Lucknow is known for it’s Awadhi cuisine. And this blogpost is all about the best food in Lucknow. I’ve heard a lot about the Lucknow food, let alone the tehzeeb of the place… but this year end, I had my first trip there and tasted a few of the delicacies. I am sure, this post will be updated on my subsequent visits. Please note, unlike my regular posts on places, I’ll try to talk on the different food items here and map them to places.
Awadhi cuisine is a type of Indian cuisine that originated in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. It is known for its rich and complex flavours, and is often referred to as the “cuisine of the Nawabs” because it was originally developed in the royal kitchens of the Mughal rulers who once governed the region.
Some of the key features of Awadhi cuisine include the the fresh produce of the fertile soil, rich and aromatic spices such as cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon, as well as slow-cooking methods such as Dum Pukht, in which the food is cooked in a sealed pot over a low flame to trap in the flavours and juices. Awadhi cuisine also incorporates a wide variety of meat dishes, including kebabs, biryanis, and curries.
The history of Awadhi cuisine dates back to the Mughal era, when the Mughal rulers of India made Awadh their capital and brought with them a rich culinary tradition from their homeland. The Awadhi cuisine was further developed and refined by the Nawabs of Awadh, who were known for their love of fine food and patronage of the arts. The Nawabs of Awadh were connoisseurs of food and were known to have employed the best chefs in the region to cook for them. These chefs, also known as “Bawarchis”, were highly skilled and trained in the art of cooking, and were responsible for developing many of the unique and flavourful dishes that are now associated with Awadhi cuisine.
Biryani and other meaty dishes in Lucknow
If we talk about the best food in Lucknow, the first thing, that comes to our mind is Biryani- at least to my mind. This variant of Biryani is undoubtedly is one of the most respected in India. The Awadhi style of cooking is followed here- originated in Lucknow. And surprisingly, it is closely related to the neighbouring Bhojpuri cuisine. The whole cooking style is highly influenced by Central Asia, the Middle East, and northern India. Agra being one of the key areas during the Mughal emperor, most of the champion bawarchi and Rakabdars were shifted there, and as a result, the cuisine got elevated to a different level.
As Awadh grew in the historical importance of Mughal nawabs, the cuisine got influenced by sophistication of Mughlai or Persian cuisine but taking a cue from the Hindu masters as well. The distinct use of ingredients was of primary importance in this cuisine. “For instance, garlic is never used in a dish, where saffron is used”- says Chef Gulam Qureshi. And ginger and garlic pastes are prepared separately instead of a generic common one. and it’s that place where many still believe that there is nothing as Lucknow Biryani- there is just Lucknow Pulao. But romance kept aside, the folklore tells us a different story.
Biryani, as we know today, was born out of famine in Lucknow. In 1784, during the kingdom of Nawab Ashfadullah, the entire Oudh came under a famine. And during that time, nawab started scheme as food-for-work for almost 20,000 people. The saying went like this …
Jisko na de moula
usko de Ashhfadulla …
And thus the famous Bara Imambara of Lucknow was built. And guess, what was the staple food for the workers? No brownie points for guessing- it was Biryani. The reasons? It can be produced in bulk with minimal labour, has protein and carbs together, and is damn tasty. Yes, history can be fascinating and tasty too … Lucknow Biryani is said to be rich in nature and colouring is used. Potato is never used. But the richness of rice, meat with its pure taste and not-so-subtle aroma which make this variety stand apart.
But then what is Pulao? Let’s quickly check the difference between pulao and Biryani from Lucknow, as explained to me by Chef Mujeebur Rehman.
- Pulao originated in Middle east and Central Asia- even few varieties are found in East Africa. Whereas, Biryani was borne among the muslim population in Indian continent.
- A layered method of cooking is mandatory for biryani, but for pulao, it’s a one-pot meal. rice and meat/ vegetables are cooked together.
- And for a glutton, pulao is supposed to be had with accompaniments- like korma or something (as the saying goes … Pulao-Korma), wherein Biryani is a lone warrior.
