Outside a busy Lucknow restaurant, two men work in harmony atop what appears to be a small room, but is in fact an enormous tandoor. They are making sheermal, the bread Tom and I have just enjoyed with a plate of grilled kebabs. One forms balls of dough, then flattens them into thin rounds. The other, the fellow with seemingly asbestos hands, lays the rounds onto a well-used tandoor pillow, then hefts and slaps each one onto the inner walls of the oven. Without missing a beat, he grabs two metal implements, and reaches down into the oven, retrieves cooked bread rounds, and deftly flings them onto a waiting tray. As we watch, he stops to accept a glass of steaming tea from a co-worker, then pauses to smile for Tom’s camera. It is an arresting Lucknow food moment, one of many we had while exploring the city–and Awadhi cuisine–with Tornos India.
The Nawabs of Awadh
The history of Lucknow dates from the 14th century, but the modern city originated when the capital of Awadh (Oudh to the British), a Mughal princely state, was shifted from Faizabad. The Nawabs of Awadh were a clan of rulers that had come from Persia early in the 18th century, bringing with them an aura of grandeur and an opulent lifestyle, first to Faizabad, then to Lucknow. The Nawabs’ elegance, and mannerism can still be experienced today, in the sophisticated dishes of Awadhi cuisine.
From 1775 to 1857 the Nawabs constructed buildings and gardens that even now offer insights into their time and way of life. Distinctive Awadhi cuisine has influenced the menus of Indian restaurants the world over and made Lucknow a culinary destination.
Lucknow food means Awadhi cuisine
The cooking patterns of Lucknow and environs are an amalgam of Central Asia, the Middle East, and Northern India. An Awadhi feast, known as Dastarkhwan, consists of elaborate dishes, primarily meat-based, with flavors of cardamom, saffron, and other rich spices. The combination of specific breads and curries, served at fixed times of day, is also characteristic of the Dastarkhwan. Nowadays, culinary travelers can experience a virtual feast of individual Awadhi specialties on a Tornos Tours food walk or a private dinner.
Lucknowites welcome travelers eager to discover the bounty of their traditional kitchens. Guided walks with Tornos enabled us to experience bazaar restaurants and street food safely and with gusto, using the cutlery our guides brought along for us. They took us to authentic eateries that invented or refined the dishes on offer, leading us down lanes chock full of meaty fare and vegetarian delights.
Evening Culinary Walk
We sampled Awadhi and Mughal specialties, and discovered the kebabs, curries and breads that are special in Lucknow. In the unpretentious setting of Lucknow’s bazaars we experienced the delicate art of ‘dum’ or slow-sealed cooking and presentation—an art unto itself. We enjoyed meats and breads fresh from a tandoor. And, in an Awadhi restaurant, we savored kebabs cooked on a tawa, or griddle. Everywhere, we marveled at the nuanced preparation and presentation of a wide range of regional specialties.
Beware, occasional meat eaters! In Lucknow, non-vegetarian translates to ’meat-lover’, and our evening walk delivered lots of it. Tom and I shared plates, so that we could taste the varied dishes on offer, but not overdo it with heavy meats. Along the way, Cyrus, our knowledgeable guide, regaled us with back stories and details about ingredients and flavorings.
A Lucknow food walk for the famished
Everything was delicious, but our hands-down, lip-smacking favorites from this walk were two main courses and one accompaniment:
- Nihari, a savory breakfast dish served with kulcha. The ‘crack of dawn’ dish came from Delhi to the breakfast tables of the Nawabs and is a masterpiece of slow cooking. A stock prepared with trotters is cooked overnight before the goat meat is added and braised. We had the Nawabi version, thickened with roasted chickpea flour and garnished with tempered mustard oil.
- The Galouti kebab at Tunday Kababi, eaten with paratha. This dish is named for Haji Murad Ali, a one-armed chef who developed both a unique spice mix and mouth-watering kebabs prepared with just one hand. The kebabs are melt-in-your-mouth soft, prepared from finely minced lamb and seasoned with a spice mix that remains a closely guarded family secret. The mix, prepared by the women of the family, is reputed to contain more than 125 spices.
- The dishes of Awadhi cuisine are meant to be paired with specific breads. We loved them all! Our favorites, though, were sheermal, a sweet naan, fresh from a tandoor, made with warm, sweetened milk and flavored with saffron; and flaky ‘pillowcase’ kulcha‘, a flatbread that combines sourdough and puff pastry and is splashed with milk before it goes into the tandoor.
‘Beyond Kebab’ Walk
‘Beyond Kebab’ is a daytime complement to the Evening Culinary Walk. Our tour with Deepak made stops for chaat, lassi and a ‘pure veg’ thali.
We queued with the lunch crowd for papdi chaat, small roti flavored with cumin and fried until crisp, and filled with a mélange of masala green peas, boiled potatoes, garam masala, lemon, and chutney. Afterward, we tasted sweet and salty biscuits from a local bakery and marveled at the pickle assortment at nearby shop. We finished with kulfi faluda, a cooling dessert of Indian ice cream and corn-flour vermicelli, flavored with saffron.
Our favorites vegetarian dishes in this meat-loving city?
- A Satvik thali, prepared without onion, garlic, or pungent mustard oil: puri kachori, made of a dough incorporating lentils, curried pumpkin and potatoes, cooling boondi ka raita with chickpea ‘drops’, and saunth ki chutney, made with ripe mango and spiced with powdered ginger. This was a high-calorie meal, made to carry Hindu traders through the day.
- An extraordinary lassi of curd flavored with cardamom and topped with pistachios and cashew nuts, frothy malai and saffron-infused sugar. The lassi is served in mud cups, which guide Deepak told us enhances the flavors. Ours was prepared to order by Lallu Yadav, aka Rehlwan, or ‘wrestler’. A fitting nickname for a lassi wrangler!
- While out and about with history guide Ravi, we also had an opportunity eat ‘Tokri chaat’, the famous ‘basket chaat’ –India’s crisp, layered snack food–at Royal Café. This stop, while not on our official tour, was a special treat, and the café’s chaat a dish we will long remember.
If you go
We were familiar with many Indian foods before we arrived in Uttar Pradesh, but Awadhi cuisine and Lucknow food traditions were completely new to us. We found it invaluable to have a knowledgeable introduction and Tornos India is highly regarded, its guides grounded in the area’s intricate history.
An array of walking tours, city orientation, and regional exploration offerings cover key historical themes, tours of churches and cemeteries, and local celebrations of Eid and Ramadan. In addition to the day and evening culinary walks, food travelers may also be interested in curated Lucknow food offerings:
- Tea with Nawab, a follow-on to a city tour of Lucknow, held in a small family museum
- Private dinners: Curated Dining at Kotwara House or Sheesh Mahal, Dining at Mahmudabad House, or Dine with a Maharaja (Family Meal), including a live Kathak dance performance
- Village Cuisine Experience, a day trip into the countryside for a lesson in Indian village cooking
Consider a luxury boutique hotel stay, such as the lebua Lucknow. Built as a sprawling traditional bungalow, personifying the Art Deco era of the early 1930s, the hotel is comfortable and atmospheric. Upon request, Lebua chefs can provide diners elegant or contemporary versions of a range of Awadhi specialties.
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A big thank-you to Prateek Hira of Tornos India for welcoming us to Lucknow and for providing us with a big dose of the city’s fascinating history, along with great food. Thanks too for introducing us to the lebua Lucknow, where we appreciated the attentive staff and eagerness of the chefs to showcase their talent!