The Lucknowi biryani pilgrimage … Wahid’s, Lalla’s, Open Air, Peeli Kothi

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Caveat: Looong post
 
Smitten by Lucknow
 
So how was Lucknow you asked?
 
Well Lucknow was everything I expected it to be and a whole lot more.
 
I fell in love with the city moment I landed and set out from the airport. This was my second trip after more than a decade.
 
I headed out past the massive roads…past the awe inspiring pink structures of its recent Rani Sahiba…the sheer dimensions of the grand nouveau Bodhi Park numbed you…then past the cantonment of its British rulers of yore…into Hazratganj with its uniform white and black boards across colonial buildings…a la Istiklal Cadesi of Istanbul, The Rocks of Sydney or even the pink walls outside our very own Hawa Mahal at Jaipur…into my hotel the young and bright Best Western and the quaint lazy slightly crumbly building with it’s spiral staircase that my hotel room looked on to…an hour into Lucknow and I was hypnotised by its charms.
 
I was smitten by the magnificence of the city. I was in love with it.
 
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Lucknow didn’t just inspire me…it held me in its spell. I  returned to Mumbai with kaleidoscopic memories of Lucknow’s kind people … visions of a trip so psychedelic that it took me a while to come back and settle down to the routine… to tell myself that Vajpayee’s puri kachoris were not at arm’s reach anymore…nor was Dixit’s chaats, Raja’s thandais…Shau’s paani ke batashe, Moti Mahal’s imarti, Chhapan Bhog’s alu tikkis, Gupta’s farsan cart, Tripathiji’s chai stand and of course all the meat…Tunday kebabs, Wahid Mia’s biryani, Lallaji’s biryanis…all distant memories.
 
It just seems like yesterday that I’d drove in to the mystical Chowk at night, or was photographing Hazratganj in the  searing sun…or was prancing all over the Imambara like a mountain goat soaking in the vitamin D…or walking past the eerie calm of the bullet ridden walls of The Residency…exploring the meaty wonders of Aminabad or tracing down Lallaji’s biryani shop down Lucknow’s winding lanes…or walking down the grand roads of Hazratganj in search of the Tulsi ‘non veg’ gully… walking back after midnight past families bonding over ice cream…straight into the arms of one hot, plump, imarti before retiring for the night.
 
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The biryani tales
 
I came back from Lucknow with cinema reels full of memories. Bursting with stories of great food and kind hearted souls. Still I guess the first story that ought to be told is that of the biryani of Lucknow. For that’s what I had gone looking for. The object of my food pilgrimage.
 
Let me explain.
 
Years back I had read Vir Sanghvi write about the origins of the biryani of Calcutta. Apparently biryani was taken to Calcutta when the last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, was ‘parcelled’ to Calcutta by the Brits after the 1857 War of Independence. Now good old Wajid Ali Shah was apparently a gourmand and took his chief khansamahs or cooks with him even after he lost his kingdom.
 
So what if he was in exile the story went. The pots of biryani could not remain empty.
 
At some point reality kicked in at Calcutta…the ruler now vanquished couldn’t afford meat for all and then someone had a brilliant, near Bengali, idea of adding potatoes.
 
Recently I had gone to Hyderabad exploring the other famous gharana of biryani I wrote about my experiences here. Now it was time to travel to the etymological ‘motherland’ of Calcutta’s biryani.. Lucknow
 
And for all the biryani heretics who say that the biryanis of Lucknow and Calcutta are ‘pulaos’ and not ‘biryani’…all I can say is boo to you. This is a debate which my friend the late Miri wrote about in her blog. Vir Sanghvi also writes that in Lucknow they call it pulao and not biryani.
 
Well not at Tunday’s, Wahid’s, Tulsi Gulley or in the five stars too, The menus there say ‘biryani’ in big and bold.
 
Perhaps it was the thandai at work.
 
There is no Wren and Martin who prescribed that biryani can happen only if the meat, rice and masalas are cooked together as the Hyderbadis did when their armies marched across the Deccan…the Lucknowi style of biryani where the meat and rice are cooked separately and then put together in the last stage…where the dish is all about flavoured fragrant rice and meats … plus potatoes if in Calcutta…where the spices are meant to be sensed and not seen is as much a biryani as the more earthy ones of South and Western India.
The argument that Hyderabadi biryani is biryani and not the Lukcnowi or the Calcutta ones is like saying that clay court tennis is tennis but not the grass court ones.
 
And then there are so many more strains of biryani – Moplah of Kerala, Irani, hot Andhra ones, the Tamil ones, the Punjabi ones which often have tomatoes and onions them, the Maharashtrian spicy ones of Malvani restaurants…the greasy Mumbai stuff of Jafferbhai… so if anyone tells you that they will tell you what authentic biryani is then beware…they will next try to sell you the Taj Mahal.
 
Check out Nadia’s blog post on the origins of biryani.
 
