Grand gastronomy

Have you ever dreamt of being a Nawab? Just for one day. To pull up the gold chair, remove the lace doily off the silver plate, have the servants lay a lavish Awadhi spread of kebabs, biryani, pulao, kheer, qorma, salan, and then pick the Dumba biryani for lunch. 

Feel like Nawab Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah and pick scrumptiously straight off his menu. Gorge on the thande gulab ke kheer (pudding) that is made of milk and rose petals or nashile jhinga (drunken prawns) that are marinated in alcohol or quzar-e-pukhtan which is cottage cheese in roasted pumpkin or onion gravy. 

It was in the kitchen of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last Nawab of Bengal, that Awadhi cuisine was first whipped up – thereafter, it travelled from the North West Frontier, first reaching Bengal, then moving west, acquiring the name from the region of Awadh (modern Lucknow) and becoming its signature cuisine. Do not want to dig into history, but want the Dumba biryani?

Borrow patience. Do away with your run-of-the-mill kitchen ingredients like turmeric and tomato. Stop the clock, for it takes at least 10 hours to cook this. Get a lagan (copper cooking vessel) as big as your bath tub. Okay, maybe not that big. But it has to be huge enough to contain a 12-kilo goat to sit in it on its feet. And not skewered or chopped. That’s what Amit Dash, executive chef at Courtyard by Marriott  in Gurgaon did in the heart of Awadh region. In Sonapur village, Amit braced himself for a biryani-thon. Let us explore the adventure. First the basics. 

A young whole goat is cleaned and marinated in ginger, garlic, yellow chilli powder and deggi mirch. No water, no curd. Let it soak in the flavours for two hours. Heat ghee (clarified butter) in the lagan. Remember, mustard oil and refined oil are culinary blasphemy in Awadh. Stick to ghee. Ladlefuls of cow ghee. 

Immerse the goat belly down in the lagan. For five hours, two rakabdars (helps) pour spiced onions, condiments or hung curd gravy on the goat. Then, 12 kilos of parboiled rice is added; a lid is put; the pot is sealed with dum and cooked on slow fire. Ten hours! That’s how much time it took Amit to make one Awadhi dish. 

Secret ingredientThe secret behind the taste of Awadhi cuisine is this - dum cooking over slow fire. And the joy in eating the dastarkhwan (ceremonial dining spread) lies in sharing it. A traditional dastarkhwan includes qorma (braised meat in thick gravy), salan (a gravy dish of meat or vegetable), qeema (minced meat), kebab (pounded meat fried or roasted over a charcoal fire), pasinda (fried slivers of very tender meat, usually kid, in gravy), pulao, chulao (fried rice), a variety of rotis and desserts like kheer (milk sweetened and boiled with whole rice to a thick consistency), sheer brunj, (a rich, sweet rice dish boiled in milk), firni and muzaffar (thick vermicelli served with fresh apricot paste), each coming with its own variations. 

Thande gulab ke kheer is a pudding made without rice or sugar – it is a concoction of milk and rose petals. Five litres of milk is taken and reduced to half. Julienne petals of 30 red roses (non-hybrid variety) is added and the mixture is boiled for four hours. Add rose leaf powder, pinch of green cardamom, fennel and a few drops of rose water. 

Finish with 100 gm of khoya (coagulated dried milk). Remember, no sugar and no rice. Serve cold with a garnish of rose petals. Because of the Mughal influence, Awadhi cuisine has more meat dishes on its list, with the kebabs topping the list of favourites. The Awadhi kebabs, interestingly, are never cooked in a tandoor. They are grilled on a chula (open wood fire hearth) or in a skillet. The seekh kebab, originally made from minced beef meat, is considered the best of all Awadhi kebabs. 

Other kebabs are the century-old tunde kebab that has 160 spices (the spices are a fiercely guarded family secret), kakori kebab (made from the tendon of leg of mutton), shami kebab (mince meat with onion, coriander, green chillies), pasanda kebab (lamb marinated and cooked in a girdle) with a few vegetarian options made with jackfruit, kidney bean, taro root and yam.

As I leaned on the orange cushion in the Marriott, listening to Chef Dash describe Awadhi cuisine, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for my vegetarian taste buds. So I asked him if there were any vegetarian delicacies at all from Awadh. “Peas are a favourite. There are dishes made of cottage cheese. There’s salan and then there is dal makhni that is simmered for 24 hours”. 

Amit’s options could have made one feel like a vegetarian Mughal queen. Makhni has more than dollops of white butter and ghee; salan has tonnes of peanuts, coconut and cashew nuts. That afternoon, I decided not to fatten up like the Nawabs and settled for quzar-e-pukhtan, a cottage cheese dish with roast pumpkin and onion gravy with generous add-ons of green and black cardamom, mace, cumin seeds and rose petal powder.

Faraway from Awadh and times ahead of the Mughal regime, in Gurgaon’s Courtyard by Marriott, I dug my spoon into the Pukhtan gravy. That afternoon, I felt like a queen. An Awadhi Mughal queen savouring a dastarkhwan.

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