I was on a two week trip to India in February 2019 - started in Bangalore and ended up-north in Delhi. I carefully planned a few days in Lucknow in the middle and was looking forward to it for two reasons: it’s Shia cultural and architectural heritage and it’s food scene. First of which I had extensively read about, and the later I had heard about a lot, mainly from Pakistanis with a UP background pre-partition.
I hired the services of a local tour company named TornosIndia to make the best use of my time and I’m confident in saying this is the most organised and well run tour company I’ve ever used. I took four tours when them in a day, then hired them for a full day to take me to my personalised list of places.
One of the tours I did with them was the Culinary tour of Lucknow, promising to help you sample the best food of Awadh in a two hour walking tour set in a few streets in 'Awadhi' part of the city. The guide explained Lucknow in three layers — the Nawabi or Awadhi, the British and the modern.
I had very high expectations of the food in the city and so the day I landed in the city, I ticked a few items off my list myself before taking the tour guided by Tornos.
I stayed in La Place Sarovar Portico and a quick Google Map revealed that one of the food icons of the city, Tokri Chat of Royal Cafe, was just a short walk away…and there I was in the next hour after checking in.
Tokri Chat at Royal Cafe
While this place is famous for Tokri Chaat but it’s somehow become a symbol of the city and there are more cafes by the same name serving the same Chaat. It’s also available at roadside dhaabas who cleverly place the fried potato-flake Tokri at front as a recognisable symbol of its availability.
Tokri Chaat was served in plate with a base of yogurt, beaten so much that it felt like thick Lassi, then mixed with multiple sauces — together it was just a sugary sweet sauce and ingredients were not recognisable. Guess work (green and red) suggests it was mint chutney and pomegranates sauce but it had no flavour of any of the two.
The Tokri itself is made of potato flakes deep fried to give it this shape. It is quite crisp and I quite liked it. It was filled with bhallay, pakori, boiled potatoes, boiled chickpea and a hint of onions. Finally, topped up with pomegranates, coconut flakes and grated sugary cheese.
I could not finish the serving, it was heavier than a regular meal and had a strong sweet taste to it. Every spoonful left a lot of sugar in my mouth and by the time I’ve had three quarters of it, I was at my sugar limit. It also filled my stomach really quickly. Aftertaste — nothing other than sugar.
You’d expect a Chaat to have a mix of spices, some sweet and sour chutney, a hint of non paralysing green chilli and tamarind, and finally with a delicate mix of crispiness e.g. paapri — it missed all of that. You also expect a Chaat to be a savoury snack and not a meal replacement, specially when it’s loaded with sugar.
It was quite a disappointment and a bad start, so I pinned my hopes on items next in line.
Price: 350 INR
Verdict: This is not chaat. Very skip-able.
Sharma Ji ki Chai, Samosa aur Bun Maska
Next on my list, the very popular Lucknow dhaaba serving chai with bun maska for ages as a breakfast item. It’s a very humble settlement — a corner shop with no sitting space but high tables for people to quickly grab some team and snack and off they go after a quick chat and chai.
I ordered a cup of chai, a bun maska and a Samosa. Chai is served in a glass — the colour was perfect. It was quite sweet and I could smell a hint of cardamom. Bun Maska is basically a bun sliced in the middle and home made white butter (closer to Malai) in the middle. The bun was very average, I didn’t like it at all to be honest. It had the texture of white bread — leaving powdery bits of bread off as you pick it up. I liked the Malai, it was non greasy but once you’ve had this, unlike the home made Malai, it leaves no aftertaste or Malai grease in your mouth. Bad sign in my opinion.
Samosa was good. An unusual shape — never had a ball-like Samosa before. The downside: no crispy edges, one thing I love about Samosa. Because of its shape, it had an event texture all around with a nice filling of boiled and mashed potatoes and onions. I could also see corriander seeds and fresh coriander. Top marks on the filling.
Rating: Chai 7/10, Bun Maska 5/10, Samosa 6/10
Verdict: Should try if you’re in the city for its cultural value.
This is probably the famous popular Biryani joint in the city — also featured in many YouTube vlogs and even a couple of documentaries on the food of UP. Again, was quite excited about it and went there straight the same night I landed in the city.
The plate of Biryani was served with some onions but no chutney or yogurt — which is unusual, so I asked for some but they said they don’t serve yogurt or any type of chutney. The Biryani didn’t look like Biryani to me — specially if you come with such high hopes. It looked like a cross between Pulao and Biryani — it missed the juicy look which Biryani promises and looked a little too oily and colored for a Pulao. It did taste good though, whatever you want to call it. It didn’t had that loaded red chilli which many places do and had a nice aftertaste of garam masala. I could not find any whole spices like cloves or black-pepper which normally feature in various varieties of both Pulao and Biryani. It also lacked any aromas which a good Biryani promises.
