How the galouti kebab assumed mythic proportions in the City of Nawabs, Lucknow
As any community or nation progresses, its diet is the most salient guide to its refinement,” writes Abdul Halim Sharar in his classic Guzishta Lucknow, an early 20-century Urdu narrative about the culture, lifestyle and cuisine of Awadh under the Nawabs.
But Lucknow’s legendary “nawabi” sensibilities — often exaggerated and caricatured — have been in steady decline, with newer impulses taking over. Sharar’s world does not exist today. Sharar’s world does not exist today. However, when I was growing up in Lucknow, from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s, many of the old world courtesies and charm were still in evidence. The city was already in the throes of big change in that crucial decade. The politics of the Mandal commission and the Babri Masjid demolition had begun altering its social fabric. Beneath the unrest of a new emerging order lay layers of an older Lucknow — of several older Lucknows summoned up in the foods that we continued to eat and remained partial to.
An Assorted Palate
Surprisingly, the memories of eating out in Lucknow have nothing to do with kebabs, the food the “city of nawabs and kebabs” is perhaps best associated with today. They are about decadent cream rolls from JJ Bakers in Hazrat Ganj, bought surreptitiously after sneaking out of the back gate of La Martiniere, during school hours. They are about the occasional treats of kali mirch chicken, peppered and roasted, from a shop outside the magnificent Charbagh railway station; the chicken certainly not a nawabi delight but a much later, post-Partition gourmet entrant to Lucknow. They are about special occasion dinners at Royal Café or Falaknuma, the rooftop restaurant at the Clarks Avadh; and excursions for chaat, nimish, thandai and falooda, whose charms were dimmed somewhat by the just emerging pleasures of chowmein at Mini Mahal.
They are also about the asli (pure) ghee nugdi ke laddoo from Ram Asrey, the sweet shop whose history went back to 1805, Lucknow’s oldest. The tiny, dot-like orange boondi pearls of the laddoos held us enthralled. Why were these small grains made from chickpea flour called nugdi? Much later, I conjectured that the name was a reference to the Urdu “nuqta”, the small dot used in the script. This was one of the finest expressions, literally, of India’s Ganga-Jamuni culture that we gorged on! Different Lucknows, belonging to many different time periods and different communities, were expressed in each of these dishes.
Kebabs were always home cooked — and it was always shami kebab, the best of which are still only to be found in homes, not in restaurants. Galawat ke kebab, whose distinguishing feature is that the minced meat is tenderised with papaya (or raw mango), was not so well known. This, even though a small shop near Akbari Gate in Chowk, almost unreachable save on a rickety rickshaw, had been serving them up since 1905.
Galauti kebab and Tunday Kababi are now part of a much larger cultural consciousness around indigenous food traditions in India. You couldn’t have not heard of them if you consider yourself a connoisseur or even an aspiring foodie — and who isn’t one, these days? In 1996, the year I left Lucknow, Mohammed Usman — the grandson of the legendary onearmed cook Haji Murad Ali who had first opened the tiny kebab shop in Chowk catering mainly to the working classes — set up a branch of Tunday Kababi in in Aminabad, a market more accessible and more pop than the older part of the city.
That became the turning point for the rediscovery of the galawat ke kebab, or galauti as it is colloquially known. Instead of using exclusively “bade ka meat” or buffalo, like in the old days, the Aminabad branch also started using the more accepted goat meat, thus extending its audience. The establishment, however, kept to Haji Murad Ali’s cost consciousness.
“My grandfather was known for his honesty. If we gave the customer even a slightly smaller kebab, he would shout at us, saying, ‘Logon ka gala kato ge kya (Don’t be a cut-throat, will ya)?’ So, even today, we try to maintain the same price-quantity ratio,” says Usman, when I meet him in Delhi at a rare food promotion that he has been roped in for at the JW Marriott in Aerocity. Even today, Tunday Kababi, says Usman, serves two paranthas (ulte tawe ke, the big ones made on an upside down karahi) and four kebabs, each weighing 22-23 g, for Rs 64 at the Chowk outlet. The prices are slightly higher at the Aminabad and Kapurthala outlets in Lucknow, the only three legitimate Tunday Kababi restaurants. A couple of years ago, Tunday Kababi decided to go national, giving out franchising rights to all and sundry. The quality dipped, prices soared and the brand suffered. Usman acknowledges it and says he has withdrawn from all those operations. He still gets about 10-12 queries every day for franchisee or partnership offers but declines them. “My daughter is doing her MBA and my son is studying too, we will see what they want to do later. You need to be careful in the food business,” he says.
