Picture this – a royal banquet laid out on a clean white sheet or dastarkhwan with over seventy dishes presented by seamless relays of noiseless, eager, attentive servants – each dish more fragrant, more intricate, more grandiose in flavour and refinement than the next, an array of delicately crafted foods that would seem almost too boorish to devour – and then the pièce de résistance – the trompe l’oeil dish fashioned so artfully as to fool the most discerning gourmet – morabbas (sweet conserves) disguised as kormas and qormas, salans (gravy dishes), pulaos and breads all made of spun sugar! Excess, expansiveness, gastronomic rivalry, one-upmanship, tehzeeb or etiquette, nazakat or delicate refinement and a heightened gustatory sense were the hallmarks of the cuisine of the Nawabs or rulers of the erstwhile kingdom of Awadh.
A courtly cuisine, Awadhi flourished in the princely state of Awadh in North India, with Lucknow as its capital, during the reign of Wajid Ali Shah and his heirs from mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth till the British, through annexation put an end to a once flourishing dynasty. The tales of gastronomic wonder are aplenty – of rice made to look like gold and silver ornaments and large poories (puffed breads) from which live birds emerged. Guests at a nawab’s table were left with a feeling of wonder and at the same time comfort and ease, with no effort required on their part at all – not even to chew either the meat which had been tenderised and softened to melt in the mouth or the rossogollas (balls of cheese swimming in a clear perfumed syrup) which were peeled before they were eaten! This culinary magic was wrought by an army of trained and experienced cooks – bawarchis or bulk cooks and rakabdars or master chefs and a contingent of assistants, each specialising in one kitchen task.
Royal Awadhi cuisine had its roots in several other haute cuisines – Persian, Middle Eastern and European and closer to home the Mughlai cuisine of the Moghuls. From Persia it took the subtlety of flavour and judicious blend of spices by the use of perfumed broths and the famous dum pukht technique of slow cooking in sealed vessels to trap and embolden the flavours.
Like Mughlai cuisine, it used liberal amounts of nuts, cream and yoghurt which add body and richness to a dish but unlike Mughlai dishes, the meat is cooked to a tenderness which has been described as ‘balls of velvet in the mouth’. Fragrance and appearance are the hallmark of Awadhi cuisine – rose water and pandanus flower water being among the favoured aromas. Garnishes always included some form of gold or silver leaf as a mark of respect for honoured guests, along with exotic and brightly coloured vegetable and fruit carvings to heighten the visual delight.
Once the sole prerogative of the Nawabs, Awadhi cuisine, over the years, was absorbed by lesser royals and filtered down to the locals though it maintained some of its regal character and finesse. At the top of an Awadhi menu are the many delicate iconic kebabs that Lucknow has contributed to world cuisine, including the
Kakori Kebab, which is a softer more fragrant version of the Mughlai
Seekh Kebab, the Galouti Kebab – a more aromatic and tender version of the sturdy Shammi Kebab and the Pasanda Kebab – thin strips of meat marinated and pounded to melting softness when grilled. Lucknowi kebabs fried on a griddle or grilled over charcoal are stuffed into breads and are today one of the most popular street foods found all over the city. Only the most tender cuts of meat are used and further tenderised with pounding and the addition of unripe papaya paste. A judicious quantity of fat and cream or reduced milk are used to create that melt-in-the mouth texture. Steeped in spiced marinades and enveloped with smoky perfumes, Awadhi kebabs are the stuff of royal dreams.
Smoking or dungar is a technique that is typical of Awadhi cooking. A live piece of charcoal drizzled with ghee, topped with a spice or two and cradled in a piece of onion, a bay leaf or small heatproof bowl, is placed in a well, in the centre of a meat or vegetable dish and covered tightly to allow the perfumed smoke to infuse the dish and give it a royal treatment.
Biryanis, which have their origin in Persian cuisine, particularly lend themselves to the slow cooking or dum pukht method of cooking, though it is used to cook meat and vegetable stews as well. Awadhi biryanis are rich and flavourful, the flavours of the meat and rice entrapped in the tightly sealed vessel and allowed to meld to perfection. Legend has it that the Awadhi biryani was the creation of Nawab Asaf Ud Daula who, while building the Bara Imambara mosque around 1780, was struck by the hard work of the labourers and ordered that energy-giving meals be available to them day and night. Thus the biryani was born — a hearty mixture of rice and meat slow-cooked in huge vats over wood fires with simmering coals on their lids to provide a cocoon of heat.
Aside from biryanis and kebabs, an Awadhi meal would include a qorma or braised meat dish with a thick gravy; a salan or gravied meat or vegetable dish, and a variety of breads – the most renowned being the saffron-flavoured sheermal or sweetened bread which is a more refined and delicate version of baqarkhani, the other popular Lucknowi bread. While it would appear that Awadhi cuisine is very meat-centric, today it boasts a range of seasonal vegetable dishes, treated in the same royal way. Awadhi cuisine is also renowned for its rich variety of luscious sweet dishes fit for any royal table. Among them are creamy rice puddings, vermicelli confections and thickened milk delights, all enriched with nuts, cream and ghee, flavoured with saffron and scented with rose water and aromatic spices. A veritable feast for the senses!
– Rita D’Souza