Uttar Pradesh has a rich and diverse cuisine ranging from traditional to the modern. The culinary narrative of Uttar Pradesh reflects the diversity of its cultural landscape.
From the court cuisine of Awadh to the vegetarian fare of Braj region of Mathura and Vrindavan, from the pasandas of the Rampur kitchens to the delectable Banarasi paan, from its mouthwatering street food to its petha of Agra, Uttar Pradesh truly has the full measure of keeping one satiated...if not hungry for more.
Steeped in antiquity the city of Banaras was home to a cultured citizenry used to sophisticated tastes in every field of life. Purity, simplicity and great refinement were the hallmark of Banarasi cuisine. Sweets are the real forte of Banaras.
Delicious kachauris, jalebis, samosa and a range of street fare which of course includes offerings from the local chhatwallah will win the heart of every visitor.
Awadh,the heart of the Nawabi culture, paid tribute to all tastes. The sumptuous and very sensual Awadhi gourmet cuisine, aimed primarily at feasting royalty, is an astonishingly rich tradition. Painstaking supervision, quality control and measured crafting went a long way in keeping the tables of the nawabs the most alluring in India. The Awadhi culinary heritage is marked by the elegance which goes into adorning the dastarkhwan (table), the expertise of its bawarchis (cooks) and their rakabdars (spice masters) who manned the bawarchikhana (kitchen).
For those with a sweet tooth, Mathura rejoices them in its khurchan and melting pedas, Agra is renowned for its petha, Lucknow for its shahi tukde and Varanasi for its creamy winter delight malaiyo, known in Lucknow as malai makkhan or nimish.
The range of Mughlai food, refined to a great extent by the Nawabs and their cooks, which become the hallmark of Uttar Pradesh. Some dishes noted all over the world for their exquisite taste are:
Kaliya is a mutton preparation with gravy along with the mixture of turmeric or saffron. Some variations have been devised by the cooks of Awadh, for instance Mahi Kaliya, Chandi Kaliya and the unbeatable Kundan Kaliya. The latter is a delicacy designed by the bawarchis and rakabdars to please their Nawabs. The use of gold leaf in this dish lends a touch of luxury to it.
Shami Kabab is a non-vegetarian dish made from mince meat. Kababs are round patties filled with spicy surprises. The texture of the kabab is extremely soft and simply melts in the mouth.
The seekh kabab was introduced in Awadh region by the Mughals and was originally prepared from mince meat on skewers and cooked on charcoal fire. But later influences and innovations led to the use of lamb mince which was preferred for its soft texture.
Kakori is a small hamlet on the outskirts of Lucknow, on the Lucknow-Malihabad mango belt. During British rule, it was customary in this region for the rich Rajas and Nawabs to entertain senior British officers. In mango season, a `mango dinner' was very much in demand (dinner in a mango orchard, was followed by a variety of chilled mangoes served in great style). At one such party in Kakori, stung by the remark of a British officer regarding the coarse texture of Seekh Kabab, the host, the late Nawab Syed Mohammad Haider Kazmi summoned his rakabdars, hakims and attars the very next day and asked them to evolve a more refined variety of the Seekh Kabab. Ten days of incessant research and design efforts resulted in the now famous `Kakori Kababs' which were as far as perfection could go. The Nawab invited the same officer again and presented the new variety of the Seekh Kabab and needless to say it met with great applause. Since then the Seekh Kababs of Kakori became famous by word of mouth and even today, though cooked elsewhere, are known as `Kakori Kababs'.
The Gulnaar Kabab is a gourmet's delight. The blending of tomatoes with spices and chicken, with a garnish of red rose petals is one of the most aesthetic dishes of the bawarchis of Awadh.
The Nehari is invariably cooked in mustard oil and is a hot favorite of all the princes and paupers, the high and low, the rich and poor. The word `Nehari' is derived from `Nehar' or fasting and is a popular breakfast item with the Muslim populace. Nehari is braised and then stewed overnight, further prepared in the morning and eaten with kulchas. The recipe for the Nehari, interestingly, is also derived from a Hakimi Nuskha and it is especially suited to the body constitution in the winter months as it keeps the body warm.