Regarding the best biryani shops in Lucknow
So, we were at Lucknow for a very very short duration and couldn’t cover all the shops. There are a few crowd favourites and Idris is definitely among them. Word of caution: if you are panicky about eating at a hygenic place, don’t even plan to go there. Please check it on Google map here. It’s a roadside shack with super attitude– like all great masters. Secondly, whatever Google says, the place is operational till 3PM and then starts around 6PM. But once you take the first spoon inside your mouth, you can understand, why this kolaveri di…. I am sorry, brilliant is an understatement here. The portion size is quite small and 3 plates can easily be shared by 2. But what taste- definitely definitely recommended. Super soft melt-in-mouth meat and subtle aromatic rice. It’s more towards the gharana of a pulao (even the owner prefers to call it that), but a non-missable place for a food in Lucknow.
This place, Dastarkhwan is worthy of all the place it gets. Please check the location on Google map here. There are 2 outlets of the same brand in 100 mtr distance, but I’d suggest to go to the non AC one. They have an open kitchen, actually 2, where the galouti Kebab and chicken masala is being done… And for any foody, the smell is intoxicating. Pricing is very decent and quite pocket friendly. Dastarkhwan technically means a wide spread (mostly meat-based) and this place stays true to it.
I should mention here, in search of the best food in Lucknow, tasted THE BEST galouti kebab at this place. They’ve a slight crampy exterior, but looks can be deceptive- and actually, they are melt-in-mouth stuff. Your teeth won’t have to take the burden of work and tongue will be able to do justice. It has a superb aroma of spices – probably jaiphal, probably saffron- not sure. But that’s the beauty of Awadhi cuisine. Spices blend beautifully and get transformed into something magical.
The Chicken Kali Mirch, is again something, on which great things should be written about. It’s spicy (with crushed, and not powdered black pepper) and creates the need to have some more. But don’t fall in that trap… or you may- it’s worth. You need to have some Ulte Tawa Ki paratha – some Galouti Kebab and Chicken Kali Mirch at Dastarkhwan and you’re sorted.
Honestly, the Biryani is pretty good, if you’re tasting for the first time. But if you have the above mentioned dishes here and walk briskly for 100 mtr, two things will happen. firstly, your tummy will be ready for some more exercise and two, you’ll find the biryani gem (as per me) in Lucknow- Naushinjaan…
Naushinjaan is probably, a newer entrant in the Lucknow food scene. But as few youngsters beat the masters, this did the same. Please check the location on Google map here. DO not go by the modern interior and please do not think twice. Sit inside and go for its Mutton Lucknawi Biryani…. The pricing is very reasonable- so, please don’t worry.
The biryani at Naushinjaan, like Idris, is very very subtle and you won’t even realise when you’ve finished two plates. We have had some Galouti Kebab and chicken Kali Mirch here as well. But after the superior Dastarkhwan, they didn’t stand a chance here. Call me opinionated. But please try the meat dishes at Dastarakhwan and for the biryani, come here…
Tunday Kebabi is probably the most hyped restaurant in Lucknow and is said to be the innovator of the famed Galuti Kebab. A boy named Haji Murad Ali lost one of his arms, while flying kites, at a tender age. But somehow, he grew up to be a culinary magician and when the toothless nawab had the competition for kebabs, he won it. The recipe is still secret and it’s said, that 160 spices are mixed secretly, in fixed proportions, to prepare the final mix. The mix is, till date, said to be kept secret and finished by the ladies of the house. Tunday Kebabi is said to have its first shop in 1905 and still remains crowded at all times. There are multiple outlets, but where we ate, please check the location of Google map here. And they serve buff Galouti kebab, apart from the mutton variety- both prepared separately.
Galouti Kebab ia a variety of shami kebab (flattened meat patty, made on a tawa)- made for a toothless nawab, Nawab Asad Ud Dula. The word ‘galouti’ translates to “the thing that melts in the mouth Folklore says, when the nawab grew old and lost his teeth, chewing meat was not an option. And hence, his khanamas were ordered to create a melt-in-mouth kebab. and thus, Galouti Kebab was born. The kebab is supposed to be so delicate, that it needs to be slided from the service platter to your plate and should not be even lifted.