The 120-masala Secret
Most of India’s food legends are focused on one-dish shops and stalls like Tunday Kababi. Many of these are, however, disappearing in the march to modernity. Restaurant retail in the country has undergone a dramatic transformation. Chains are the order of the day. However, like Tunday Kababi, many of the old establishments find it hard to grow, despite the availability of capital and partnerships. At least part of the reason for this failure is exactly the reason for the success of these brands in the first place.
If personalised attention to detail propelled many of these brands to become the best in whatever they sold, that also becomes a limiting factor in building a chain. Till today Usman or his father, now 80 years old, supervise the procurement of the meat, the use of the right papaya in the mince and the mixing of the masalas. “My grandfather started me off as a child, dragging the cart that brought in the meat from the butcher’s. He felt that I couldn’t learn unless I learnt the basics,” reminisces Usman, as he rejects a papaya for the mince being readied for kebabs. It’s an ethic that has stayed on. Then, there is the tale about the spices.
For several years now, since the late ’90s and the early 2000s when Tunday Kababi became more visible and India’s restaurant scene was coming into its own (the first lifestyle standalones were established in the country only in 2000), Usman and his family have had chefs of all hues knocking at their doors to learn the secrets of spicing.
If the story of the one-armed cook making kebab and slicing onion rings was so compelling that it established the “Tunday” (literally “one-armed”) brand, another delicious story, of an astounding 120-plus spices going into the galauti mix, nurtured it. According to Usman, that is the original recipe of his grandfather. Some of these ingredients are elusive unani prescriptions. The family keeps the names and proportions secret. The spice mix used at all the outlets is prepared by Usman, his wife or his father. Even at the festival in Delhi, five-star chefs eager to decipher the mystery are denied a peek.
Finding what the galauti spices are has become a culinary holy grail for most Indian chefs. Many have made at least one trek from their fancy restaurant kitchens to Lucknow. Invariably, they have failed. The secret is not shared.
Taste the Tunday galautis and you will not be overwhelmed with spice. It tastes of mildly spiced mince (only lean meat is used, so there’s no flavour from fat) and there is no aftertaste either. Would it matter if there were just 12, not 120 ingredients, in this? To my palate, not. The romance, almost certainly, is in the story.
Sharar’s Lucknow was one of hyperbole, of truths couched in courtesies, of refined dissembling — where what seemed like a murraba (fruit preserve) could actually be a qorma (meat curry). Such were the games the courtly Lucknowiites played with each other and their colonial guests, before the Revolt of 1857. It is this culture that the galauti with stories of 120 spices epitomises.
Without the seductive tales, you may perhaps see the galauti for what it is: an innovation. If you cook, you will realise that the shami kebab, the ancestor or at least cousin of the galauti, is more painstaking: keema (with some fat), dal and spices have to be boiled together, judiciously, so that the meat does not overcook and dry out; then it is ground on a sil-batta to maintain texture, the patties then have to be (in some homes) stuffed with mint and onions for extra flavour, and finally the kebab is pan-fried.
The galauti kebab relies on its smoothness alone for wowness. It is a simpler kebab because mince is used raw. It can be turned out quickly, so it is fitting that this should be a bazaar, not home, delicacy.
Did it come about because the rakabdars, cooks, who had a budget of up to `60,000 a month in those days to experiment with ingredients (as Sharar says), realised that the exotic ingredient from the New World, papaya, which appeared in India only in the late 16th century, could be used as a tenderiser for delicacies that the ageing and toothless nawabs relished? Or, was it because the Awadhi high culture deemed chewing in public to be inelegant? Or, could it be, as some have suggested, the influence of the pate?
The French influence in Lucknow is not often remembered. A look at Constantia or La Martiniere, the school it houses, can remind you of that. Claude Martin, the French soldier who shifted allegiance to the British and then the nawabs, built not just this elegant structure but also designed many Lucknow buildings commissioned by his patron nawab Asaf-ud-Daula. Even before him, French merchants were plying their trade in Lucknow. To think their silken pates influenced the galauti is not unfounded.
We may never know the truth. However, when in a modern restaurant you come across a smashed, pasted galauti — in all its spiced glory — served by a “contemporary Indian” chef as desi pate, you know the wheel has turned a full circle. In the word of food, that is often the case.
This article appeared in Economic Times on 26th Feb 2017.
The bar-crawl through SOBO’s poshest
By Miss Marmalade
Disclaimer: Advance apologies for excessive use of ‘air quotes’. Reader discretion is advised.
