In Lucknow, a food festival is bringing Awadhi kitchen secrets to light

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The Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival has become an important event in Lucknow’s cultural calendar. From small beginnings, targeting a local audience, it now attracts visitors from outside the city and even outside the country. The five-day festival, held at Safed Baradari in the first week of February, includes a Weaves & Crafts Bazaar, literary events, cultural performances, craft demonstrations, walks and tours, and much more.

One of the most popular events of this festival is the Awadhi Home Cooked Food Festival. As the name suggests, the food is not professionally cooked – rather, it is prepared by a team of volunteers, or “home cooks”, in their kitchens using old family recipes. The idea for the Sunday lunch came out of a realisation that there was so much more to Lucknow food than the popular street fare which had, for so long, passed off as representing Awadhi Cuisine. We wanted authentic food to be brought out of Lucknow homes and served to a discerning audience, not simply as an afternoon lunch, but as an entire gourmet experience.

The dynamics of the Awadhi Home Cooked Food Festival change every year. The menu is decided after much deliberation. To add novelty, new dishes are introduced each year and care is taken not to be repetitive, although some popular dishes from previous years may be included. There is always a variety of saalans, such as mutton or chicken qorma, aloo gosht, shab degh, nahari or methi machli ka shorba. Dry meat dishes on the menu can include mutton raan, seekh pasanda or mutton stew. There are endless combinations of kababs to choose from – shaami, galawat, boti, goley ke kabab, patili ki tikiya. Keema dishes can vary between hara bhara keema, keema sem ke beej and lal mirch stuffed with keema. Roomali and tandoori rotis are served hot from a common cooking area. And there are steaming platters of yakhni pulao and dum biryani with smoked raita or a fresh tomato chutney.

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Courtesy: Noor Khan.

The Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival celebrates diversity, so there are regional representations on the menu, such as the Bundeli thaali and UP thaali. The festival theme also influences the menu. At one festival, the theme was the many communities that had made Lucknow their home, so the community representations included the Marwari thaali, Parsi dhansak, Bengali mustard fish curry, to name just a few.

Much thought is given to the vegetarian section as well. A glass of kanji makes a platter of makke ki roti, gur and sarson ka saag more interesting. Soya variations of popular meat dishes are inevitably popular with the festivalgoers and the Marwari thaali is always the first to be sold out. For people looking for more basic, simple fare, there is always kadhi chawal, matar pulao with chutney, sookhe aaloo, sagpaita with zeera chawal.

Rounding off the menu are traditional Awadhi sweets such as shahi tukda, firini, shakarkand ki kheer, qimami sewian and gajar or chane ki dal ka halwa. Shahi tukdas and firini are popular sweets that are served all year round at local weddings. Shakarkand ki kheer is a seasonal sweet, which can be cooked only in winter months, when shakarkand (sweet potatoes) are in season. Halwas are rich because they are cooked in large quantities of clarified butter, so they are best enjoyed in winter. The Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival is always held in the first week of February, so winter vegetables and sweets are often an essential part of the Sunday Food Festival.

Courtesy: Noor Khan.

New volunteer cooks are added to the team every year, and they invariably introduce exciting new dishes. The hara bhara keema was added to the menu by Ashar Jamal last year. Ashar is an educationist by profession, and her family of ulemas and hakims have lived in old Lucknow for seven generations on record. Even today the extended family lives within walking distance of each other. Ashar picked up the recipe from her bua, an old family retainer who would occasionally cook her own dinner in the family’s woodfired kitchen. Often this one-dish meal was chunky bits of beef cooked with coarsely-pounded ginger and garlic, stewed in its own fat and garnished with generous quantities of green coriander and chillies. Ashar recreated and refined the recipe from childhood memories, replacing the animal fat with mustard oil and chunky beef with lean minced goat meat. She is an instinctive cook and does not feel the need for written recipes.

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Farzana Shahab’s family came to Lucknow in the mid-1950s from a farming community in the Bundelkhand region. Farzana, an artist by profession, served aloo gosht at the Sunday Food Festival, a recipe that has been used by four generations of women in her family. She picked up cooking by helping her mother in the kitchen and has started the practice of recording her family recipes in a recipe book. She shares these written recipes and gives a cooking demonstration with her daughter Anam, who lives and works in London.

