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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.