Every now and then, one has to prove that one is ‘happily’ single. And to do that, one has to do ‘single’ things. Go to a nightclub and dance till the ankles hurt because one is wearing heels after a year. Get drunk and stare at an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile picture and laugh because he now looks older than you, and cry because he is holidaying in Crete and you are stuck with shoddy company. Buy clothes that make you look ‘hotter’ when there’s no chance in hell that you’ll succeed.
See the thing is, being single is a lot of work. You're dealing with bad dates that should end before they begin, good dates that won't go anywhere because you're simply unfortunate, and the worst - mediocre dates because you are inching towards 'fine! I'll settle this time'. Plus, you’re constantly suspecting other singles who want to 'de-single' you. Which is why, the most important thing you can do is take a holiday with another single friend, just so you can leave all the shenanigans of romance behind for a change. I did the last one with absolute joy. Actually I’ve done all of the above, but the last one is the least painful.
My Dilliwali friend – let’s call her DF - needed a break too. She didn’t decide that. I did. So I ‘arm twisted’ her to come to Mumbai with me. “Arrey, we will eat and get fat. Drink and get dirty,” I told her. My sales pitch, no matter how sleazy, worked!
Checking into a posh hotel, complete with an absolutely useless bowl of terrarium in the room – actually I stared at it for a really long time and wondered of its purpose in life – and divine soft towels, we planned our ‘gastronomical’ vacay.
First stop was this lovely little joint in Bandra. In fact it is so little, that eavesdropping is almost customary. No one will frown at you if you overhear your neighbouring table talking about their friend’s bizarre romantic escapades. I love eavesdropping – it makes me feel human. I know so much about so many people that I don’t know, that I could start something called ‘wikipeople’.
DF and I gushed over a raw papaya salad for a while, and only because everything else we ate after that was so ‘meh’ that she and I began talking about another restaurant instead. Apparently, it’s rude. The crispy fried pork is the reason I need dentures. And what’s with people adding capsicum to things all the time? It’s like ‘when in doubt, add capsicum’. And there was no daaru to help us forget that afternoon either. But there was no way we were going to let our holiday be ruined by over-fried food.
Comfortably tucked under our blankets in the hotel room later in the afternoon, we decided to that we could do better than that. And better we did.
Bar hopping is always a solution to emotional problems. And you could be a teetotaller too. Who cares? Just walk into a hip bar, order the quintessential lemon soda because most bars in this country consider the simply syrup to be the key ingredient of a mocktail, and watch people. Also eat. Eat so much that you need to be sent home in a taxi later.
But DF and I had ‘posh’ plans.
Bar #1: An evening in a classy new bar means blow-dried hair and lots of lipstick. DF and I looked rather dapper, even if I say so myself, as we made the bartender change her one cocktail only about three times. They simple wouldn’t get it right. I on the other hand couldn’t decide between a whisky and a Bloody Mary, and therefore I had both. Now I love popcorn - how delightfully plebeian you’d think – and can eat them even when it’s flavoured with exotic spices. But some of the other appetisers were more complicated than my last relationship. Now here’s the thing – I love experimenting with food. But I never did well at chemistry. And when it comes to art, I prefer stories, not abstract ‘colour blocking on canvas’ that sells for millions. But a lot of the food, while it tasted good – good textures, flavours, and even portioned right – went wayyyy over my head when it came to the complexity of the presentation. Probably because I was a little too tipsy to notice the little nuances, and we really had to get to the next bar.
Bar #2: Here, my dear friends, ‘haleem’ was on the menu. Now, unless you absolutely trust the haleem maker, you must never eat it after midnight. It’s not written anywhere, but someone ought to. That haleem was the worst I have ever had. And not because it was bad, but because it tasted of, guess what, NOTHING. My cocktail was equally blah, for the lack of a more appropriate term. So I let both of them ‘age’ on the table. DF and another friend, who’d joined us by then, were much nicer to their drinks. The three of us then tottered out in the lovely rainy night of Mumbai – never wear a white dress when it’s raining – because Sia sang Never Give Up. It goes something like this: “But I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no. No, I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no.” You get the drift right?
Bar #3: WHY? Why would you have a cocktail menu where the drinks have more description under their names than one can read? And why would these cocktails taste like a bad film where the lead actors should have never been paired together? Something like a Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar flick. This is when selfies come to the rescue. Take enough photos of yourself so that the trauma of having to drink something more complex than the Cold War is alleviated.
Tottering outside at a godforsaken hour, we went back to our hotel room, feeling so delightfully single.
