“I will have four kababs, two parathas and half biryani,” a lady orders without looking at the menu. “Two half biryanis to eat and 4 kebabs and 2 parathas pack” echoes the voice from next table. “Bhaiya do plate biriyani pack aur kabab parathe khane ke liye,” says the person behind me. A quick glance around reveals that every table has at least two things in common – kebab and biryani – and, despite an elaborate menu, they are often the only things on the table.
“Young and old, rich and poor, locals and outsiders all come here only for two things – kebabs and biryani.” Says Pallavi Singh, a public school teacher who grew up in the city and visits the place whenever she is back. “Tundey, after all, makes the best kebabs and biryani in the whole world” She adds even as she orders her meal – kebabs, parathas, and of course biriyani.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, we are in Lucknow, sitting inside the humble restaurant that has been serving exceptional food for over a hundred years. To call Tundey Kebabi a restaurant, however, will be not be entirely correct, for it is much more than just a restaurant or an eatery – it is an institution, a culinary tradition, and most importantly, a way of life for the people in the city.
The story of Lucknow’s Tundey Kebabi has been repeated hundreds of times. Everyone who knows of the Galavati Kebabs knows that the royal cooks of Asad-ud-daula created them when the Nawab started losing his teeth and could not chew the tougher meat dishes. It was then, on his behest, that Haji Murad Ali had created these melt-in-your-mouth kebabs. They had that won the Nawab over. Over a century later, while the Nawabs are long gone, these velvety wonders continue to win people over.
All action in Tundey Kebabi is concentrated outside the shop where about half a dozen men are always busy turning in kebabs on large griddles. Another half a dozen ferry them inside to the restaurant, and many more are forever packing them in small cardboard boxes lined with foil and branded with a picture of Lucknow’s famous Rumi Darwaza. Such is their speed that the entire griddle empties out before one can even focus the camera.
On a separate stove, a middle aged man makes rumali rotis, breads so thin and large that they resemble a handkerchief – hence the name. He flips the dough with the ease of a juggler and sets it upon an upturned wok, to convert it into a paratha, he slathers on some oil and presses it over the wok with swift movements. The air around him is laden with the smoke of the burning ghee; the atmosphere is heavy with the scent of sizzling kebabs.
“The original shop of Tundey Kebabi is in Chowk. That is where Haji Ali started selling these kebabs. This one in Aminabad was opened in 1996 by Usman Ali and Rizwan Ali and is more popular now. Famous personalities, film stars, politicians, and foreigners, come here all the time.” Says Shubham, the cashier, pointing to a wall lined with pictures of celebrities.
The place needs no celebrity endorsement though, for its food speaks for itself.
The legendary galavati kebabs at Tundey are so soft that they lose half their form by the time they reach your table, and the rest goes when you pick them up. The bite of the paratha perfectly balances the smoothness of the kebabs; sliced onions and lime add zing. Together it is a match made in heaven. The biryani, on the other hand, is delicate and fragrant. Every grain of rice is beautifully cooked and full of flavour. These saffron, white, and yellow grains of basmati, are served with succulent pieces of mutton and a tangy and watery raita. The delicate kevra flavoured biryani is like none other in the country – and possibly the world, but what stands out most is the mastery of the cooks over the recipes. Kebabs, parathas, biryani, each dish has a subtle and restrained flavour, and a lingering after taste.
“Our Kebabs use over 160 spices and the recipes have been passed down from one generation to the next. The softness of the kebab and the flavour of the biryani that you get here, you wont find anywhere else.” Md. Imraan, the great grandson of Haji Murad Ali, tells me even as I polish my food and urge the pathan-suit clad waiter, Nafees Ahmed, to get a repeat of my order – kebab, paratha, and half plate biryani.
A version of this story first appeared in The Hindu.