Saturday, June 2, 2012

Top quality vegetarian food in Lucknow : well mostly !!

There are two evils in Lucknow - sloth and food ! Yes I know they are evil but Lucknowites love both! Once you become infected by these two evils your career is finished. I have seen people who were posted in Lucknow stick to their jobs for years, not taking promotions just digging their heels in so that they do not have to leave Lucknow.
I never would have realized this had I not been entrusted with the responsibility of expanding my father's business in the south, extreme south India that is. Once in cities like Chennai I felt like a fish out of water due to non-availability of good north Indian food. North Indian food was there but it was not good. I guess no one is to be blamed for it but it made me look around and realize how heavily food makes up for what we call  Lucknowi culture.
This is my first blog post on food and I welcome your suggestions and comments.

Shahi Paneer
This is one of the most painstakingly prepared dishes and so requires great expertise. When I was a kid almost every restaurant in Lucknow served decent quality shahi paneer but this has changed in recent times. The quality has gone down dramatically and only recently have I discovered that Ritz (Mahanagar) has again started preparing the old and famous top quality Shahi Paneer that can only be prepared in Lucknow.

Dal Makhani
In Lucknow Dal Makhani is on the menu cards under different pseudonyms like Dal Bukhara and Dal Maharaja but basic ingrediants and method of preparation is same everywhere. This again is  a dish that is painstakingly made due to a variety of ingredients used and spices required. The recipe is still a secret and it is almost impossible to prepare the kind of Dal Makhani at home which is served in reputed restaurants in Lucknow. The best quality Dal Makhani is available in Hotel Gemini Continental, Royal Sky and Hotel Sagar Ratna; Falaknuma roof top restaurant in Hotel Clarks Avadh sadly has lost its mojo where aforementioned dish is concerned. 

Chole Bhature
One can say why mention Chole Bhature under the head Lucknowi food but the old Chole Bhature recipe of Lucknow is decidedly different from the Punjabi Chole Bhature. Lucknowi Chole Bhature are not actually made from chole but from a smaller version of chole known only to old timer khansamas it is called 'mobia'. This small gram is also not available easily in the market and professionals stock it up in large quantity. I feel sad though to announce that the best chole bhature in not only Lucknow but perhaps in UP are no longer been made. There used to be a shop in a lane now known as Naaja or Naaza market in Hazratganj which used to serve those. They were a large family but they had disputes and only recently they wrapped up the eatery business supplanting it with computer hardware business. They used to make a limited amount at great pains and it used to finish up by evening. They had no name for the shop so it has disappeared without a trace and become history. Now only in certain pockets in old Lucknow will you get those heavenly chola dishes. I am yet to discover one of them because I depended heavily on that Naaja market shop. So still looking for the perfect Chola-Bhatura maker in Lucknow. If you have run into someone who fits the bill let me know by using comments section below please.

No it is not chat as in chatrooms it is chaat which means in Hindi 'to lick' or literally 'lick it!' . Chaat is of course not a single dish but rather a syndrome of dishes I used the world syndrome because a lady who suffers from this syndrome can make your life hell specially if she happens to be your wife or mother. So chaat consists of paani puri, aloo tikki, matar tikki, sonth tikki, baigni, matar suhaal and chatni batasha some people add dahi bada to that long list. In my opinion original Lucknowi chaat is dead merely because no one wants to invest the mandatory long time in preparing chaat that is absolutely necessary for a quality product. To a very small extent Dixit Chaat in Chowk still keeps alive the taste but only just. Dixit chaat shop in one of the few to use Desi ghee in preparing chaat. Other big players in chaat market are King of chaat opposite DM's residence in Hazratganj and Royal Cafe Hazratganj. In my opinion Royal Cafe people who are the Don Corleone of food business in Lucknow make a chaat which cannot be called Lucknowi at all. It is an entirely different preparation. 
I never could train my palate to savour the strong and chilly taste of chaat so I am not so very enthusiastic in writing about this syndrome that has in its grip many ladies of Lucknow.

Veg kebabs
About ten years back veg kebabs were available only in parties of the very rich and nowhere else . Looks like some cook suddenly had a brainwave and started a veg kebab kiosk since then veg kebabs have become a huge hit in Lucknow with consumption far outstripping the supply. I am vegetarian but I have been told that there is not really much difference in taste in a good veg kebab and a non-veg kebab the secret being the spices used - which are the same. Veg kebab though is still evolving. No reputed restaurant right now has a good kebab cook on its payrolls so it is the roadside vendors who are supplying this new dish. There is one kebab corner in Chowk opposite Chowk post office, this eatery seems to me to be biggest eatery dedicated to serving veg kebab and veg biryani. On the quality parameter though I would give it two and a half out of five. Beware kebabs are very spicy and would not be kind on your palate or your stomach but the taste is divine if prepared by an expert. Falaknuma the roof top restaurant mentioned before serves a dish named 'Hariyali kebabs' they are definitely worth a try. I am sure in a few years good dedicated eateries serving veg kebabs would come up in Lucknow. Kebab is eaten either with rumali roti, a thin but large roti without ghee or butter; or parantha which is full of refined oil or ghee and made from polished rice flour.

