After my trip to Lucknow earlier this year, I thought I knew something about the food from the region. However, isn’t it nice to be proved gloriously wrong once in a while? Thanks to Ashish Chopra and Izzat Hussein, I am now looking forward to travelling to Lucknow again, because now, my perceptions have changed about Lucknow food. The key to ‘Awadhi’ food is, as per Ashish Chopra, culinary historian and the curator of this rather wonderful festival at K-19, Park Plaza, “the food cooked by the people who are from Muslim households in different cities which were once part of the grand state of ‘Awadh’,” and yes, over the years, there has been many, many influences on this form of cooking, specifically, that of the changing season and climate, which has put a great deal of emphasis on it.
Of course, this would lead to a great deal of debate about what can be considered as the food of Lucknow. Dr. Izzat Hussein, the man behind this rather intriguing event, I learn that the meals during the day in the household is generally kept light. The mornings would begin with a light repast, followed by a mostly vegetarian lunch, consisting of vegetables and lentils. However, dinner would be a heavier affair, consisting of meat, cooked in different styles. Biryani is a house favourite, as well as kababs, and hot parathas or other kinds of bread would be served with it.
Dr. Izzat Hussein has studied Unani medicine for years, and he explains the reasons behind choosing the dishes and creating the special menu. “The key to the food I cook is in the way it is made. I do not add water while cooking – I have found it tends to make the resultant food lose out in taste. Also, I do not use yoghurt while cooking meat. I flavour it with lemon juice and an assortment of spices, which are good for you. So, the food is not unhealthy. Rather, its suited to the people of today.”
When I ask what he means by the term, “people of today”, he further explains, “You see, our ancestors did a great deal of physical exertion, which we do not. So, while it was perfectly okay for them to have a lot of oil and carbohydrates and spicy, rich food, the same cannot be said about us, who sit on our desks, right? So, the food is modified, so that its not too oily, and more nutritious.” He smiles as he finishes his discourse.
So, without further delay, I make my way to the meal on offer. There’s the rather delicate ‘Kaju Paneer Biryani’, which leaves its non-vegetarian counterpart far behind in texture and flavour. The grains of rice are fluffy, mildly spiced, and with an unforgettable aftertaste of cloves and pepper, which is rather intoxicating. I also sample the lotus stems, which are dry, spicy, but not exactly what I would pair with biryani.
However, the Chukandar Paneer is another revelation. The gravy is red from the beetroots added to it, and the pieces of paneer melt in my mouth, dewy and soft. I savoured this solo, and then turned my attention towards the star of the show – the paaya. This is soupy and comforting, a bowl of goodness not dripping in fat, and has a light texture which is excellent solo.
The keema on the other hand had the creamiest, smoothest texture, which was perfect with the multigrain rotis made out of a flour which was mixed according to Izzat’s proportions. It was soft, springy, and with a little hit of whole spices which left me feeling delightfully healthy, if I may say so. I had these with some masoor ki daal which was, again, a study in simplicity, and exactly what I needed to end my meal.
For dessert, I picked the anjeer ka halva which was crumbly and moist, but not overly so, dotted with figs, and a fitting end to a rather wonderful meal. In case you want to check out the Awadhi food festival at Park Plaza, you can go there for l dinner till the 6th of December, 2015. The buffet is priced at 1299/- plus taxes for adults and 799/- plus taxes for kids.
And of course, how could I miss out on a photo with Dr. Izzat Hussein, who was responsible for this rather glorious meal?
Here it is!
Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee was invited to Park Plaza by the management of the establishment.