We also switched to diet soda the following day, and ate a cheese platter and stir-fried crabs – like posh people – at a lovely restaurant at one of Mumbai’s suburban business districts. That’s when DF and I realised that many restaurants don’t want you to pay for what you eat. We tried all sorts of gestures – except the obvious one – to ask for the bill. But no, these blokes were completely unwilling to oblige. Ideally, I would have walked off, but we aren’t in college anymore. Why is the service industry in this country as efficient as our country’s civic workers?
We also decided not to eat like that again. I don’t know about DF but my whole enthusiasm towards “let’s eat and get fat” had gone a bit far. And now I am munching on carrots and celery sticks and wondering what to wear to rather weird date tonight. More on that later…
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our new humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to both food and people)
In which Miss Marmalade makes toast of a youthful breakfast/pub/who cares place
By Miss Marmalade
There are a few places in town one should not even think of going to after one has crossed 30. I only wish that this thought had come to me before, and not after, I was already at a place that I should not have thought of going to, now that I am way on the wrong side of 30. This sentence ought to confuse you as much as it confused me when I wrote it. If it hasn’t, you have achieved inner peace. Congratulations.
Now ideally it would require a cranelift to get me out of the house on a Sunday. I keep the day for my domestic chores, and they are sacrosanct. For instance, not making the bed; ordering in coffee when it takes me only five minutes or so to make a mug; watering both my disgruntled plants and going back to bed; skipping breakfast; ordering lunch; binge-watching murder related things on the internet. I don’t always do these alone; there’s always another equally committed soul around to share these tasks.
But last Sunday was different. Firstly because I was going to check out a place everyone was talking about – mostly for its ambience – and secondly, I had made the plan four days earlier, and was threatened of dire consequences if I cancelled. Some of you might know how that feels. This joint’s other brothers exude a cool and funky vibe. And I wanted to be cool. The drinks are mostly rubbish, and the food makes little sense to me. Except for their cheese chilli toast. But it’s a place where you can hang out at without having to worry about your clothes. Plus the beer is cheap, and I have cheap friends.
So there I was, with my ultra-intelligent and ultra-single friend at this seriously pretty restaurant. Or is a café? Or a pub? Oh, who gives a damn. It was eleven in the morning, which typically would still be Saturday night for me. But I had promised. I also realised that once in a while one has to be mature enough to make exceptions. Plus the thought of bacon, scrambled eggs, crisp toast (I am quite allergic to gluten) with jam, and other delicious and forbidden things were as tempting as Tom Hiddleston. I got to the restaraurant/café/pub (GAH!) as fast as my Uber perennially-on-the-phone-driver could take me.
Dear chef, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not breakfast. Unless I order yoghurt with various exotic fruits and berries and seeds, or cereal with cold milk, or something similar.
Toast cannot be cold.
Scrambled eggs cannot be served at room temperature.
Bacon cannot be cold. Most definitely not. No way Jose!
But you chose the one day I lugged myself out of the house to remind me that I had reached my threshold for BS five years ago. And I truly am way on the wrong side of 32. They didn’t warn you about us at culinary school, did they?
Having said that, I have to give it to them for making hash browns the way I like it, because I don’t like hash browns. And the baked beans came out of a tin (hurrah!), and the scrambled eggs hadn’t yet begun to turn rubbery because the eggs were feeling a little slow that day, and probably also because bacon said: “Hey, it’s my turn to taste like cardboard today!”
The toast looked toasted, but tasted like it was done the previous afternoon. And they forgot the butter, and when they eventually did remember (after I reminded them twice), they gave the butter and jam in the same little dipping bowl. Together.
“This is a place for the youngsters. They don’t care if a tiny drop of jam touches the butter. Don’t be a punctilious b****,” my other self kept reminding me. My friend was blissfully unaware of this ‘breakfast’ that was sitting on the table. He’s the kind you can talk to about politics and art for hours – and I don’t know much about either. This was the only time the chewy bacon came handy. Stuff your face with it and no one cares to know about your political affiliations. He was sipping on cappuccino that, and I kid you not, comes in a goblet like thing whose handle is literally near the base. “The centre of gravity of this thing is all wrong,” he says to me. But I was in no position to respond. My mouth was stuffed with bacon that I had already been chewing for the last hour.
We managed to stay there for an hour and a half – chewy bacon, smoke breaks, waiting for that darn butter for the toast – and got out. I needed a seriously calorific chocolate éclair later from a place near my house to recover from the trauma.
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to food and people)
In a no holds barred piece, chef Floyd Cardoz tells us where to find the best Indian food in the US; and why he thinks restaurant in the “West” generally do a better job than Indian restaurants in India!
