One watches in awe as the man on the griddle deftly rolls mashed potato and dunks it into smoking oil. He flips the patty cautiously until it is fried to a golden perfection. Next, he transfers it on to a pattal (dried leaf plate) for dressing. First comes the yogurt, then tamarind chutney, followed by seasoning—yellow and red chilli, brown cumin and pink salt. The tikki is finished with julienned ginger, chopped green chilli, coriander, and aloo ke lacchey, before being handed over to its rightful owner.
Chaat is eaten everywhere in India, but here, in Lucknow, chaat is not just food, its a work of art. To say chaat is the thread that strings all Lakhnavis together will not be wrong. Every lane in Lucknow has at least one chaatwala, surrounded, at any time, with not less than half a dozen people—some waiting for their tikki, some jostling for Pani ke Batashe, and some packing large parcels.
Pani ke Batashe, Dahi ke Batashe, Aloo ki Tikki, Nimbu ki Matar—all are variants of chaat, each with its own place, and its own patrons. “The chaat of Lucknow is some of the best I have eaten. The aloo tikki here is a synthesis of diverse textures and flavours and is truly phenomenal. The Nimbu ki Matar hits the right spots with a perfect balance of ghee, spices, and lime,” Kalyan Karmakar, food blogger and the author of The Travelling Belly says fondly about his experiences with the chaat. I cannot but agree with him.
Every morning, even as the first rays of the sun light the domes of Asaf-ud-Daula’s city, the halwais get busy with their kadhais and by seven every morning, the sweet shops in the city are ready. Juicy jalebis, spicy khastas and tangy potatoes await customers. No day in Lucknow begins without them. The jalebi here is small and fat; the khasta is spicy, flaky, and soft, and the curd is creamy and thick. The odd combination of sweet, sour, tangy, hot, and cold works wonders on your tongue and leaves you wanting for more. “I love the jalebis in Lucknow because of their crispness, but also because they make it using the traditional method with a small brass kalash. Every time I see the halwai dropping batter in the flat kadai from that brass tumbler my heart skips a beat,” quips Ruchi Srivastava, former producer for the TV show Masterchef India. And why not, khasta-jalebi and Lucknow are synonyms, after all.
There are desserts and there are desserts and then there are the mithais of Lucknow—delicate, intricate, layered, and yet simple. Lucknow may have been the birthplace of many a dessert but the undisputed king of mithais here is Malai ki Gilori. Believed to have been created during the time of the Nawabs when paan was forbidden in the courts of Lucknow, Malai ki Gilori was invented as a solution. So, you were eating paan, and yet not eating it.
Made with layers of milk cream, that is set especially for this purpose, Malai Paan or Malai ki Gilori, is credited to the legendary sweet shop, Ram Asrey, set up in 1805 by Lala Ram Asrey. “The owner brought karigars from Benaras who were experts in setting the malai for the paan—it is a long and tedious process of simmering the milk and collecting layers of malai for the sweet. And what do I tell you about the end product, it is something else,” says Pushpesh Pant, noted food historian and author.
To make the Malai Paan, pre-set sheets of cream, or malai, are cut into smaller pieces, filled with mishri and nuts, and hand rolled into the shape of a paan. This is covered in silver varq. So delicate is the gilori that you have to be cautious of not breaking it; so subtle is the taste that you’d miss its nuances if you don’t pay attention. But then, Nazakat, as they say, reflects in everything in Lucknow. Alternating sweet and spicy is an unwritten rule in the city of Nawabs, and so, even though there is malai paan and jalebi, the importance of fluffy puris and soft kachoris cannot be undermined.
“There’s this man in Lucknow who only sells channa-puri. The story goes that once the Income Tax guys raided him, and purely based on the pattals that were found in his dustbin, they taxed him for 15 years. That’s how many puris he sells everyday.” Chef Ranveer Brar, who grew up in Lucknow, narrates the tale of the popularity of puri-kachori in the city. “These stories keep the food alive and going, and we need to share more such stories.”
When you talk about kachoris, the ones from Netram Ajay Kumar are the first to come to mind. Fried in desi ghee, served with dry pumpkin, boondi raita, and potato curry, the kachoris are unlike their counterparts across North India. They are neither overtly fried, nor too big, and, if you control your portion, they also allow you to indulge in a kulfi or two afterwards.
“Kulfi icecream nahi hoti, kulfi, kulfi hoti hai” reads a sign at Prakash Kulfi, one of Lucknow’s oldest shops. The smugness in the sign tells you how much pride the city takes in its kulfi. “We still follow the old way of making Kulfi. It is set in tins inside large pots and hand churned. A fresh batch is made everyday.” The young man at the counter, who is too shy to share his name, tells me. “We are the oldest and the best shop in town.” He adds assertively. Served with falooda, long noodles that balance its sweetness and the chill, it bursts with flavours and textures.
But no discussion on Lucknow’s food can be complete without Nimish.
“Nimish means a blink of an eye, 1/8th of a second. The dish is called so because the foam of the milk needs only that much time to settle. So you pour chilled milk in a clay pot and collect the foam from the top. Layers after layers of this lighter-than-air foam is collected and flavoured with saffron and pistachio to make the authentic Nimish of Lucknow,” explains Pant, while describing this delicate airy treat.
Prepared overnight by hand churning thick milk and collecting its foam, makhan malai or Nimish is a tradition that Lucknow has clung on to for centuries. Even today when the makhanwala calls in the morning, the city knows it is time to wake up for their dose of this saffron infused soufflé. “The eyeopener in my food explorations in Lucknow was not only Nimish, but also its milk that settles at the base of the pot. Served chilled with rabri, it is a real treat.” Anubhav Sapra, the Foodie-in-chief, Delhi Food Walks, who also conducts food walks in the lanes of Old Lucknow, tells me, remembering the milky delight.
Lighter than air, milder than dew, with just a hint of sweetness and bite of nuts, Nimish represents the culinary expertise of Lucknow in more ways than one. Just like the sliver of pista that stays put on the tongue even after this frothy treat melts, the flavours of Lucknow stay alive on your palate forever.
This story first appeared on CondeNast Traveller.