But I don’t know, whether it was a bad day for them, or my bad luck- the Galouti kebabs were pretty disappointing at Tunday Kebabi. 4 small sandesh-sized small pcs came with a pretty average over-salty taste. The biryani was nothing close to whatever I have tasted already and the Chicken Masala was a better version of rubbish. I would still like to believe it was a bad day for them, but am not getting the confidence to waste one more of my precious meal timing there, on my next visit at Lucknow. The sheermal, I must say, was (somewhat) a saviour.
Breakfast in Lucknow
When I was searching for the best breakfast places in Lucknow, a few places came up and two of them were vegetarian joints. Let’s talk about them now…
Sharma Ji Ki Chai
This is your friendly neighbourhood tea joint for Lucknow. More than food, which is average, people come here to have a fun adda and gossip in the morning. They serve very few items- Maska Bun (white butter spread generously inside a slit bun), Kulhar ki Chai (not served in earthen cups) and a strange round shaped samosa. The samosa is always fresh and served from the kadhai- great stuff. If you like the typical aroma of crushed dhania, this will make you happy in the morning. Good place, if you do not go with much expectation and are in the mood of hearing some gossip of Lucknow.
Do check the location on Google map here.
Rahim’s Kulcha Nihari, chowk
Now there are two places with the same name and almost in the same vicinity in Lucknow. I couldn’t find the location for the one I went, but it’s near to this one… It’s a 125 year old eatery in Lucknow and is probably among the most-hyped places in Lucknow. And it’s only famous for their Kulcha Nihari.
Coming to the food, Kulcha and Nihari are standard flatbreads in Lucknow, or Awadhi cuisine per se. Sheermal is a mildly sweet saffron flavoured flatbread literally meaning “Milk rubbed”. Originating in Persia, it came to Awadh by the nawabs and got its share of fame. Kulcha, on the other hand, is a maida made flatbread with a few layers and finished in Tandoor. These are traditionally eaten with Nihari as breakfast dish. Nihari is said to have originated in the mid 18th century in Lucknow. It’s a runny meat curry (done with mostly shanks) cooked overnight, where the bone marrow comes out. And Raheem’s is THE PLACE for that.
Regarding food at Raheem’s Kulcha Nihari, the Kulcha was fantastic. It had fine layers carefully tucked inside a crunchy exterior. Tastefully dine and actually is a piece of art. The Nihari was pretty good- not the “wow” one, but definitely among the good ones that I’ve tasted. My memory of the Nihari at Shabrati, near Jama Masjid, Old Delhi probably was ruling my mind. Do check it here… But definitely, this is a good place for a hearty non-veg breakfast at Rahim’s Kulcha Nihari, Lucknow.
Netram Sweets. Lucknow
Netram family migrated from Mathura in the Eighteenth century with the Nizams and started their first Kachori shop at Allahabad in 1854. The Lucknow shop was opened in 1920 and since then, for more than a century, this place is going strong with their Kachori and Jalebi. Please check the location on Google Map here . The place is quite crowded and auto is suggested to reach this place at Aminabad.
Kachori thali is quite famous at Netram Sweets, Lucknow and is priced at 130/- a plate. Please don’t judge by the price, unless you check the content. The kachori thali comes with 4 pcs of Kachori+ a runny potato curry+ 1 dry potato sabzi+ one variety of vegetables (mostly, Brinjal or pumpkin)+ Boondi Raita (except the kachori, all are refilled promptly, without event requesting). The combo is seriously good and till date, remains one of my favourites in Lucknow.
Pardon me for the bad pictures, but this place is definitely recommended and comes in the list of the best food in Lucknow.