By Floyd Cardoz
When I moved to the US in 1988, the only good Indian food you could eat out was the dosa. I didn’t see any of the Maharashtrian or Goan Catholic food I had grown up on. It’s ironic that over the years the expression of Indian food in NYC only became all the more bastardised. It was the same saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, and theone-pot curries that were being adapted to fit many dishes. And that practice continues even today.
It’s probably one of the reasons why I never wanted to start an Indian restaurant back then.
There were a few exceptions though. The erstwhile Raga by The Taj group, at Rockerfeller Centre had incredible food, for instance. It’s not that the chefs and cooks who came to work in the US in the first place didn’t know anything about Indian food – they were knowledgeable - but replacing them was arduous. And then immigrants, who were primarily famers and truck drivers started to work at the restaurants. Most of them had never cooked before, and the game of Chinese Whispers with recipes began. That led to guests who had practically no clue about about good Indian food. A wide gap developed between those who loved the cuisine, and those who didn’t. And therefore were probably more haters.
In 1997, Danny (Meyer) asked me to join hands with him to open the Indian restaurantTabla. It was an opportunity for me to introduce a new perspective to the cuisine, and to familiarize people with the flavours of India – one that was not really Indian per se, but had an Indian soul. We began to give Americans the food they hadn’t eaten before - Patrani Machhi for instance - and not the 6th Street (also known as Little India) versions. And these dishes were presented in a way Americans could connect with. We sourced local ingredients, and not ingredients only from India.
In fact, what I am doing today is sourcing farmers in the United States who are willing to grown Indian ingredients in the seasons they are supposed to be grown in the US – squashes and greens for example.
When Tabla closed in 2011, I thought someone would take over the work I had started and continue to cook food that was user friendly, but nothing happened. Smaller places came and went, and we reached status quo. Indian food went back to its good old place, and no one was willing to take a chance. But the most interesting part is that American chefs were all the while travelling to India to explore our amazing cuisine.
Americans are adventurous, and they are willing to try. Of course there are still those who go back for the curry and kebab, but a lot of them are now eating new dishes not seen in the West - fish reachado, sorpotol, pao and choriz for instance – things they’ve never seen anywhere else.
To me, modern Indian food (and I use the term loosely) is all about looking at food differently. Really old recipes that you pull out, ones that people haven’t really seen, and execute it with ingredients from that region, and serve it in a non-traditional way. For instance, you should be able to eat multiple small plates, such as a pakoda, balchao, and kebab, so that you can try more dishes. Traditional Indian food was not like that in the US – it was all about big dishes.
There are quite a few chefs here that are doing a good job with the cuisine today. There’s Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar at Oxford, Mississippi; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in New York, Asha Gomez (owner of Spice to Table, and Third Space) from Atlanta, and Srijith Gopinathan at Taj Campton Place, and Vikram Vij in Vancouver – all these guys are doing great things with Indian food.
Now if you look at Indian food back in India – I find that the chefs in the West do a much better job. There are of course a few chefs here who are doing good work too. They bring the knowledge and passion on to the table – something that’s extremely important. But restaurants in the West believe food should first speak to the soul of the guest, instead of trying to shock them. Very few chefs in India get the fact that it’s important to consider all the important elements in a dish. Chefs in the US are much better at balancing all the right flavours.
Restaurants in India use a lot of smoke and mirrors; it’s almost Bollywood-isation of the cuisine. But chefs who are successful connect with the soul, and it takes a lot for them to break down the barriers and say, “I have the guts to do things differently because I believe in them”. That’s what we wanted to do with Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. Our vision was simple; serve food we had grown up on, and source local ingredients. That’s what makes restaurants special.
Over time Americans have come to understand that Indian food is not just about flavour but also about health benefits. Take the turmeric drink for instance; it’s quite the rage here.My journey in this business has been a big learning curve. Today I am unafraid to present what I want to, and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
And to get there, passion is key, at least nine out of 10 times. You just have to cook from a place within your soul.
Floyd Cardoz, the celebrated Indian-American Chef, is the Culinary Director and Partner at The Bombay Canteen, Bombay. He is also Chef –Owner of the recently opened modern Indian restaurant ‘Paowalla’, in NYC. Winner of Top Chef Masters Season 3 in 2012, Floyd is also the author of two cookbooks, One Spice Two Spice and Flavorwalla. A four-time James Beard Award nominee,Floyd regularly works with Share our Strength, City Harvest, C-CAP: Careers through Culinary Arts Program, and Young Scientists Foundation.