When it comes to food of Lucknow I am a little touchy. Okay, make that very touchy. Call it my privilege of access to Lucknow or my fuss but I eat the food of my city only in my city. The only exception in the last 20 years for this has been Dumpukht at ITC because well, they are Dumpukht at ITC.
So when last week I got a call saying that someone wanted to send me a sample of Biryani and kababs I was a bit unsure. I did not want to offend my dear friend who was calling to to send over a ‘dastarkhwan’ for me. “But Ido not eat Lucknow food outside Lucknow,” I managed feebly, worried I’d offend him. It was only after he assured me (many times over) that the food is actually authentic Lakhnavi that I relented. He also mentioned something about it coming from the Qureshi family lineage “we’ll see,” I thought.
Being a Lucknow girl comes with its benefits but it also has challenges — and food is one such. Add to that the fuss of eating fresh off-the-stove food and a strict self imposed ban on home delivery (the only exception to this being Orient Heritage) the situation becomes graver. But then as they say sometimes you must let go and that is what I was doing now.
To tell you the truth my expectations from the biryani were minimal. I truly believe that no one outside lucknow can make the lucknow biryani well. And I have been proven right time and again. Now the kababs or galavat has the same story — I have eaten some great seekh and shammi outside Lucknow but when it comes to the melt-in-your mouth majlisi, boti, or galavat, it is only Lucknow for me. In that sense the dastarkhwan was up against a stiff competition.
Anyway, the Dastarkwan finally arrived on Saturday afternoon. The first thing that stuck me about it was the presentation. Two smiling men carrying a large wooden tray of food is not a common sight at my place. I thanked them and carried the very heavy tray inside. The girls were excited, the boy was intrigued, and I, hungry.
And so it was time to unbox.
The first thing I should probably tell you is how generous the portion was. The second, how beautifully it was packed. The boxes came encased in brown wrappers, the biryani was inside a clay pot and the rotis in a beautiful brown bag. Everything was labelled beautifully and placed on a handmade wooden tray — also for us to keep! (yay!!!)
In the tray we found Dal, Nihari, Rotis, Biryani, Raita, Chutneys, Kababs, Malai Phirni, Mango Lassi and Thandai. A note described the items, a hand signed letter shared the journey of the brand and another card shared the history of this food. Hastily read and quickly clicked (the agonies of being a food writer), the food was ready to be devoured. We started by heating the biryani as instructed and making a couple extra rotis to go with Nihari. The girls attacked the galawat while husband and I started with the sheermaal and Taftaan. The papaya relish reminded me of my dadi’s mango chutney and the raita was so creamy that it could only come from a kitchen in Lucknow.
What had me in an instant however was the mutton in Nihari. So tender that it fell off the bone, and yet firm enough to keep its form, it had to be the best quality mutton I have eaten in Delhi. The Taftan, an afghani bread, dunked in ghee, was beautiful even after at least 2 hours of being made (they came to deliver from far away), and sheermaal seemed straight off the streets of Aminabad. The nihari was beautifully smooth too with beautiful fatty rogan and the rotis did a great job of foiling it. Which brings me to the kabab.
As someone who only eats galavat at tundey (and that too only buff), it is hard for me to like any other kabab. I love some seekhs here in Delhi, but for everything else it is only Lucknow. I was happy to see though that the texture of the galavat was beautiful here. As were the ingredients — I could smell every spice and feel the time that had been given to create them. Though I found them a bit over-scented the texture made up for it. Girls lapped them up on their own, husband wrapped them in the sheermal and I saved mine for evening and ate my rotis with the Dal. The Dal I must say was as close to perfect as it could be — I only wonder how wonderful it would taste right off the stove (guys, please put a few tables outside your kitchen!).
Next came the biryani. Heated nicely by now, it had been waiting patiently for us to finish our ancillary business. All eyes were glued to the pot as the man opened the little deg, carefully removing the Atta used to glue the lid — the sign of individually cooked authentic biryani.
The thing about Lakhnavi biryani is this: it has to be delicately flavoured and yet not bland, it has to be perfectly cooked and yet not lose the form, it has to have mutton that can fall off the bone and yet not disintegrate, and lastly, it needs to have the right amount of fat and scent — every grain needs to be coated in ghee and every bite should be fragrant. And so, you see, Lakhnavi biryani needs to be made only by expert hands — why I never attempt to make it or even eat it outside of Lucknow. But I ate this one.
The form was nice, the meat was cooked perfectly, it wasn’t overflowing with spice (though the nasals could be lesser), and there was adequate fat (could be coated better, had I mixed it well before serving). The only thing I felt here too was overscenting. I do not cook biryani so I cannot say if this is because it was a smaller portion cooked in the pot itself or could they actually do with a bit less scent, but the scent did come in the way of my enjoying it fully. I mixed some with nihari and had some with raita. In between, for balance, there were dips of finger in the perfectly seasoned papaya relish with kalonji. All in all it was a nice meal with some very good quality ingredients used by deft hands.
While by now the four of us were nicely full with a kabab and some nihari to spare. I was eyeing something else. The only thing we hadn’t opened until now was the phirni. The two sakoras, sitting pretty in a cardboard box were calling out to me since they came in — and so I went looking for it.
The first thing that struck me was the varq. Silver foil, that is also a Lucknow specialty, sat pretty on one half of the sakora and pistas shined from another. The bowls were cool and moist, and smelt beautiful. One bite of the mildly sweet, beautifully set phirni took me home — to the streets of chowk and aminabad, to homes of friends and family, to the city that is mecca of food. It was easily the best phirni I have eaten. As I sat alone relishing every bite of it, I was already planning how and when to order more.
Meanwhile the perfect thandai accompanies me as I type this. The dastarkwan was sent to us as a gift by the new and famous Biryani Central, a cloud kitchen that has been winning hearts across the capital with their food.