Another of the festival’s home cooks is Zarine Viccajee. She is an educationist and the president of the Awadh Educational Society, which runs Avadh Degree College in Lucknow. Her great great grandfather, Nowrojee Damkawala, came to Lucknow in the mid-19th century to trade in silks and pearls with the Nawab of Awadh. Gradually, a Parsi community settled down in Lucknow. Parsis adopted the language, dress, food and mannerisms of Lucknow. In return they gave Lucknow the seedha palla, gorgeously-embroidered sarees and borders, and delicious Parsi dishes, the most well-known amongst them being the dhansak. Zarine does the cooking herself, but this recipe was passed down orally by her mother to her trusted cook, Lal Mohammed, who in turn shared it with Parvati, the current family cook. It was Lal Mohammed’s version that was shared at the Sunday Home Cooked Festival for the first time last year. Zarine’s niece, Sanaya, has now written down the recipe and cooks it just the way her grandmother did.

The Awadhi Home Cooked Food Festival has acquired an adda-like status of a carnival. Families eat together, friends meet up and share a meal, rounding it off with a sikora of hot chane ki daal ka halwa. The senior cooks double up as hostesses and mingle with the guests, suggesting different combinations from the menu and ensuring that everyone is comfortable and satisfied.

Courtesy: Noor Khan.

The festival can throw up some surprises. The chocolate orange cake, a new entrant last year, was the first to be sold out. Now, who would have thought of that, when the long-standing demand has always been for traditional Awadhi sweets.

As we learn and grow, our customers learn along with us. No one asks anymore what a khichda or the feminine-sounding koftee-pulau is. Everyone has learned that the former is mutton cooked with lentils and rice, and the latter is a colloquial term for a bite-sized mince kofta layered with green peas and fragrant rice. It gives us immense joy when we hear that some of the dishes we introduced have become part of common fare. Khichda and nargisi koftas are more visible now on menu cards in popular eating places. One loyal customer told us that she had eaten keema with lal mirch at a wedding in Delhi but it was not as good as ours. Discerning audiences have learned that the Awadhi style of cooking meat and vegetables together creates delicacies that are to be appreciated for their subtle flavours and pleasing colours. The golden potato halves simmering in a dish of aloo gosht, the red of the beetroot enhancing the colour of chukandar gosht, or the dhania and green chillies lending their name, flavour and colour to the fiery hara bhara keema are combinations to be savoured and appreciated. The journey has been more than a decade old and the idea has been to share and spread awareness about Awadhi food, and we feel we have been successful.


My father’s family belonged to Amethi, a small qasba adjacent to Lucknow. My grandfather settled down in Lucknow in the early 1900s. Lucknow has been my home for almost five decades, and the city has a tradition of good food served with utmost care and a genuine sense of hospitality. I am an educationist by profession, but, over the years, I have developed an interest in cooking. Here, I am sharing my paternal aunt’s recipe for keema karela, or minced meat cooked with bitter gourd. My aunt died before I was born, but her daughter, my cousin, shared her mother’s recipe. This recipe is about 70 years old, shared only through memory. It will be added to a family recipe book that I started writing about five years ago.

Keema Karela

Main Ingredients

500 gm minced meat, washed and set aside

6 medium karelas

3 large onions, sliced lengthwise

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 tsp finely chopped ginger

1 tsp finely chopped garlic

1 tsp haldi powder

1 tsp coarsely pounded red chillies

1 cup mustard oil, smoked and cooled

½ cup karaunda, or Bengal currant, halved and deseeded

Salt to taste

Dry Spice Mix

1 tbsp saunf, ½ tbsp zeera, ½ tsp methi seeds. All lightly roasted and then coarsely pounded. Add ½ tsp of kalonji seeds to this mixture.

Garnish

Pudina leaves, whole green chillies, browned onions.

Method

1. Scrape the skin of karelas. Slit, deseed and cut into rings. Add ½ tsp of salt and set aside for half an hour. Wash thoroughly and pat dry.

2. In a wok, heat mustard oil. Add the sliced onions and cook until they turn golden brown. Set aside half of the onions.

3. To the remaining onions add the coarsely-pounded spice mix, minced meat, haldi powder, pounded chillies, chopped ginger and garlic, minced onions and salt. Mix well, cover with a tight lid and leave to cook on very low flame. Continue cooking until all the liquid has evaporated. Stir until the oil separates and the mince is brown and well roasted.

4. Add the karela rings and karaunda halves. Add a cup of water and cook on very low heat until the karela and karaunda have softened but retain their shape.

5. Serve garnished with pudina leaves, green chillies and brown onions.

Note: This is a summer dish for that is when karelas and karaundas are in season. Chopped pieces of raw mango can be substituted for karaundas if karaundas are not available. Karaundas and raw mangoes are souring agents and combine well with the slightly bitter taste of the karela. Take care to retain the shape of the karaunda and karela. This enhances the finished look of the dish.

Noor Khan retired as the Principal of Karamat College, Lucknow, where she also taught English. As a member of the core organising group of the Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, she has worked tirelessly to generate awareness about Lucknow’s cultural heritage.

This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.

 


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