Since it was missing the juicy bit and possibly my look revealed that I was a little disappointed — I was offered ‘salan’. I said yes not knowing what that meant and was given a plate of gravy which was a something between roghan and a usual curry. I have to say it did complement the Biryani really well.
Verdict: Underwhelming but very enjoyable.
Tunday ke Kebab (Galawati Kebab)
If there’s one culinary delight Lucknow is known for in modern times, that is Tunday ke Kebab. It was top of my list in my diary for Lucknow. Tunday ke Kebab is not name of the dish itself, but the shop which sells Lucknow’s most famous version of Galawati Kebab. Legend has it, this Kebab originated in the time of Nawabs of Awadh and its recipe was invented on need basis when a Nawab fond of Kebabs lost his teeth and could not chew. The basic promise: taste of kebab, but made so tender it melts in your mouth. In my opinion, that’s anti thesis to definition of a good Kebab but you never know until you have tried so here I was with the tour guide on the culinary walk.
A very humble settlement set in a narrow street in old Lucknow close to the Tehsin ki Masjid (mosque built by a eunuch in Awadhi times) — sometimes referred to as the oldest and first organised purpose-built Shia mosque in the city. At the front, a guy takes a small portion of mixtures, hand makes small patties and then fries them in a big pan. On the other side, a guy makes romali roti on a big tawa.
The order was served in 5 mins and I was shocked to see what was on my plate. It looked horrible and the size of the so called Kebab was shocking. I understand the byte-size concept (never liked it though) but this literally the size of a 1 pound coin and had absolutely zero visual appeal to it. IMO, this in no way qualifies to be called a Kebab — it’s essentially a tikki, as small as you can possibly make it. Wait — do not visualise it being closer to a Shami Kebab, its not. Shami Kebab is a high meat content, added with chanay ki daal and a delicate mix of spices, then hand-grated to an extent that the meat still retains its chewy pull factor. A Shami Kebab made up of a machine grinded mixture kills it.
The closest I can come up with is K&N’s frozen chicken Shami Kebab — if you have had the bad experience of trying that — that horrible thing tastes quite like this. It’s basically buffalo meat which is grinded so much that it loses all texture and the tiny little coin size thing feels powdery in your mouth. There’s no aftertaste of meat or any particular spice.
This is by far the most over-rated thing I’ve ever had. It’s served with what they call Paratha but it’s actually a greasy romali roti — again, a blasphemous thing to make. What an anti climax, I was so looking forward to it. So much hype for something so average, so miss-able.
Rating: Kebab 1/10, Paratha (really?!) 0/10
Verdict: Want to know what extreme disappointment is? Go here.
Rahim ki Nihari
On the culinary tour, the next stop was Rahim ki Nihari — not too far from the abovementioned ridiculous Tikki. This is in the Phool wali Gali — old Lucknow have a series of streets based on businesses traditionally set there. This particular street specialises in flower vendors, setup historically since the time of Awadh royalty.
In the words of the culinary tour guide:
“Some of you might have had Nihari — I can tell you, you’ll love this. You are going to have the best Nihari you’ve had. Come, immerse in the delicacy of Lucknow Nihari.”
First, look at this picture. If you still believe his words — god help you!
I was surprised this weird looking thing is called Nihari in Lucknow, and that puff pastry kinda fried nonsense called a Kulcha. I would like you to take a moment and laugh out loud here because this is Lucknow best selling Nihari which looks like the gosht ka shorba made specially for someone sick.
I think they should be ashamed of calling this Nihari. Even aalo gosht ka shorba is richer than this. The meat was like in any meat karahi — Nihari is cooked overnight for a reason; to leave meat so tender that as you pick up a piece, it starts pulling apart. There was clearly no grains added to thicken it and no hint of that delicate mix of spices Nihari is based on.
That puff pastry kinda thing would be nice with a cup of tea but not with Nihari and I think they should be charged under 295-C for calling it a Kulcha.
Rating: Nihari 0/10, Kulcha (if called puff pastry) 5/10
Makhan Malai in Chowk
Delhi has this winter speciality called Daulat ki chaat. Lucknow makes its own version and they believe its superior. Its available on a very limited number of locations in the city by street vendors who setup for a few hours only in the months of cold. Its locally called Makhan Malai.
Basically, its a sweet snack made of milk cream. Best thing: its ridiculously light on stomach. Its sold by weight — the plate I am holding cost INR 50 and you can have ten of them without feeling much in your tummy — because, essentially this is cream froth so very little substance going into your body.
