Citizens, we are in the home stretch of our week of Indian recipes, and this 5th one is representative of my favorite food-style of India – the mighty and complex Awadhi cuisine of the city of Lucknow! 😀
Awadhi cuisine (Hindi: अवधी भोजन, Urdu: اودھی کھانا) is a cuisine native to the city of Lucknow, which is the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India.It is very closely related to Bhojpuri cuisine of its neighboring region, Bhojpur.
The cooking patterns of Lucknow are similar to those of Central Asia, the Middle East, and Northern India with the cuisine comprising both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. The Awadh region has been greatly influenced by Mughal cooking techniques, and the cuisine of Lucknow bears similarities to those of Central Asia, Kashmir, Punjab and Hyderabad. The city is also known for its Nawabi foods.
The bawarchis (chefs) and rakabdars (gourmet cooks) of Awadh invented the dum style of cooking or the art of cooking over a slow fire, which has become synonymous with Lucknow today. Their spreads consisted of elaborate dishes such as kebabs, kormas, biryanis, kaliyas, nahari-kulchas, zarda, sheermal, roomali rotis, and warqi parathas. The richness of Awadh cuisine lies not only in the variety of cuisine but also in the ingredients used like mutton, paneer, and rich spices, which include cardamom and saffron.
As noted on greatbritishchefs.com:
Awadhi cuisine is a bit of an unknown in Britain, despite being the basis for many of our favourite Indian takeaway staples. Seekh kebabs, biryanis and kormas are all legendary Awadhi dishes, which are regarded as some of the best in India. The cuisine comes from Lucknow, a city in the north of India, but has spread across the country thanks to its aromatic flavours and unique cooking techniques.
To find out more I sat down with Shoeb Haider, the head chef of Awadhi restaurant Zaika, in Kensington. Shoeb grew up in Lucknow and had never cooked using gas or electric until he went to Mumbai when he was twenty-two. Now he works in London, recreating the dishes of Lucknow and sticking close to tradition. It’s the kebabs and biryanis that the restaurant has become famous for, proving that the dishes we often take for granted in the UK have some serious history, technique and skill behind them.
Chef Shoeb grew up eating Awadhi cuisine in Lucknow, before moving to Mumbai and eventually London. ‘Awadhi cuisine is all about slow-cooking, known as dum in India, much of which is done in the tandoor,’ explains Shoeb. ‘This brings out amazing flavours and textures, which when combined with the rich, perfumed flavours from the spices create one of the best cuisines in the world. About ninety percent of all Indian kebabs are Awadhi, and it is the home of korma and biryani. Everything is cooked over charcoal – not just the kebabs, but all Awadhi dishes. The food isn’t as ‘showy’ as cuisines found in other parts of India – the biryani, for example, looks quite plain, but the texture and taste is just incredible.’
This slow cooking helps to meld flavours together to create something totally unique, but it’s the rich, indulgent spices that really set Awadhi cuisine apart. ‘Awadhi cuisine is very rich, with lots of nuts, cream and ghee, but in the olden days that was fine because people did a lot of physical work,’ says Shoeb. ‘Now it should be regarded as a treat; even though it might look simple, the second you taste it you will realise just how special it is.’
To truly understand the food of Lucknow and Awadhi cuisine in general, we have to go back to the time of the Mughal Empire, which in the early eighteenth century ruled over nearly a quarter of the world’s population and conquered vast swathes of India. It was in places like Lucknow that the Mughals introduced their own food culture, which in turn shaped India’s cuisine.
‘Dum cooking originated in Awadhi because of the Mughals, who ruled the area around Lucknow at the time,’ says Shoeb. ‘They used to fight many wars, so needed a way of cooking food that worked around that. By digging a hole in the morning and slowly cooking food in it, they could go to battle and then return to eat. Dum cooking also preserved meat for longer, which was handy for armies on the move.’
