an almost meditative ease, he deftly portioned out roundels of minced meat, and tossed them on the griddle with a casual flick of the wrist. A generous shower of oil followed, and after a quick sear on both sides, the flattened beef kebabs made their way into takeaway mithai boxes and to the diners awaiting them inside.
Settling down inside the restaurant that pays minimal heed to ambience, I tore a piece of orange-hued sheermal and scooped up a bit of the kebab. Fabled to have been created for the enjoyment of a toothless king, galouti kebabs are distinguished by their smooth, almost velvety, texture. But Tunday’s version redefined my expectations. Aromatic, rich and as yielding as pâté, the galouti quite literally dissolved in the mouth. In savouring the silken texture of these unassuming and distinctly unphotogenic kebabs, I became acquainted with the nafasat or sophistication—in cuisine and culture—that Lucknow has always been famous for.
Like every Indian city with metropolitan ambitions, Lucknow is expanding rapidly and gentrifying even faster. Driving in from the airport, the city’s suburbs resemble a time-lapse sequence with towering skyscrapers seemingly sprouting everywhere. Yet, over the course of my trip, I also had a cherished encounter with the Old City—Lucknow’s cultural heart. It’s here that the genteel influence of the Mughal era lingers on, as much in the architectural grandeur of centuries-old monuments as in the delicacy of the long-grained Lucknowi biryani.
A biryani that is seasoned so minimally that it is often considered a pulao, Lucknow’s version of the beloved dish is a testament to the gastronomic prowess of the erstwhile kingdom of Awadh. Despite not being a biryani fiend, I found myself returning for helpings of mutton biryani from Idris Ki Biryani, which enjoys a formidable reputation for its signature dish. Slender grains of basmati held their own against chunks of fork-tender meat; the tanginess of the marinade offset by the deep earthiness of cinnamon and kewra (screw-pine essence). Although the rice and meat had been cooked individually in this pakki biryani (unlike a kacchi biryani, in which uncooked rice and meat are layered together and cooked slowly), the process of dum cooking over slow-burning tamarind embers had rendered them into a fragrant and cohesive whole. A masterclass in the skillful use of spices, Idris’ biryani was only a primer for the equally-nuanced Awadhi dishes I would try later.
As the capital of India’s fourth-largest state, modern-day Lucknow boasts of several new attractions, including the Ambedkar Memorial Park, the vast, concrete park visualized by former chief minister Mayawati. Yet its most enduring landmarks are those constructed well over 150 years ago, such as the Bara Imambara, a magnificent Shia shrine that is believed to have been built by 22,000 labourers over six years. The more intangible legacies of the city’s royal past are made accessible by tour agencies that offer offbeat experiences, such as cooking demonstrations at a former raja’s palace-turned-home.
Belonging to a prominent family of talukdars or landowners, Amresh Kumar Singh’s palace, known as Khajurgaon, boasts of sweeping, 30ft-high ceilings and chandeliers made of Belgian crystal. It was here that his wife Abha introduced us to the family’s version of chicken korma, bone-in chicken cooked in a decadent gravy made of curd, cream, mawa (milk solids) and ghee, with almond paste, saffron and kewra for added richness. While the korma was expectedly luxurious, my pick of the elaborate dinner spread was a simple vegetarian dish of karela (bitter gourd), the bitterness of the vegetable mellowed in a sweet-and-sour, tamarind-laced gravy. A down-to-earth dish laced with simple flavours, it tethered the slightly lofty evening to reality.
If the flavours of Awadh courted me with their timeless elegance, Lucknow’s street food surprised me with its sheer vibrancy. Walking deep through the heart of Aminabad, I was distracted by the sight of food everywhere, much of it unique to the city. I was transfixed by the sight of a vendor roasting kurmura (puffed rice) by tossing it together with hot sand in a large cast-iron wok. A few moments later, he added some soaked pigeon peas, and dried, cornflake-like chivda, and allowed them to roast on high heat for a few seconds, before taking all the ingredients out of the pan and mixing them with a smidgen of fiery red chilli chutney and a squeeze of lime. Called chana churmura, this north Indian equivalent of Mumbai’s sukha bhel was a carnival of textures. The peas acquired a toothsome creaminess, which together with the crunchy kurmura and chivda, created a spicy, near-perfect street snack.
When I realized just how many treasures were hidden in plain sight on Lucknow’s streets, my days became a celebration of constant eating. There were cardamom-scented mini nankhatais, freshly baked and sold warm off iron tawas; large sheets of aam papad available in both sweet and sour variants; flaky kachoris paired with spicy potatoes and jalebis; and strong, sweet tea to wash it all down with.
But there was one session of mid-morning gluttony that I remember particularly fondly. A trio of like-minded street food enthusiasts, we had decided to squeeze in a visit to Hazratganj, a 200-year-old locality that has undergone a revival in recent years (Hazratganj is now so hipster that locals go “ganjing” regularly). Not wanting to waste any of our precious time shopping, we walked around purposefully, scouting for new foods to try. The first vendor we came across was selling khasta, a deep-fried pastry that resembles flattened kachoris minus the filling. He filled a dried leaf bowl with ragda (cooked, mashed pigeon peas), sweet and spicy chutney, chopped onions and green chillies, and crushed the khasta on top. Crunchy, spicy, sweet-sour and quintessentially Lucknowi, I couldn’t think of anything better that Rs40 could buy.
Next, we proceeded to Sharma Tea Stall, a local institution in Hazratganj that can be easily identified by the snaking queue of people waiting outside. Waiters flitted in and out of the busy restaurant carrying glasses of tea, along with buns slathered with makkhan or white butter. Occasionally, they would also ferry hot samosas. With nowhere to sit and most of the narrow road overrun with customers on motorbikes, we stood in a corner across the road from Sharma’s, waiting to try all three of the stall’s best-selling items. Having always eaten bun maska—a bun sliced in half and sandwiched with salty Amul butter—in Mumbai, Sharma’s version tasted like a creamier upgrade. The large, nearly-round samosa held a whole potato, peel and all, within its golden casing. Dousing the heat of the potatoes with sips of tea, and taking bites of the buttery bun in between, it felt like we were replaying a timeless street food ritual. We were first-time visitors to Lucknow, but in that moment, it felt familiar—like an old friend.
The street-savvy guide
Idris ki Biryani: Don’t expect atmospherics when you go to Idris in Chowk, a congested area in the heart of the city. Instead, take away parcels of the excellent Lucknow-style mutton biryani.
Tunday Kababi: The surest landmark of this legendary kebab-maker is the perpetual swarm of people surrounding the open-air stall in Aminabad. You can also take away uncooked kebabs to fry at home.
The Mughal’s Dastarkhwan: The restaurant in Lalbagh serves a variety of Awadhi delicacies such as lagan ka murgh, a chicken dish traditionally served at weddings; bhuna gosht, a tender, marinated lamb curry; and ulte tava ke parathe.
Laddoo Chanakya: This small shop in Hazratganj is worth a visit just for the ‘kulfi’ alone. Thicker, grainier and decidedly richer than run-of-the-mill malai kulfis, Laddoo Chanakya’s version is like a cross between kulfi and rabri.
Aminabad: A colourful and chaotic marketplace, Aminabad is a shopper’s delight. There is interesting food around every bend here.
Hazratganj: More upmarket than Aminabad, Hazratganj still offers a variety of interesting treats.
Chowk: This is the place for ‘chaat’ (including Uttar Pradesh specials such as aloo tikki and basket chaat), available at several popular outlets. If you are visiting in winter, look out for vendors selling ‘malai makkhan’, or the delicate froth of milk, cooled overnight and sprinkled with nuts.