I’ll go a step further and say that India is a federal country which is both united and divided by its biryani…the sooner we learn to accept the differences the better it is…for the phrase ‘ Indian biryani’ is as much of a misnomer as ‘Indian curry’…if anyone tells you that they know where you get the best biryani in India then there are suffering from extreme hubris induced by the summer sun… Anyway it’s really Calcutta which has the best biryani. And at Kolkata, its Shiraz. So there.
 
Of course the richness of Lucknow’s food heritage is such that I had my first biryani of the trip more than 24 hours after I landed…well after I was done with my alu tick, matter chaats, thandai, Galati kebabs, puri kachoris, chastise and paani ke bat ashes…if there was a city that was built around food then Lucknow has to be the one
 
Did I say I was smitten?
 
As my bible, I had a list of 11 must haves that veteran journalist, Kantian Gupta, with whom I connected on twitter over food, sourced for me when I tweeted that I was planning to go to Lucknow. My precocious brief to him … I want a mix of Muslim and Hindu eats.
 
And he delivered.
 
Tulsi Gulley Hazratganj…Open Air Restaurant’s biryani
 
So on day 2 I headed to the non vet hotspot of Tulsi Gulley at the end of Hazrantganj. A place recommended by Rahul and Tushar of the Best Western Lucknow. Kanchanda’s list spoke of the biryani at Dastarkhwan there.
 
I reached Dastarkhwan and started taking pictures of the gentlemen making galauti and sheekh kebabs and their special chicken masala, which I later found out to be similar in essence to Kolkata’s chicken chaap. The place was quite  chaotic…a group of young men who had come there to eat said that I should grab a table and that I should definitely order the chicken masala. They weren’t too convinced about the biryani though. One thing that I noticed at the menu, and saw at other shops too, was that like in the Far East, restaurants at Lucknow offered small portions of biryani …which made so much sense for single eaters.
I was all ready to sit when they suddenly downed the shutters at Dastarkhwan and said ‘food is over'. It was 1030 pm.
 
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I walked around listlessly up the the bustling street..there was Zeeshan’s Biryani, Naushijaan, a few other small places…I chose the place that looked the most crowded…the rather simply named ‘Open Air Restaurant’ beside Dastarkhwan.
 
Open Air was packed but a waiter did manage to find a seat in a corner table which I shared a couple of locals who were enjoying their chicken masala after work.
 
My order was brought to me in a jiffy. Half a plate of mutton shammi kebabs and half a mutton biryani…my trip had finally begun.
 
A few bites and I could spot the DNA of the Calcutta biryani in the biryani at Open Air.
 
The rice bursting with flavours with no additional masala on it…the grains of rice slightly bigger than that of the biryani at Kolkata…a tad greasier…but what really distinguished it was the succulent meat. Interestingly served as small bits of meat spread across the rice.
 
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I smiled…little did I know that that the best was yet to come…the smile would have been wider then.
On the way out my waiter, who turned out to be from Malda in Bengal, got excited seeing the camera got me to photograph all the food and the folks around. Some of it while I stood on a box for a panoramic view.
 
As I found out, they love people who take photographs at Lucknow.
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Frozen in time … Imambara & The Residency
The next day was a day of history lessons.
 
I first went to imposing Islamic structures of the Burra  Imambara and the labyrinths of the Bhoolbhoolaiya. I skipped the latter and walked across the sunny terrace in my socks, taking in the magnificence around me. Wondering why no one thought of Lucknow as a tourist destination. Surrounding me was Islamic architecture at its grandest. Lying largely ignored except by locals.
 
Paradise lost as the cliche says.
 
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And then there was the Residency. The site of the attack by the rebel Indian army and massacres during the War of Independence and then subjugation by the British after the end of a siege…barren ruins left undisturbed…canon ball holes in the walls deafening in their silence.
 
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Of course there’s nothing like a couple of hours of walking in the sun to prime you up for lunch.
 
A glimpse of Lallaji
 
I headed in search for Lalla’s biryani…not on my list but a place that my friend Aashim, @zedvox on twitter, ex Lucknowite, insisted I go to. His frenzied tweets spoke to me and I headed past the winding lanes of Chowk to look for Lallaji and his biryani at Chowpatiya Chauraha.
 
We finally reached a hole in the wall and there was Lallaji.
 
A moustachioed gentleman with a beatific near maternal smile. He was literally making the biryani with his own hands. He was layering the mutton into the vessel in which biryani would be cooked…the smell of meat intoxicating…the only problem, as the smiling Ustad told me, was that the biryani was yet to be ready. His shop was open only for dinner.
 
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I stepped out. Though something told me that I’d be back.
 
Aminabad & Wahid’s Biryani
 
Off we headed to Aminabad. The hot spot of Awadhi food at Lucknow. A lane packed with Muslim restaurants. Extending from hole in the walls to…well slightly bigger holes in the wall.
 