A very interesting aspect of Awadh cuisine is the inspiration it draws from a myriad sources - seasons and celebrations, flora and fauna, personalities, poetry and colour. The Nargisi Kofta is mainly hard boiled egg, wrapped in mince and deep fried, when halved lengthwise it resembles the eye! Purists go to the length of selecting eggs which are more slim than round to get the perfect shape!
Awadh is home to a vast variety of kababs. They differ in shape and size, the kind of meat used in the method of cooking involved. Contrary to the general notion that kababs are either barbecued or griddle fried, in this case, even the patili or deep copper or brass vessel is used for making kababs. This kabab is served as one whole mass on the plate and no in several individual pieces. The cooking of mince on slow fire with ghee and spices infuses the meat with a subtle aroma, and the superbly soft texture of the kabab makes partaking of it a pleasurable experience!
The Pasanda Kabab is one such mouth watering dish. The pasanda is a two inch square boneless cut flattened out by beating with the blunt side of knife. It can either be skewered or cooked in a vessel. The latter method is more common in Lucknow.
Over two hundred years ago, in the early 18th century, Kashmiri families came down the mountain valley to seek fame and fortune in the rich plans below. Those were the days of the decline of the Mughal Empire and it was not surprising that the glory of Awadh pulled them towards Lucknow. A number of Kashmiris came to settle in the capital of Awadh. They brought the scent of saffron, the cups of kahwa and their celestial cuisine. Truly, the cooking of "Shab Deg" in winter, for the Nawab in Awadh, became not only a celebration of winter, but a reminder of the bond with that land which is often referred to as heaven on earth.
Shab Deg is a beautiful blend of whole turnips, Kashmiri ver, mutton balls and spices cooked in a `deg' through the night or "shub". The treatment of turnips with saffron, the special Kashmiri vers brought all the way from Kashmir with the distinctive aroma of saffron and Kashmiri onions, and the koftas, cooked on the slow fire in a sealed deg till the break of dawn, lend this dish its distinguished status.
An old recipe for cooking fish is the `Zamin Doz Machhli' wherein a whole fish is stuffed with spices, sealed in an earthenware case, buried in the ground and cooked by placing cow dung cake fire on the ground above. Though it takes 6-8 hours to cook, it is worth the wait! In the days of yore, special earthenware cases were made to order by the kumhars (potters) according to the size and shape of the fish to be cooked. The case would fit the fish like a glove and moisture would be absorbed by it. The final product would have an extraordinary earthy flavour. As such luxuries are rare these days we thought of substituting the fish-shaped case with the easily available roti-dish or the flat curd dish.
Though the formal menu of Awadh did not have any place for the Biryani, it was and still is popular for the informal meals. The method of cooking the Biryani is the `Dum Pukht' method which imparts a typical Awadh flavour to this rice preparation. Biryani literally means fried or `bhuna', and in this preparation, the rice is lightly fried before being cooked in the mutton stock. Hence the name, differentiating it from the pulao where the rice is parboiled.
In the days of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was a connoisseur of the fine arts, celebrations were done in style. A long procession of `Bajras' (barges) were taken out on the river Gomti. Dressed in yellow, to match the (color of nature) spring palette, men and women danced to the tune of Raga Vasant, and Raga Hindola. The river would be transformed to a rich yellow hue more aptly labeled as `Basanti'. The `Zarda' is a celebration of spring though its popularity transcends the seasons, even cooked during marriages or auspicious occasions, this sweet rice preparation is like a spring song!
The `Roomali Roti' appears to the shape of the scarf or handkerchief. Shaped without rolling on a board and cooked on a convex iron griddle, this bread is very special to Awadh. The fine texture of the bread makes it an excellent accompaniment for delicate kebabs and kormas.
The `Sheermal', invented in Lucknow by an ace bread-maker by the name of Muhammadan, is a rich bread consisting mainly of flour, milk, fat and saffron. Though traditionally cooked in an iron tandoor, it can be cooked in a mahi tawa by covering with a lid and applying heat from the top and bottom.
The Kulcha is a favorite accompaniment to the Nehari. The soft texture of this bread is good with curries.