The Lucknow Biryani Trail

I was planning a trip to Lucknow for quite some time now. Apart from revisiting the City of Nawabs and shopping for some exquisite Lucknow Chikan, the food from Awadh was perhaps the chief motivator for me. Lucknow is known for its "dum pukht" cooking style and its kababs such as galawati and kakori are known the world over. However, being from the biryani city of Hyderabad, trying out the good biryanis of Lucknow was on the top of my mind. A few tips from friends and notes made from books read, here I was ready with my list to explore the biryani places in the city.

Lalla Biryani Lucknow

The flavours of the biryani in Lucknow are quite different from our Hyderabad. Keora water is used abundantly whereas the premium places also use rose water and saffron. The masaladar touch of Hyderabadi biryani is virtually absent. Also, the biryani here is “pakki”, which means that the meat is pre-cooked to a large extent before putting it on dum along with the rice.  The biryani has a lot of similarity to the ones from Kolkata, except that it has more ghee and the potato is missing. The similarity has to be there as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah from Awadh who spent his last years in Kolkata is credited with introducing the dish there.

It is said that the style of cooking of Awadhi biryani originated from the workers who were building the Bada Imambara during the rule of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Dowla. While working hard at the construction site, the workers used to cook rice and meat together in a sealed pot, to consume it after work. One day, the Nawab who came to check on the progress of the work, was fascinated by the aroma of the dish and instructed his bawarchis to get the recipe and replicate in the Royal kitchen. Biryani thus formed an important part of the Dum Pukht (roughly translated as cooked with air) style of cooking.

On my day of arrival, I was putting up at the guest house of Ramakrishna Math at Niralanagar. Aminabad was a short distance away, and soon we were on our way to try out some delicacies from there. My first place for biryani was Wahid Biryani, located just next to the famous Tunday Kababi in the Aminabad market. The place is 60 years old and has limited seating. Marinated chicken and kababs were on display outside the shop. We went in and promptly ordered a half mutton biryani.

Wahid Biryani Lucknow

Unlike Hyderabad, most biryani joints in Lucknow offer a half plate version of their biryani which is suitable for a moderately hungry soul. Wahid’s half plate was priced at Rs 120 and had two pieces of mutton in it. The old man who was serving us was surprised that two of us were sharing half a biryani. But then we were just out of Tunday, after a disappointing run with their famed kababs.
The biryani at Wahid was served with a raita and some onions with a green chilly chutney. It was good was nothing extraordinary. The rice and meat were well cooked but the flavours, as well as the greasiness, were missing. As they say in Lucknow, if your fingers don't get stuck to each other after eating a biryani, it is not a good biryani. Wahid has four branches in the city and is a huge name for its biryani. Maybe, it was just an average day for them.

The next day, we checked into Novotel at Gomti Nagar. Their General Manager Mr Raj Singh was known to me from Hyderabad, and he introduced me to Executive Chef Neeraj Verma of the hotel. Chef Neeraj takes pride in their Awadhi preparations and invited me for dinner at The Square, the all-day dining restaurant of the hotel. Along with other delicacies like Galouti and Kakori, I also tried their mild coloured biryani. With large chunks of well-cooked mutton, and garnished with fried onion, the biryani excelled in its true flavour. I was indeed very happy that I did not miss out on this treat.

Mughal Dastarkhwan Lucknow

Next afternoon, I made my way to my third destination. My friend Poorna Banerjee had written about the biryani of Dastarkhwan Lalbagh in her blog. Mughal’s Dastarkhwan has also subsequently set up an outlet in Gomti Nagar. This was more of a clean restaurant and a half mutton biryani cost Rs 120. This was much more fragrant than the biryani at Wahid. The mutton pieces were larger and the long rice was in red and saffron colours. My only complaint here could be that it was a tad bit dry.

A visit to Lucknow is not complete without a visit to Chowk.  We had gone there in the afternoon looking for our last two destinations – Lalla and Idrees. When we reached Idrees about a kilometre away, it was already 3 pm, and all we could look at was a group of diners lapping up the last strands of biryani rice in a small room adjacent to the shop. The owner smiled when he heard we were from Hyderabad. We were told that the next lot will only be prepared by 6:30 pm, with a warning that often it gets over within an hour.

Lalla Lucknow Biryani

Famished, we moved towards Chaupatian Chowk. Armed with GPS it was not difficult to locate Lalla Biryani, recommended by both my friend Mohammed Kaifi and Kalyan Karmakar in his book “The Travelling Belly”. The small outlet reminded me of the small biryani places near Charminar in Hyderabad, extremely unclean with mutton bones strewn all over. However, the lone person sitting with a dekchi full of biryani was busy as ever, with many people coming in to take a packed parcel. A small table was cleaned for us, and very apprehensively we took a bite of the biryani.

I must confess this was the best biryani we had in Lucknow. The soft meat pieces perfectly cooked and coming of the bones were just heavenly. The flavours were adequate and the rice had the requisite moistness. The half plate cost us Rs 110, and we were tempted to order a repeat, but keeping in mind we had still to doo Idrees, we resisted ourselves.

Idrees Biryani Lucknow

Bang at 6:30 pm we were back at Idrees Biryani. There was already a crowd gathering for the biryani. We took a packet of biryani to have back in our hotel. During the last few days, everyone in Lucknow was speaking about Idrees and our expectation was set very high. The biryani which we consumed after taking back to our hotel was good, and the meat soft, but I will still say Lalla’s was a notch better. In Hyderabad, I have seen that the good biryani joints lack consistency, they are brilliant on their day. Maybe, today was Lalla’s day.

Four days in Lucknow allowed me only try a handful of places for biryani, as I wanted to also try other delicacies of the city. Naushijan, Sakhawat and Al-Zaiqa were some of the other names which came up in the discussion which I could not visit. I am also sure they are many unexplored small places in the bylanes. But there is always a next time.

Also Read: Kababs, Kulfi and More

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