The splendour of Awadhi cuisine with a recipe inside

Food Nilanjan Hajra
Eat-Well
Awadhi cuisine
Homemade chicken qorma or white qorma dish. Traditional dish for parties and ceremonial purpose popular in South Asian countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Photo : Dreamstime

The vast and varied Mughal culinary tradition branched out into two famous branches as the Mughal empire breathed its last over the 18th century. These are: the Awadhi cuisine, and the cuisine of the Nizam of Hyderabadh. Awadh roughly correspondents to the area of the present-day Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, with its capital at Lucknow. The anecdotes that have survived from the Nawabs’ courts of Awadh is stuff of legends. Rarely have Bawarchis (chefs) and Rakabdars (gourmet cooks) have enjoyed such influence over the kings themselves as they did in 18th and 19th century Awadh till the last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Kolkata in 1856.

Awadh’s culinary culture

Abdul Halim Sharar (1860 – 1926) gives one of the finest anecdotal descriptions of Awadhi cuisine in his book Lucknow: The Last Phase of Oriental Culture. Chapter 28 of the book is titled Gastronomy. Many of the anecdotes he narrates and budgets of kitchens he furnishes here are stunning. A few examples would be enough to fathom the lavishness of Awadhi cuisine. Food served to Shuja ud-Daula, who was the Nawab of Awadh 1754 to 1775, and his queen Bahu Begam, came from six different kitchens every day. Out of these the cost of food, leaving aside salaries and other expenditure, in just the main kitchen was Rs. 2000 per day. And one can imagine the value of that amount of money in the mid-18th century.

Again, another Nawab Nasir ud-Din Haider Shah (ruled between 1827 and 1837), had a Bawarchi who cooked Khichri, a simple Indian dish of lentil and rice mix, using pistachio and almonds instead of rice or lentil. The chef cut the nuts so delicately that when served they would look exactly life rice and lentil!

Sharar’s book establishes that more than satiating hunger, food in Awadhi imperial circle was an instrument of displaying wealth and taste.

The cookbook of Awadhi cuisine

While there are numerous cookbooks claiming to furnish recipes of authentic Awadhi cuisine, most are suspect. Even Sharar doesn’t give any recipe in his book. On that count, one of the most authentic sources of Awadhi cuisine recipes is The Classic Cuisine of Lucknow: A Food Memoir. Mirza Jaffar Hussein (1899-1989) has written this book. Both his parents came from Awadhi Nawabs’ families, and carried in their families Awadh’s finest culinary traditions. One can almost say that Jaffar Hussein picked up where Sharar left. He was himself deeply interested in food, and has written extensively on Awadhi cuisine.

Spread over 11 chapters Jaffar Hussein’s cookbook describes some of the finest delicacies of Awadh. Again, his book also reflects the fine culinary taste of Lucknow. The book specifically mentions utensils to be used for certain dishes. Taste-buds of the city’s hoity toity were such subtle, writes Jaffar Hussein, that they would kick up even the slightest difference in flavour and rebuke the chefs.

Jaffar Hussein also mentions in details how to wash meat and prepare spices. On the whole I have found this to be the best cookbook for Awadhi cuisine.

Here for Eid celebrations is the recipe prepared from the description given by Mirza Jaffar Hussein of one of the most delectable Lucknow dishes:

Chicken Qorma

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 plump chicken (skin and innards removed, washed and cut into pieces)
  • Onion 250 Gms (Finely chopped)
  • Ghee 300 Gms.
  • Cloves 1 Gm
  • Green cardamom 1 Gm
  • Garlic 2 pods (Pasted and juiced)
  • Ginger 3 knots
  • Mace and Nutmeg 3 Gm
  • Roasted and ground coriander 3 Gm
  • Garam Masala 3 Gm
  • Curd 124 Gm
  • Salt to taste
  • Saffron 2 Gm (optional)
  • Kewra (Screwpine flower) water: 30 ml (Optional)

METHOD

Fry the onion in ghee. Take out the fried onions, grind and keep them aside. In the same ghee crackle the cardamoms and cloves. Put the chicken pieces with salt. Fry until brown. As it is being fried keep sprinkling the garlic juice. Once the chicken prices begin to brown add all remaining spices and keep frying. When spices are properly fried add enough water and boil till the meat becomes tender. Add the ground-fried onion and the curd, and keep cooking until the stock begins to dry and the ghee starts floating up. The chicken pieces should be cooked in this ghee for a while before taking off the stove.

In imperial kitchens, 2 grams of saffron stirred in 30 Ml of Kewra water used to be sprinkled before taking the Qorma off the stove.

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