Sunday, April 22, 2007

Of Nawabs and Kababs

My love affair with kababs began during the time I lived in Lucknow. On days when I would get late at work (which was often; after all, I was a programmer and some things haven't changed very much!), I would go to the many dhabas that Sheek Kabab Lucknowdotted the area opposite Clarks Awadh hotel in the heart of Lucknow's shopping district. With my biryani, I would order a different kabab every night. Along with the usual tandoori chicken and sheek kababs, I remember the subtle flavors of well-made shammi kababs and the tender portions of mutton boti kabab.

Lucknow, or Awadh as this city was known earlier, lies in the populous heartland of North India. The nawabs of Awadh were as much known for their gastronomic sophistication as they were for their extravagent lifestyles and love for the performing arts. Their kitchens (called bawarchi khanas) took pride of place in the royal courts, as did their bawarchis or rakabdars (gourmet cooks).

Shami Kabab LucknowAs an article from the Tribune describes: The bawarchis and rakabdars of Awadh gave birth to the dum style of cooking or the art of cooking over a slow fire, which has become synonymous with Lucknow today. Their spread would consist of elaborate dishes like kebabs, kormas, kaliya, nahari-kulchas, zarda, sheermal, roomali rotis and warqi parathas. The richness of Awadh cuisine lies not only in the variety of cuisine but also in the ingredients used."

Food has history in Lucknow. The famous Tunda Kebab is so named because it was a specialty of an one-armed chef. The uniqueness of this kebab is the masala which is a zealously guarded family secret and prepared by women in the family. It is said to incorporate 160 spices.

AwadhThere are multiple stories surrounding the famed Kakori kabab. This kabab is considered blessed since it was originally made in the place by the same name in the dargah of Hazrat Shah Abi Ahder Sahib with divine blessings.

Another popular story attributes this melt-in-your-mouth kabab to an ingenious chef who prepared this for the ageing and toothless Nawab of Kakori.

However, here's another version I discovered recently: Kakori is a small hamlet on the outskirts of Lucknow, in the Lucknow - Malihabad mango - belt. During the freedom struggle, it became well known for the famous 'Kakori Case' when a band of freedom fighters looted the train carrying the British Government Treasury money at this obscure place. In the same period, of British rule, it was also customary in this region for the rich Rajas and Nawabs, to entertain senior British Officers and ply them with the best hospitality they could offer. And if it was the mango season , a 'mango dinner' was very much in order (dinner in a mango orchard, was followed by a variety of chilled mangoes served in great style).

Wajid Ali Shah,Nawab of LucknowAt one such parties in Kakori, stung by the remark of a British Officer regarding the coarse texture of Seekh Kabab, the host, Nawab late Syed Mohammad Haider Kazmi summoned his rakabdars, hakims and attars the very next day and asked them to evolve a more refined variety of the Seekh Kabab. Ten days of incessant research and design efforts resulted in the now famous 'Kakori Kababs' which was as far as perfection could go. The mince for the kabab was to be obtained from no other part but the raan ki machhli (tendon of the leg of mutton) and rawaz or animal fat was replaced by khoya, black pepper replaced by white pepper and a brand new mix of powdered spices which still remains a closely guarded secret added to the perfect blend.

And of course, the Nawab invited the same officer again and presented the new version of the Seekh Kabab and needless to say it met with great applause. Since then the Seekh Kababs of Kakori became famous by word of mouth and even today, though cooked elsewhere, are known as 'Kakori Kababs'.

Lucknow is proud of its Kebabs. The Tunda Kebab in the alleys of Lucknow's Chowk area has now existed for over a hundred years and is popular even today. The Kakori Kebabs, Gilaouti Kababs, Shami Kebabs, Boti Kebabs, and Seekh Kebabs are personal favorites, among the many I have indulged in. (Pic of Tangdi Kebabs below by Mad Man)

Tangdi KababThe seekh kabab, introduced in this region by the Mughals, was originally prepared from beef mince on skewers and cooked on charcoal fire. But later influences and innovations led to the use of lamb mince, which was preferred for its soft texture. Besides, serving of it did not offend the sensibilities of any Hindu guests. The immense popularity of this kabab led to further refinements and improvements (also leading to the Kakori Kabab).

Shami Kabab was what any feast worth its name would consist of in the month of May when the mango was still raw. Made from mince meat, the kababs are round patties filled with spicy surprises and the tangy `kairi' or raw green mango.

Nehari kabab is a post rain delicacy seasoned with mustard oil buried for nine months in a mud pot under a tree and opened after the rains. The mustard plant is harvested in February and March.

Another unusual offering is the Pasanda Kabab, picatta of lamb marinated and then sauteed on a griddle.

I lived in Lucknow for about eight years, discovering the many culinary delights in the serpentine lanes of the old city: Rahim-ke-kulche nihari, Bismillah-ki-biryani, Radhey-ki malai gilori and lassi to name a few. And then new opportunities beckoned, I moved to Delhi, and found a whole new world of kababs and curries waiting to be discovered!

Notes: (1) The drawing above is titled the Indian Mutiny and the Relief of Lucknow by Thomas J Barker; (2) The potrait is of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh; (3) Kabab photos are linked to their sources.