At first, Awadhi cuisine was only ever eaten by royalty or the guests of Mughal kings who wanted to show off their wealth. They’d do this by serving lots of richly flavoured food covered in gold and silver leaf (especially biryanis, which were full of expensive ingredients like saffron). Back then cooks would keep their methods very secret to ensure no other chef could steal their methods, which meant if someone wanted to taste Awadhi cuisine for themselves, they had to travel to Lucknow.
‘Even today, some chefs in Lucknow won’t share their recipes or methods,’ adds Shoeb. ‘India has changed so much but there are still small towns or areas where nothing has changed for one hundred years. That’s where a lot of India’s top chefs come from, or at the very least they will have trained there.’
It takes an Awadhi chef a long time to properly master how to cook dum-style, but it takes even longer to understand how to correctly use spices. ‘Understanding how to select, toast and blend the spices together to create a proper Awadhi flavour is much harder than it sounds,’ says Shoeb. ‘Many of them are sharp or sweet, so the balance is very important. There are easily fifty spices used regularly in the cuisine, but in total it’s more like 150. The most common are cinnamon, saffron, green cardamom and mace, but other aromatics like rosewater are also popular. And while you might see a cardamom pod in your dish, you’ll never be able to taste it – the aim is to combine the spices in such a way that they create a single, unique flavour that tastes amazing.’
There are dozens of Awadhi dishes that are famous throughout India, but in the UK the most popular are the kebabs and biryanis. We tend to think of kebabs as anything cooked on a skewer and a biryani as a curry with rice mixed in, but this is an incredibly simplified way of looking at things. In Lucknow, kebabs come in all shapes and sizes with fiercely guarded recipes for the spice blends that flavour them. ‘
The most famous Awadhi kebab is the seekh kebab, but there’s also kakori, which is a lamb kebab that melts in your mouth, and shami, a combination of lamb and chickpeas which was traditionally only made in the evening for men as they came home from work,’ says Shoeb. ‘Some are left fibrous, others like the shami are ground down to a very fine paste before being mixed with the spices (a method known as bawarchi) – legend has it that this was so Nawabs (Mughal rulers) who had lost their teeth were able to still eat meat.’
Despite the biryani being one of Lucknow’s most famous culinary exports, the staple of the region is actually wheat. ‘Breads are very important in Awadhi cuisine even though both rice and wheat grow in the area. All the different breads like parathas, naans and sheermals (a sweet, saffron-flavoured flatbread) are cooked in the tandoor and tend to take a long time, as you need to leave the dough to ferment the night before.’
As you can see, many of us have been enjoying the tastes and textures of Awadhi cuisine for years without even realising it. The gentle heat of the charcoal tandoor combined with rich spices and a tendency to add cream or ghee to sauces makes it incredibly luxurious and an instant hit the world over. But it’s only when you go to somewhere like Zaika and talk to a chef like Shoeb that you realise just how highly regarded the cuisine is, and how hard it can be to master. As you can imagine, the food itself is a world away from the typical high street Indian takeaway as it’s cooked using quality produce and to traditional methods, but it’s fascinating to see just how influential Awadhi cuisine is for Indian chefs in both the UK and abroad.
Although not typically served this way, I have chosen to use a unique Awadhi technique in this recipe, known as Dhungar.
This is a quick smoke procedure, where smoke is used to flavor a meat dish, dals (lentils) or even raita (whipped yogurt). The smoke permeates the ingredients and imparts a subtle aroma that enhances the quality of dish.
In this method, a shallow utensil or lagan is used in which meat or mince is marinated. A small area is made at the center of the dish and a pan (betel) leaf, onion skin, clay bowl or just a small steel katori (bowl) is placed. In it a piece of live burning coal is placed and then melted ghee (clarified butter) is poured over the burning coal to create smoke, also sometimes ghee is mixed with aromatic herbs or spices, the moment it smokes a lid is placed on the utensil, covering it with towel to further prevent the escape of smoke.
After some time, the coal is removed from the utensil and the dish is put through further cooking processes as required.
I have chosen to flavor my ghee for this technique with a heretical herb rarely used in Indian cooking, but one that works really well to aromatize this dish: oil of wild oregano! You can leave the oregano out for the classic Dhungar ghee technique.
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