Okay, don’t miss their Malai Paan, or Gilouri. This is a gem in the culinary crown of Lucknow and should not be missed. It’s also quite famous at Raam Ashray, but I personally have not tasted. To explain this is quite difficult, however let me try. Malai sheet is wrapped around chopped nuts and misri and folded like paan. Some silver warq is put on top to give it a finish and you need to put it in your mouth as a whole. For somebody like me, who doesn’t like to eat the original paan, this is a saviour…
Home chef in Lucknow
While we had our share of restaurant visits in the short trip to Lucknow, visit to one homechef was pending and as usual, I sought help from my friend Yummraj. And I was promptly told to visit this place called Naimatkhana. I don’t know, whether I can call it the place of a homechef or not, but it was a quite a lavish house with great interior. In fact, the setup can put many a restaurants in shame. The pricing i quite on the steep side, but the portion size is quite good, as well. You don’t need to call/ book in advance. Just call them to reserve your place and drop in. For the premium eatery segment, this place surely serves some of the best food in Lucknow.
If I talk of food, the yakhni pulao was suggested by Yummraj and we were blown out by it. The taste was smooth and subtle. And the meat was literally waiting to fall off the bone. You don’t event need the raita, that came with it. But first things first. The crockery was of superior quality and takes the visual appeal of the food to a different level. Service quality is a bit slow, but decent. Regarding the starters (for both the kakori and Galouti), though the taste was good, it was extremely high priced and not pocket friendly. Please note, the taste was damn good, but the pricing didn’t justify the portion size. Actually, food in Lucknow is quite pocket friendly, so this place came as a surprise. The khare masale ki gosht was pretty good, as a subtle runny meat curry. The Ande Ka Halwa, on the other hand, was outstanding (texture and taste-wise) and definitely definitely recommended.
If somebody visits Naimatkhana, the must try dishes are Yakhni Pulao and Ande Ka Halwa, according to me.
Desserts in Lucknow
Prakash Ki Mashoor Kulfi
Prakash Ki Mashoor Kulfi is a well-known joint for desserts in Aminabad, Lucknow. Please check the location on Google map here. And I’ve seldom seen a place, boasting their own product like these guys did. But all said and done, the product is outstanding. The kulfi was smooth and super creamy. and it was laden with just the right amount of chopped Pistachio- not more, and definitely not less. The usual unwanted overdose of falooda was not there and it’s a perfect ending to the hearty dinner from Aminabad. Do not miss this small place, on your search for the best food in Lucknow.
Kulfi has come from Persian “Qulfi”, meaning covered cup. During the Mughal empire in the 16th century, ice used to be brought from the Hindukush range for emperor Babar. And apart from making sherbet, it was used for Kulfi as well. Paired with dry fruits, pistachio rose petals etc, The detailed recipe and process is documented duly in the cult book Ain-e-Aqbari. Kulfi was one hell of a popular dessert during those days. And to date, it’s pretty popular here, as well as in the entire Indian subcontinent.
Nimish is the lucknow version of what is known as Malaiyo in Varanasi and Daulat Ki Chat in Delhi. And during the winter, or early spring, nimish is available in almost every nook and corner of the city. Nimish can be technically called as boiled milk foam pudding, topped with generous amount of chopped pista and dry fruits. Milk and cream are boiled, cooled and aerated overnight during winter season. Dew falls on it and nature adds to the taste and magic is borne. The texture is that of whipped cream, or meringue. Trust me, I’ve never tasted anything like this ever in India- and that applies for both Malaiyo and Nimish. Do try it at any of the joints- you won’t regret it.
All in all, Lucknow is a great place for food lovers. And while I was searching for some good food in Lucknow, I came to understand something. Awadhi food is something, which takes a lot of time. So, nawabs used to spend their time, resource and effort for developing and mentoring the cooks- khansamas (the highest in the order), Rakabdars (cook for the mid segment) and Degdaar (the entrants/ commis). Awadhi food is not something to be done in a hurry and takes time. Hence, to understand and enjoy Awadhi food, please take your time and soak it up.
And apart from the historical or cultural delights, there is a certain aura about the place, which is unmissable. I have been there only once and hence, this list is not complete. It’ll be updated on my subsequent visits. Do let me know, which are the other places to cover and I’ll definitely try to visit them…
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