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The Sultan of Chaat and Other Lucknow Chow

I've been living in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, for the last few months, on an program to study the Urdu language. There's not necessarily a huge amount of stuff to do here, so aside from studying and watching movies, I mainly eat. Here are a few places I've found:

Chhote Nawab: Like a lot of fancier restaurants in India, Chhote Nawab (Little King) is in a hotel, in this case the Sagar International, on Jopling Road, which is east and a little south of Hazratganj, near the Dainik Jagran newspaper offices. It's necessary to have a lot of landmarks, because your rickshaw driver probably won't know where the Sagar is, although he'll likely know how to get to Jopling Road. Anyway, Chhote Nawab is the best restaurant I know of in Lucknow, and one of the best Indian restaurants I've ever been to, especially now that Bombay Cafe in LA has gone down the tubes, now that Neela sold it. Chhote Nawab's chef, Ishtiyaque Qureshi, is from an old family of chefs, who cooked in the nawabs' kitchens. His father started Bukhara and Dum Pukht, and he's catered for Bollywood stars Karishma Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan. Not that that matters, but anyway, I'm not the only person who loves him, although weirdly, I don't think Chote Nawab is mentioned in any guidebooks, unlike the place in Clarke's Awadh, which is not nearly as good and has crappy music. Like every aspect of Lucknawi life, food here is always spoken of as having been incredibly refined in the glory days, but has declined, but Chhote Nawab is one of the places that's still keeping the refinement going.

There are a number of very delicious things on the menu, but my favorites are the mustard chicken kebabs and the eggplant curry. The breads deserve special note: the milky and soft Warq-e-Sada ("plain sheet" in highflown Urdu is barely recognizable for what it really is, the normally dull rumali roti; the pillowy taftaan is similar but even creamier, and the parathas are also very tasty. There's a dessert normally called shahi tukda, which I forget what they call on the Persianized menu, but it's basically saffron bread pudding, and it's very, very rich and delicious.

The Royal Cafe is one of the famous places in Hazratganj, the main shopping district, but it's not really that great. There are a few exceptions, however: the biryani is pretty good, in contrast to most Lucknawi biryani, which is crummy in comparison to Hyderabadi biryani; the mutton roghan josh is tasty, too. Basket chaat is the dish that the Royal is famous for inventing, and it turns out that a bowl made of noodles, filled with yogurt, tamarind chutney, onions, cilantro, pomegranate seeds and who knows what-all else, is as delicious as it sounds.

Also in Hazratganj, or at least nearby, is a place called Rovers, located across the street from the GPO (post office), and behind the big, garlanded statue of B.R. Ambedkar. It's a little hard to tell where Rovers ends and the nearly identical Ranjan Cafe begins, especially since one of the three store fronts alotted to the two stores has English signs for one and Hindi signs for another. Rovers is definitely the one to be at, despite the fact that it's the one not attached to the gas station. Anyway, what you want at Rovers is a mutton frankie, which like its cousins the kebab roll and kathi roll is basically meat in a rolled-up, greasy paratha, with some egg nand onions thrown in. You dip it in green chutney and ketchup, and it's supremely satisfying. If you're feeling daring, you can wash it down with a masala nimbu soda, which is soda water, Indian lime (one of the few Indian fruits superior to its American equivalent), and some crazy masala that involves cumin and other things that don't necessarily belong in a soda. Or you could just have a Thums Up or a Limca, and enjoy your meal a lot more.

The most famous kebab joint in Lucknow is Tunde Kebab. There are several locations, but I've only been to the one in Aminabad, which is supposed to be the second-best. I've compared it to a few other places, and it is, indeed, extremely delicious. The beef (I'm pretty sure it's actually water buffalo) and mutton kebabs are different, although I'm not sure how you'd tell which one was made from which meat, and everything else is irrelevant.

Nearby, in the Aminabad roundabout, there's a kulfi place with a big sign in Hindi. They have the best kulfi I've had in Lucknow, which disconcertingly they store in tin cans, even though they make it themselves. It comes, like it usually does here, with these bland, sort of slimy glass noodles that are pretty good with ice cream.

Also close by is Wahid's Biryani, the most famous biryani place in Lucknow. It's in a grimy alley and the entire restaurant consists of a kid standing with a humongous pot of chicken biryani, a bucket of water to wash your hands with, and some benches. No tables. The biryani is very good - moist and with a nice, fragrant raita, and meaty, flavorful chicken pieces.

