Meat Don’t Have Religion

Whether it’s homemade shami kebab or the galauti in the bazaar, Lucknow’s most famous dishes cut across religious and class divides

Parties always meant kebab in our home in Lucknow-shami kebab.

They were my grandmother’s specialty. Lakshmi Chandra Mathur, Barima to us, was known to be quite religious, read the Sundarkand, the shortest and the most beautiful chapter from the Ramayan every single day, was a strict vegetarian but equally uncompromising about the quality of shami kebab that came to her table.

On special occasions like festivals or evening soirees, she would go into the kitchen herself, cook the mince with dal and spices in a strict proportion, stuff the patties with mint leaves and onions, and fry the kabab till crisp and brown on the outside, soft and moist inside. All these without tasting.

This was a recipe taught to her by her mother and perhaps passed down quite a few generations in the family. Meat didn’t have a religion then. It did have cultural sophistication though. Chicken kebab would have horrified Barima. The fowl, a scavenging bird was often regarded as “unclean”, but more than that its relative tastelessness put it at the bottom of the pecking order when it came to connoisseurs of fine foods. Despite being a vegetarian, my grandmother was a connoisseur alright and knew her meats as well as she did her veggies -like tender turai (ridge gourd) and other varieties of gourds, favoured in Lucknow, across communities, whether in salans or in no-onion-no garlic vrat ka khana.

In our syncretic, ganga-jamuni world, however, meat symbolized prosperity and plenty. That is why when festivals were “celebrated”, it was with a meal of kaliya (goat meat curry) and poori -the auspicious “pucca” khana sanctified by cooking it in ghee.

In the soirees with kebab, vegetarians were often served a snack of potato “chops”, a more refined version of the aloo ki tikiya that Lucknow chaatwallahs sold in the bazaars. The chopstikiyas had obviously come about from the kotletcutlet tradition of Europe, where the cutlet (or the chop, the cut from the ribs) always refers to a piece of veal or mutton.

Referencing the food of the Colonial masters, some inventive cook or rakabdar in a nawabi kitchen may have created the potato version. Aloo itself at any rate had been a “foreigner”. The first batches of the crop had been farmed on the terraced slopes of Dehra Dun only in 1830 by the English. Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Lucknow, under whose reign so much of the cultural and culinary inventiveness took place in Avadh, came to the throne a mere decade and a half later–in 1847. Potato was most certainly an elite crop at that time. As the redoubtable food historian KT Achaya writes, it was first adopted by the English, then by the Muslims, only later did it reluctantly make its way into Hindu households of Avadh and the Subcontinent. In Lucknow, when you eat that new pretender, the now famous “basket chaat”, crisp tokris of potatoes filled with spicy , tangy bites, or a meal of traditional kachori-aloo, or indeed kebab at Tunday mian’s (no, not the chicken ones that it is now forced to serve), you don’t necessarily think of religion, politics or the antecedents of the dishes. Of course, that is exactly how it should be -and continue to be. Yet, a look at how some of Lucknow’s most famous dishes came about, cutting across religious and class divides, is instructive. It tells us of an inclusive, composite culture expressed through food.

The cuisine of Avadh, with Lucknow as its capital, reached the zenith of its refinement under the nawabs (and in the kitchens of the subsequent talukdars -the landed gentry, who the British rewarded for their loyalty, post the Revolt of 1857, and who made their way from the provinces into the city, after Wajid Ali Shah was exiled). However, Avadhi food was and has always been the food of not just one community. From the Mughal court to the Safavid court in Iran (from where the first Nawab emigrated) to a host of European and provincial influences all came togeth er to create Avadhi food. French merchants were quite a presence in Lucknow and it is to the French pate tradition that we should perhaps ascribe the silken-textured galauti kebab to. Bade ka meat (buff) was used in bazaars to make for cheaper snacks; goat meat in upper class homes.

Nihari, the spiced-up bazaar stew, usually done with buffalo meat was a common man’s breakfast. However, the straining to refine the broth points to a French influence. The inclusive traditions also cut across classes. Rakabdars, or highly paid cooks of the aristocracy, invented recipes but some of these foods of upper-class homes passed into the bazaars because of the idea of tabaruk or blessed food L distributed to the poor on religious occasions much like prasad.

With rich landowners, both Hindu and Muslim, setting up homes in Lucknow, provincial food traditions also seeped into the fabric. The kakori kebab is an example; supposedly distributed as a blessed food at a sufi shrine near kakori, it was refined by cooks in rich homes, and is now the poster child of “Avadhi dining” in restaurants.

Nimish may have had a similar ori gin. The ethereal frothy dessert made from whisked milk may have been a pro vincial concept refined in Lucknow.

Balai ki gilori is a disappearing Luckno wi delicacy , made of just balai or a thick layer of cream, filled with mishri (the sugar crystals incidentally get their name from “Misr” or Egypt where they were first used) and nuts and coated with silver varq. Many have tried to replicate the art of making it, invariably using stodgy khoya and so on. The elegance and delicacy of a creation like this, however, had a context: The old Avadhi cul ture had no place for the boorish.