If you like Indian food and history, you may also enjoy the following posts too:

  • Biryani Stories
  • Oh So Sweet
  • Kababs In and Around Delhi
  • Kababs at the Baluchi
  • Unlimited Kababs to Heaven
  • The Rosogolla Revisited
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      Wednesday, April 11, 2007

      Bon Voyage!

      I have travelled to more distant places in the last twelve months than ever before. I have come back from every trip with a greater appreciation and understanding of people and places, even those I thought I already knew about. There is no substitute to being there in person, strolling the streets, breathing the air, eating the food, and watching the people go about their daily lives. There is so much in common in this world and yet so much variety!

      Mark Twain wrote a long time ago: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

      Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.Explore. Dream. Discover."

      Here is a roundup of my posts from the last twelve months from cities around the world that I visited for the first time during this period.

      Singapore: Our days in Singapore were very busy; in fact, we crammed more site-seeing trips in this time than we ought to have done. more...

      Kuala Lumpur: Thick, lush green vegetation everywhere! As the road wound through the mountainside, we could see the faint outline of a building at the very top through the misty clouds that shrouded the tops. more...

      Beijing: This was also the first time I tasted the famous Peking Duck. Dessert consisted of a sweet dumpling filled with a dark brown gooey concoction that seemed to be made of sesame. more...

      Ho Chi Minh City: I was feeling so rich when I exchanged money here! US$100, and you are a millionare (in Dong, the currency here which is approx 16,100 dongs per US dollar). more...

      Bali: Both magical and mythical, this land of volcanic lakes, spectacular rice terraces, stunning tropical beaches, ancient temples and palaces is an exotic melting pot of cultures and peoples. more...

      Tokyo: Seafood in Tokyo are amongst the freshest I have ever eaten. And I have even begun to like Miso Soup and Rice, now that I know how to mix the sauces for just that right taste! more...

      I leave you with a quote from author James A. Michener: If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.


      Tuesday, April 03, 2007

      Bangalored for Three Hours

      There is no direct flight between Pune and Chennai. The best connection I could manage on my return journey from Chennai left me with three hours at Bangalore. Turned out to be a good thing, because my good friend D (for dependable!) ensured this time was well spent and educational as well!

      Leela Palace BangaloreWe spent the first hour sipping fruity cocktails at the Leela Palace which is very close to the airport. The Leela at Bangalore boasts of a large shopping complex in its two basement levels, and it took us some time to locate the bar which is at the lobby level. The interiors of the hotel are lavish and evoke the princely past of India with rose petals, water bodies, silken drapes and marble pillars.

      Leela Palace BangaloreD proceeded to give me a tour of the nearby areas that included Bangalore's first IT Park, restaurants, and clothing factory outlets that line the airport road.

      My friend D develops software for a global IT company; he moved here from Pune a year back. Over drinks and during the drive, he enthusiastically listed out all that he finds better in Bangalore: the public transport system with their spanking new Volvos, the automated billing machines in the Electricity office, the choice of awesome buffet lunches, a cook who pampers him with mutton-biryani during the weekends, and people around him who intellectually stimulate him (hmm!). But he grudgingly added, the girls in Pune are prettier. That from someone who's never been preoccupied with the fairer sex!

      Note: Pictures of the Leela Palace @ Bangalore courtesy Modavi and thebigbangalore.


      Monday, April 02, 2007

      Spicy Morsels in Chennai

      I peered outside my window curiously as the airplane began its descent. I was returning to Chennai after two decades; the city was called Madras then, and not exactly a popular destination. How things have changed! A recent Harvard School study forecast Chennai as the next big IT city in India (after Bangalore). From the sky, I could see more greenery than I had expected. Pune is reeling from an unusually hot summer right now, so even the weather didn't seem too bad to me.

      Navratna Le Royal Meridien ChennaiI stayed at Le Royal Meridien, about 15-20 mins drive from the airport. The hotel is very unremarkable from the outside (only four stories high, and looks old from the outside). However, the atrium/lobby area and the three restaurants are of good quality. The Gold Club rooms were large, nicely appointed, but haven't been refurbished any time recently.

      Navratna Le Royal Meridien ChennaiI spent a few hours with colleagues at the lobby bar (called the Dome). Cricket continues to rule supreme even though India has crashed out early, disappointing a billion people, and bringing TV sales crashing down all over the country. The TV in the bar was showing the cricket match between West Indies and Sri Lanka and the waiters were dressed up in the teams' colors.

      Navratna Le Royal Meridien ChennaiDuring this visit, I was able to eat at the Cilantro and Navratna. The Cilantro serves breakfast and lunch buffets, and is always crowded. The Navratna, serves what they describe as Royal Indian Cuisine, is quieter, has an interesting decor, and serves local South-Indian delicacies (they also have North Indian dishes that I didn't try).

      Navratna Le Royal Meridien ChennaiThe Guntur Kodi Vepudu is a very spicy starter made of boneless, succulent chunks of chicken marinated in South Indian spices. I loved it, as I did the Mutton Chettinad curry which I polished off with some very good Kal Dosa (the Kal is a hot stone on which this dosa is cooked) and Malabar Paratha (flaky South Indian bread). And finally, for dessert, I recommend the Athipazham Halwa which is made of figs and the black-currant ice-cream.