Right by Wahid's, in Nazirabad, is a pretty good Sindhi restaurant. It's the only one, so you'll be able to find it. Sindhi food isn't too common, which is why I mention it. They've got a thing called a keema chop, which is a heart-shaped patty made of mashed potato or daal or something, with ground meat inside. They also have a fish fry, which is some pretty good whitefish, with a nice, salty rub on the outside. This is more interesting to us, in our landlocked state, than it is to you, especially since you might be a little deterred by the knowledge that a couple months ago, the oxygen level in the Gomti River dropped to zero as a result of a sewage leak, and all the fish died.

Near the defunct Tulsi Cinema, there's a street of biryani joints. Their biryani is mediocre, but one of them, called Dastarkhwan, has probably the greatest tandoori chicken I've ever had. At least, it's up there with the one I had in a bar in Rajasthan, but Dastarkhwan's doesn't make me have to take a pit stop at the side of the road on the way back from dinner.

There's a superb chain of sweet shops called Chhappan Bhog, and another one that I prefer, next to Gol Darwaza in the Chowk neighborhood, called Radhe Lal. The gulaab jamun, which I normally find boring, are really excellent there - very floral and fluffy. They also have good carrot halwa, both red and black, and a number of other good things, too. Outside, at this time of year, there are normally a few guys selling makkhan from glass-covered carts. Literally, makkhan means butter, but what it actually is is saffron and cardamom-flavored whipped cream. It's pretty delicious, actually.

Also in Chowk, near the Akbari Gate, are the Rahim's and Mubeen's, two most famous places to get Lucknow's most famous dish, nihari-kulcha. There are pros and cons to this dish. The con is the nihari, which is an uninteresing and indescribably fatty curry that's about 70% grease and only contains a little mutton. The pro is the kulcha, which might be the greatest bread in India, in competition with Malabar parathas. A kulcha is basically a gigantic Southern biscuit, stretched sideways and made way flakier.

In various places around town, you'll encounter chaat that you don't see elsewhere in India. There's one thing that's just green peas, steamed or something, with tomatoes and onions and some spices. It's surprisingly fresh and simple, and a nice contrast to greasy-heavily cooked North Indian food. There's another nice thing that appears to be potatoes cooking in ashes, but actually turns out to be more like a falafel. You get some vegetable curry, and the guys sort of dusts off and smooshes this spherical chickpea patty into the bowl, and you use it as bread.

Aaaaaaand the best for last. In my neighborhood, Mall Avenue, there's a guy named Shuklaji, who comes from an ancient chaat-making family, which invented a lot of Lucknawi specialties. I usually wait for him to arrive at my door in the evening, but you can catch him in front of the Congress Party headquarters, around 4 pm every day. He's the friendly-looking guy in a red sweater vest, tending a red cart that says, "Bablu Shukla Chaat Corner," in Hindi. He has several fantastic delicacies, mostly involving his wife's tamarind chutney, which he claims that she is one of three people in the world to make. My favorites are the dahi puri, which is a pani puri shell filled with potatoes and great, grainy yogurt and tamarind; the aloo tikki, which is like anyone else's but better; and the mattar chaat, which is a fried patty of peas and other stuff - you can get it with yogurt and tamarind, like everything else, or, what's even better, just plain with lime. Shuklaji is simultaneously humble and incredibly talented. Some people flew him to London to cater a wedding, but he didn't really like it. He doesn't even really like leaving Lucknow; on the other hand, he doesn't even eat his own chaat, so he may be a man of strange tastes. In any case, he may be the world's greatest genius of chaat.

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  1. This is a terrific post!

    Tell me, have you run across any good veg options in Lucknow? I know that the traditions are meat-eating, but have you seen any good veg choices in any of the places you have gone?

    1. Well, chaat is all veg, so that's good. There's a lot of Hindu (mostly Vaishnavite) dhabas, but I haven't really tried them much. As far as I can tell, they just have sort of standard North Indian veg stuff. There are a lot of vegetarians on my program, and even a vegan (no easy feat in North India - she imports her own tofu), and they find plenty of good food - just no kebabs, mainly. They all love Chhote Nawab, especially. There's a vegetarian place in Chowk that my teachers say is good, called Red Rose, but when we tried to go we couldn't find it. Everyone had differing claims about what direction it was in, so eventually we gave up and had kulchas and sweets. Not that it helps you, but the cook in the house we live in is a really extraordinary veg cook. If you come, let me know and I'd be happy to have Usha make you some smoked yogurt eggplant and the best palak paneer you've ever had.