Creamy, thick milk is churned, and the froth that forms is kept in a bowl. On this some foams of saffron-infused milk are added for light colouring and flavour. Before serving, a pinch of powdered sugar is added to it.
Verdict: Try it, nothing special.
Paan in Lucknow
I love Paan — its not only refreshing but also a symbolic taste of history of cuisine in the Indian subcontinent. For those who do not know, the use of paan originated in Southeast Asia, from where the traders brought it over to India and that is where it got all the fame. Traditionally, the betel nut, betel leaf, acea plan and a mix of spices like cloves, cardamom and some sweeteners have been used since ages in this part of the world. At one point, it represented royalty in India and was a key ingredient to prove hospitality.
Amir Khusro writes:
Long story short, I had to try Paan and I was recommended the two places below. I ordered a Meetha Paan at one place and a saad khushbo (with saunf supari) at the other.
To my surprise, both of them came loaded with coconut — I see you would do that to please mummy daddy crowd in a meetha paan but saada khushboo with coconut — really? The meetha paan felt like a ghulab jaamun wrapped in a paan leaf. Here’s what I tasted: boiled plum (with seed!), coconut, sugar coated saunf, almond, apple murabba and zero chalai. The saada khusbu was better but again, was loaded with coconut and a coating of Rooh Afza.
Verdict: Try the saad khusboo, it was better of the two.
Mubeen’s Pasanda Kebab
Another of the stops on culinary tour was Mubeen — a street food joint serving non veg food, mainly a variety of Kebabs and curries. We were told the best item here is (a) Pasanda Kebab (b) their Pulao and (c ) their saffron bread.
The place was ridiculously busy — they had two halls and both were full, with people waiting in the queue. We got a bit of a special treatment, thanks to a couple of gori chamris with us. First, the bread was nonsense. It was a weird cross between Pori and Paratha but felt like its suffering from an identity crisis. It was too soft to have a texture of its own and nearly no taste. I could not get what grain is it made of and if its deep fried or fried on a tawa — probably the later. Although the name said Saffron, there was no taste of it but actually orange food color loaded on it.
Second, the Chicken Tikka kebab smelled good, thanks to the chaat masala and lemon they sprinkled on top. It was overcooked (clear from the photo) but that I do not mind, actually I like a bit of charcoal burn — but, it was cooked on high heat for long enough to dry it up. Chicken as a meat is already devoid of much juice, but the little it offers, they had dried it up. I struggled eating the middle part and had to down it with a glass of Thumbsup.
Pasand Kebab was actually nice. It had a signature Kashmiri Kebab style feel — meat hand beaten on a stone to flatten it and then charcoal grilled. I loved the texture and could totally taste what had went into the process of making it. The downside was the spice paste put on it — my understanding is that in the process of grilling the Kebab, the put a premade formula spice paste on it with a brush — that was the weakness because on some places I could taste rawness of the spice paste.
Rating: Pasand 8/10, Bread 2/10, Chicken Tikka 5/10
Verdict: Go for the Pasand Kebab, skip the rest
Jauzi / Rehmat Ali Halwa and Kheer varieties
The last stop on the tour was Jauzi Halwa and Kheer. By this time, I was stuffed and I am not really a sweets person — one thing I skip if I have to but I really wanted to try so asked for small portions. We got a portion of kheer, and three types of halwa namely: habshi, black carrot and sooji.
I am glad I tried because this was probably the best Lucknow had offered so far. The Kheer was spot on — lightly sweetened, a hint of nuts and a a very balanced mix of dairy and rice. The Halwas were also surprisingly good, minus the Suji halwa. Habshi halwa, was a take on sohan halwa — it was not too sweet but I have had better e.g. from Dera Ismail Khan. The Suji halwa was quite averaga but the best of all was the black carrot halwa. I was told black carrot is a seasonal delicacy locally and so this halwa is quite popular. I could totally taste carrot and I loved how they kept the texture very coarse without making it too smooth.
Rating: Suji 4/10, Carrot 9/10, Habshi 7/10, Kheer 9/10
Verdict: Skip the rest and go here!
Chicken Lababdar from Dastarkhwan
The night before I left Lucknow, I was too tired to go out after a long day walking around Lucknow (14.5 KM that day, to be precise) so asked the hotel reception if they can get me something from Dastarkhawn Restaurant, on recommendation of Santosh Kr. Pandey Bhai. It was a good decision. I was craving for a Paratha and Chicken Lababdar touched me.
Verdict: Go for it, balanced spice and really nice Paratha.