The great biryani search continues. But Lucknow, it turns out, is pulao country. It is also the place for outstanding kababs and kormas. And it has the best chaat in the entire country
I went to Lucknow as part of the great biryani search. But all controversies about whether Lucknow made a biryani or a pulao were quickly settled. Every single person I met in Lucknow was clear that Lucknow only dealt in pulao, not in biryani.
But why then did so many restaurants advertise that they served Lucknowi biryani – even in Lucknow itself? And what’s the difference between a pulao and a biryani anyway?
The answers seem to be shaded in grey rather than black and white. There is no clear distinction between a biryani and a pulao unless you take the Hyderabadi line that only a biryani made with raw (rather than cooked) meat is the real thing. In Lucknow as in so many other places, I have decided that biryani and pulao exist in a continuum. Some versions are clearly biryani and some are clearly pulao but the distinction appears to be the spiciness and the wetness of the final dish. Between these two extremes are many many stages and whether you use the term biryani or prefer pulao seems to be a largely subjective decision.
And why do dhabas and restaurants in Lucknow claim that they serve biryani? Well, because of commercial motives. People seem more willing to order a biryani than a pulao. Think about it. How many people have you heard praising pulao? And yet nearly everywhere you go you will meet somebody raving about the biryani at his or her favourite place or suggesting that you meet for a biryani. Pulao has been devalued by the tendency to apply the term to virtually anything, even a dish of mildly spiced rice cooked with peas and eaten with daal. Biryani on the other hand sounds like a dish that can stand up on its own.
That said, I have to confess that because this was a rushed two-day trip with a TV crew, I really did not have the time to go exploring the various kinds of pulao that Lucknow has to offer. Working on the principle that the best Lucknowi food is found in private homes and not in restaurants I had dinner with the Rajkumar of Mehmoodabad in his haveli. The Rajkumar knows his food and has the added advantage of being married to a great chef from Hyderabad (the famous Kulsum Begum) so he understands the distinction between the two cuisines and their rice dishes.
His chef (a Lucknowi cook as distinguished from his Hyderabadi wife), made a complex biryani over several hours introducing the kinds of steps I had rarely seen before. For instance, after the meat was cooked, he washed it in saffron milk, an impressive process that seemed mildly unnecessary.
I also had an outstanding mutton korma made by a traditional cook called Armaan Shah (whose family have done this for five generations) on a wooden fire inside the Chhota Imambara. It made for astonishing television but it was also a great korma.
I asked Armaan Shah if he had a secret recipe. Naturally he lied. (They all do. There’s at least one ingredient or masala that they never reveal). But he made a valid point. The secret of good Lucknowi cooking, he said, is not the recipe. It is the hand. A chef has to know when to add what and depending on the water, the quality of the meat etc, it’s never exactly the same process. A great chef will have the confidence to improvise and to extract the maximum flavour from the ingredients.
I stayed at the Taj, a hotel I remember well from its glory days when it was the Taj Mahal Hotel Lucknow well before it was downgraded to a Residency business hotel. In the old days, the F&B standard was spectacular. Ghulam Rasool cooked in the kitchen, Siva was the executive chef and on one memorable occasion, the general manager, a genuine Parsi eccentric in the old mad Tata tradition, cooked me a brilliant prawn patia with his own hands. (You can take the Parsi out of Bombay, but you can’t take Bombay out of the Parsi).
Alas, standards have dropped precipitously. Nearly everything that could go wrong, did so. The key cards didn’t work, the lights would not come back once the generators had been switched off till you fiddled with the card hole, they never remembered which newspapers to deliver, the tea was darker than the strongest espresso etc.
The final straw was when I went for lunch to the specialty Indian restaurant. There was not a single guest at any table. One waiter wearing a dirty uniform that would have got him fired at a railway station cafeteria approached me with the menu. As this was a confusing document, listing various keemas including one that was allegedly ethnic, I asked him what this really meant. “New menu, sir, I am not knowing,” he said. I asked if he could check with the chef.
Seven minutes later he was back. “Actually, sir, even chef saying this is mistake.” Through it all, a manager stood near the computer not bothering to ask what the problem was or to offer any assistance.
Inevitably, somebody recognised me and then the service was utterly transformed. The waiter in dirty clothes was banished and three new waiters materialised out of nowhere. After that, I felt like an SPG protectee judging by the way they ringed
On the other hand, the food was really outstanding. They did a very nice chicken kabab made from thin piccatas of breast, a good galawat kabab and an excellent keema matar (which may or may not have been authentic judging by the menu confusion).
It’s all a bit of a shame. Throughout my stay I had the sense that the hotel was run by nice people who were trying their best.
But if this is their best, then the hotel doesn’t quite cut it. And the Lucknow Taj is really a gorgeous property that deserves to be treated better.
Of course, there is a second part to my Lucknow story. As much as I like the Avadhi food (until the animal fat congeals in my veins and my liver resigns in protest) the real attraction of Lucknow for me is the chaat. Though I am a dedicated Bombaywallah when it comes to chaat, I have to concede that the best chaat in India is in Lucknow.
I have never worked out why Delhi, which is so near Lucknow, cannot match up to these standards. Nor does Delhi manage the synthesis that UP chaatwallahs have effected in other parts of India. In Bombay, chaatwallahs were / are called bhaiyyas because of their ethnic origins but the city’s great chaat dishes (most famously bhel puri) emerged out of collaborations between Lucknow wallahs and Gujaratis. In Calcutta, the puchka which is in direct descent from the batasha has a slightly sour Bengali flavour of its own because the Lucknow wallahs knew they had to adapt to local tastes. Only Delhi remains dull.
I made such a pig of myself on the streets of Hazratganj that I hesitate to recount how many batashas I demolished and how many chaatwallahs were made to offer me samples of their wares. Perhaps next week. Or a couple of weeks after that…