      1. wow, what a wonderful post - i'd rank it one of tbe best i've read on chowhound.

        sindhi food is great - see if the restaurant has sindhi kadi, alu tikkis and rajma.

        i take off my hat to you that you've figured out the difference between vaishnavite and shaivite hindus - actually the whole 'hinduism' thing is a bit of a misnomer as you've doubtless discovered.

        also, virtually ALL home cooking is stupendous in india - i've almost never had bad meal in anyones house, which in 40+ years is quite something. the smoky eggplant thing you dig is probably baingan bhartha, one of my all time favourite dishes scarfed down with roti and a bit of yoghurt.

        i adore mutton frankie and i'm surprised to hear its in lucknow .. its originally a bombay invention and the genuwine deal is made by 'tibbs', so you should see if you can score tibbs mutton frankie. and the masala in your lime juice might just be a bit of jal jeera. anyway, ask for jal jeera pani - absolutely wonderful drink.

        lucknowi people consider themselves highly cultured, much to the amusement of us crassly commercial bombayites. but they've got themself a very observant visitor in you - keep the info coming!

        1. Mouth watering post! Must add Lucknow to my list of destinations in India. I think I've been there once, enroute to Gorakhpur and Nepal from Delhi, but, as a callow youth more interested in other things don't remember eating there. I am surprised though that so much of the Muslim food culture survives, I thought that was decimated by partition.

          If I remember correctly, in addition to its kulchas, Lucknow is famous for its parathas with many more layers than the punjabi equivalent. And, even in Delhi, Lucknavi chaat is quite famous.

          1 Reply
          1. re: gumnaam

            I'm sorry, I couldn't resist wondering and asking - why would you think Muslim food culture would be 'decimated by partition'? It's not like the entire Muslim population left India during partition. It's also not like non Muslims don't relish Muslim food. Besides, as far as I know there isn't a unified Muslim food culture - a lot of it is heavily influenced by region. So there's Awadhi around Lucknow, Hyderabadi in the south, I'm sure that the cuisine of Muslims in Bombay and Delhi are influenced by local regional cuisine too.

          2. Oh, and for your vegan friend, Tofu is quite easily available in the large supermarkets in Delhi. Perhaps she could look for it in one in Lucknow, if, that is, Lucknow has these new large modern grocery stores that seem to be everywhere in Delhi, Bombay, and Madras.

            1 Reply
            1. re: gumnaam

              Yeah, she gets it every time she goes to Delhi. In Lucknow, we have a Big Bazaar, but nothing really serious.

            2. Very detailed and interesting post. Thank you for taking the time to write up your Lucknow culinary adventures. I love Lucknow, and your post brought on a bout of nostalgia. Here's a bit of nitpicking though:

              You cannot possibly be serious in saying that the Indian lime was one of the few Indian fruits superior to its American equivalent. Apart from strawberries, which are a fairly recent import, I cannot think of a single Indian fruit which is not superior to its American equivalent.

              Bananas? Try the small ones sold as Singapuri kela. I'm sure you'd never want to have another American banana again.

              Apples? The better varieties from Himachal are absolutely amazing.

              If you stick around till summer time, you'd have a chance to try the king of all Indian fruits in its full glory. There'd be mangoes everywhere. Oranges have their origin in India, and the best oranges come from North-eastern India. Even watermelon, papaya and pineapple are better in India.

              Also try some of the nuts on offer. The pistachios and walnuts in India are imported from either Afghanistan or Iran, so are the pine-nuts. Indian produces a huge amount of cashews, and they are far superior to what is sold in the US.

              Also, did you actually like the food at Bombay Cafe? I've had dinners there a couple of times when Neela was still at the helm and the meals were very mediocre.

              4 Replies
              1. re: anthead

                Thanks to you and everyone else for the compliments.

                You're mostly right, I was sort of taking a cheap shot at produce. I've just been sort of frustrated, since fall and winter is not a good time for fruit in North India. Lucknow is not Delhi, and we don't get much in the way of exotic fruit like strawberries or stone fruits. All we have right now is pineapples, very poor apples imported from the US, one type of bananas no more interesting than Chiquitas (UP isn't a big center of banana cultivation, unlike Kerala, where you can get dozens of kinds), very bland and woody guavas, mediocre pomegranates, and a whole lot of papayas, which I just have never been able to get excited about. The one good fruit that's available right now is black grapes, which are extraordinary. The green ones are boring, but the black ones are some of the best I've had. And, actually, the watermelons are pretty good (although not as good as the yellow-rind watermelon I had this fall, imported from Taiwan - the greatest melon I've ever had), and the oranges are also good. Oranges are only recently taking over from mousambis, though, in the citrus department - I just don't understand the appeal of a citrus with no acidity or flavor, that's hard to peel on top of that.