Advertisements have been resorted to in a big way by moneyed restaurateurs and halwais in recent times in Lucknow. People not having the inside knowledge of the eateries map in Lucknow are fooled by these. I do not want to quote any names here but finding good food is not easy as reading and address in a hoarding and going to the same. Jalebi preparation is again a very painstaking process in that several processes are involved in it and a shade extra at any stage can spoil the whole effect. In my four decades of gluttony I have not tasted jalebi which comes even close to Babulal a famous halwai in old Lucknow. There is a whole crossroads named after him in Aishbagh. They are more than a hundred years old Halwai family. His jalebi has just that exact amount of sourness and sweetness which is the very soul of jalebi preparation. Then there is the texture of the fried flour how it releases the sugary and sour substances in your mouth that is what makes the jalebi either a success or a failure. He prepares a limited amount of jalebi and the last few grams are sold by 10:30 AM everyday. Like I said in the beginning no one comes even close. However if you want to savour the taste of second best jalebi you can go to Radhey Lal Sweet shop just outsidee Gol Darwaza market in Chowk in old Lucknow but he wraps it up by  10 am sharp.

At first glance imarti looks like the Siamese twin of jalebi but in fact it is more different than similar to jalebi. One big problem with Imarti is that it cannot be eaten even an hour after it is prepared the quality deteriorates dramatically as soon as imarti becomes cold. Old Lucknowi imarti is again dead and there are poor clones. The one imarti that comes close to old Lucknowi taste is available at Net Ram halwai on Shree Ram Road in Aminabad. Imartis are made only in the evening though in most shops in Lucknow. Another tolerable variety of Imarti is prepared by Radhey Lal adjacent Gol Darwaza in Chowk in old Lucknow.

You would again protest that it is a Bengali sweet but Rasogolla is Rasgulla in Lucknow and to the best of my knowledge two very old Bengali Sweet shops used to prepare the best of these one was (closed down recently) Bengal Sweets on Lathouche road and the other is Calcutta Sweets Charbagh. The former shop was the better of the two though with the rasgullas and sondesh having the characteristic bongo-lucknowi taste. Calcutta Sweets has taken a rebirth and is now hidden inside the lanes of Naka Hindola near Chargbagh railway station. They sold their huge property or maybe they were just tenants in a very old hotel which do the best of my memory was also called Calcutta Hotel just outside Charbagh railway station.

Puri / Kachori(ghee/refined oil)
Well in Lucknow there are two types of Puri/Kachori one made in desi ghee and other made in refined oil or Dalda ghee and believe me it is a totally different ball game. Again it is an altogether different ball game making the sabzi and the puri/kachori. Many halwais in old Lucknow are involved in making puris/kachoris because believe it or not many Lucknowites in old city breakfast at the halwai's place almost every day using these puris/kachoris. Technically speaking halwais do not make puris and almost all puris they make are actually kachoris as all puris are filled with varying amounts of filling. Normally urad dal is filled in puris, those which have a liberal filling are classified as kachoris and those with small filling are called Puris. Top class puri is available almost exclusively in old Lucknow and new Lucknow puris are overhyped. The great taste of puris in old Lucknow has evolved over nearly a hundred years. The best puri in my opinion is made by one halwai known as Ramchander . Ramchander was perhaps the grandfather of the halwai who presently makes those awesome puris with the help of his two sons. The puris are served hot and 11 AM is cut off time . This halwai is based in bartan bazar in Yahiyaganj area of old Lucknow. The high and mighty are his customers as the market is the very hub of business in Lucknow and most traders belong to families who have been doing ancestral business of selling utensils. Babulal halwai mentioned earlier has his shop at a stone's throw from this halwai's shop.

Puri / Kachori(desi ghee)
Like I said earlier this is an entirely different ball game. Best kachoris are made by a very friendly and savvy businessman in Aminabad area the famous Netram guy. He charges a fortune for his kachoris but it is a very neat and clean place and he has lots of other interesting things for you like the imartis I mentioned earlier. His kachoris are available throughout the day till almost 9 PM. I love his insatiable desire for customers and his cleanliness considering it is just a halwai shop and you know how halwais are in India.

This is one of the most complex north Indian dishes to make. No novice should attempt this dish. Even seasoned halwais and housewives are not able to produce a good specimen. There are two types of khasta again one made with desi ghee and the other made with refined or dalda ghee. I am sad to announce that no one in Lucknow seems to be able to make an excellent desi ghee khasta that art is lost! Last time I ate a good desi ghee khasta was years and years ago in Allahabad!
The best dalda/refined oil khasta is made, nay invented, by a halwai well known as Ratti based at Hewett Road. At his shop there is always scope for a stampede so popular is his stuff. Unlike other place he serves them mainly with matar but also gives two types of aloo sabzi one chilly and other only spicy. Quality has gone down dramatically as the third generation is concentrating on every thing other then quality of his khastas. I won’t recommend this shop anymore.
The best desi ghee Khasta is available unfortunately where not even a two wheeler can go and one must walk to reach the legendry shop of Ram Asrey in Ban Wali Gali in Chowk. The quality fluctuates a bit but it is more or less like khastas tasted almost eighty years back in Lucknow. I may add here that the shop invented malai paan or malai gilauri and is still the best producer of the aforementioned delicacy.