                I did like Bombay Cafe in the old days - I actually grew up going there. When I was a kid, I loved the chicken frankie, and I also used to really enjoy the Goan shrimp curry, which they added to the menu a few years ago. The haldi jhinga (invented by Neela) and sev puri were also very good chaat, I thought. The pani puri, unfortunately, was not. Pani puri's on my mind right now, because I'm in Calcutta at the moment, eating a lot of phuchka, which are phenomenal, and much better than Lucknawi pani puris.

                1. re: David Boyk

                  Mousambi is better as a juice. You are right about the season not being great for fresh fruit and produce. Wait till summer and you'll enjoy the best mangos in the world - Lucknow and Faizabad are famous for them. You'll also get delicious melons from Panipat and Sonepat (don't know if they'll truck them fresh to Lucknow, but if they do, don't miss out!).

                  1. re: gumnaam

                    Damn, what was I thinking! Typo, best watermelons come during the summer not wintertime.

                  2. re: David Boyk

                    Apples imported from the US? Oh dear. Please find a good fruit vendor and set him to the task of finding Himachali apples. I'm sure you'd not be disappointed. I'm puzzled as to why the guavas are so terrible, this should not be the case. You should buy your guavas from a vendor who specializes in them.

                    The best watermelons come during wintertime, so you'd have to wait a couple of months for them. When they are in season, buy them from roadside vendors who sell only watermelons.

                    Umm...oranges have always been more popular than mousambis for consuming whole. Mousambis are used for extracting juice. And oranges are by far more popular than mousambis.

                    Winter is a great time for starfruit. It's an acquired taste, too sour for many, but most Indians eat it with salt and pepper so it's more like a tangy savoury snack. Most starfruit vendors also sell roasted sweet potatoes which are delicious.

                    Do you buy your fruits from small vendors, or at the new produce stores that have started coming up around the country? I was wondering, perhaps that makes a big difference to your experience with the fruit.

                    I'm sorry, didn't mean to be so critical of Bombay Cafe. I'm sure it must have been great for many years, just that for me, on multiple visits the place just didn't live up to the hype.

                    If you're in Calcutta now, do seek out the Singapuri bananas. Also, lots of young coconut water. Have a great trip, and please keep writing about your adventures!

                2. David, thanks so much for this postcard and brilliant post from Lucknow. Felt like I was sitting across from the table from you and having a chat about our favorite topic. I'm delighted you've found the Sultan of Chaat.

                  http://www.davidboyk.com/bollywood/

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Glad you liked it! Shuklaji's been gone for a week or two, and I'm having serious trouble coping.

                    1. re: David Boyk

                      Hey David, hope you're still in Lucknow, enjoying it's culinary delights! Say, whatever happened to Sharmaji's chaat place? Here is what I remember from a trip to my aunt who lived in Lucknow at that time. This was at least 15 years ago. My uncle took us to this chaat place either in Hazratganj or in Aminabad (or something that sounds similar). The deal was you had to go early cause some days even as early as 4 pm, they'd run out and close shop with a 'saamagri samaapt' sign. The chaat was delicious. Inside they had little signboards on the wall saying please do not ask for extra chutney. Heh heh.

                  2. hi david.
                    nice post, im glad to see it. ive been trying to find out about what you called "makkhan". is it literally just saffron-cardamom flavoured whipped-cream? have you ever heard of the indian desserts "daulut ki chaat" and "nimish" (i think they are very similar to makkhan)? i think ive heard things about how the cream and/or butter is left out over night thereby changing in some desireable, and necessary for the dish to work, way. i dont know much about and if you have any other good info about it id love to hear. another thing ive heard about is dessert preparations with balai (is this the exact same as malai?). specifically, a dish called "balai ke tukre" (similar to shahi tukre, but instead of bread they use balai i think), where the mass of cream (and maybe other secret ingredients) is actually browned in a lagan! i have a recipe for it (but ive never tried it because i dont know the nature of balai) and still cannot understand how even clotted-cream holds its solid shape against the heat enough to be browned? anyway, later, jon