There was Tunday Kebabi. The flagship of Lucknow to the rest of the world. The one at Aminabad, is not the first Tunday Kebabi though contrary to what most tourists think.
 
The Tunday Kebabi at Aminabad is about 15 years old and is manned by the late Tunday Mia’s grandson. This restaurant is air-conditioned and has range beyond the burre (buffalo) gulaoti kebas and parathas of the Chowk outlet. The Tunday at Chowk where I went gone the previous night and is basically a single dish place – kebabs and parathas. It is about 80 years old and more like a simple cave. Tunday Mia’s son sits there while the grandson manages the newer Aminabad shop.
 
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The Aminabad Tunday had chhote (goat) kebab, parathas, shirmals, curries and biryanis. I saw the biryani being served from the vessels and it looked too colourful for me. So I decided to to give it a miss though I did come back a short while later for some more burre ke gulauti and shirmal…lip-smacking but that’s a story for another post.
 
I spotted a board beside Tunday. Wahid’s Biryani. That rung a bell. It was in Kanchanda’s list. I stepped in.
Tiny little place. Air conditioned. I got a table. There were two young boys sitting there. I placed my order. Half biryani.
 
I spoke to the boys while I waited.
 
“Is this place famous for its biryani?”.
“I don’t know”
“Why did you come in here”
“We just walked in”
“But why did you choose this over the next shop”
“Just”
“Aren’t you from Lucknow?”
“No. We came here to take our tests. School final exams”
“Are they over?”
“Yes”
“Did you do well?”
“Yes”
“Great. Have fun then”
 
Our biryani arrived bringing  our riveting conversation to an end as we started upon our biryanis with studious expressions.
 
I looked at my plate and suddenly it all became clear.
 
The biryani at Lucknow is all about the meat. The rice and everything else exists just to celebrate meat.
This is meat in its purest. The chunks of meat in the biryani at Wahid’s larger than those at Open Air the previous night. More primordial and pure.
 
I took a bite of the mutton.
 
Rarely had I tasted meat so succulent. So sensuous. So raw. So full bodied. So bursting with passion. So tempestuous. So earnest. So illicit. So forbidden. So alluring. So innocent. So lovable. So nibbleable even the morning after.
 
The temples of flesh as they say.
 
The rice seasoned perfectly. A perfect foil for the glory of good, honest, meat. With a nice light curd raita to go with it.
The key differences from its descendants at Calcutta are : 1. No potato 2. The meat is a lot more glorious in the Lucknow biryani 3. The rice richer, perhaps excessively for devotees of the biryani at Calcutta. Often more colourful than at Calcutta
 
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On the way out I met octogenarian Wahid saab and his brother Wazid. They treated me to a cup of tea as I kept raving about the biryani to them. Wahid Saab had set up his shop in the mid 1950s. And since then had been perfecting his biryani.
 
Yes, I felt privileged to share a cup of tea with the two venerable brothers that afternoon.
 
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Chaupatiya Chauraha & Lalla’s Biryani
 
I picked up the biryani trail at night after I was done with my work. I headed back to Lallaji’s at Chaupatiya Chauraha.
 
I walked in to the little garage like shop. You can sit in one corner with a shelf kept to place your plates. Or you could pack your food. But will Lallaji welcoming me back with a big teddy bear of a smile I didn’t even think of packing my food. I sat down and soon my half plates of shammi kebab (mutton) and biryani were bought to me.
 
Once again the biryani was all about the meat. The same mutton that Lallaji was so loving layering in to the pan in the afternoon was now presented to me. The aroma of which drew me back that evening.
 
And what exquisitely cooked mutton it was. Sheer art. Meat so juicy that it made you forget your weariness at the end of the day.
 
The rice a bit more colourful than at Wahid’s. But then this was a biryani that was filled with extra cheer.
Yes, the wizards of Lucknow had got it right. Biryani perfection to them was all about the meat….with an accompaniment of some rich and yet not overly spiced rice. They kept it simple and uncluttered. No excesses in this school of biryani. The school that was then further developed in Calcutta. A school which was about simplicity leading to great taste. Not about excesses.
 
Just the way food should be.
 
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The deal with the biryani at Lallaji is that it comes with his big smile and blessing. What an affable man indeed is Lallaji. I could understand Aashim’s affection for Lallaji as the kind gentleman patted my cheek and gave me a warm smile.
 
This was indeed mutton biryani for the soul.
 
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Lallaji is unique as he is probably the sole Hindu, as Aashim put it, who makes an exquisite biryani…normally the domain of Muslims in Lucknow. Lalla told me that more than thirty years back he had got the idea of setting up a biryani shop. Got a Muslim cook friend to teach him.
I am sure Lallaji has done his friend proud through this wonderful story of communal gastronomic integration.
Unlike Aminanabad
, Chowk or Hazratganj there’s no further food of note near Lalla’s Biryani at Cahupatiya Chauraha barring the odd kulcha, kulfi and lassi shops.
 
Yet, I would strongly recommend a trip just to experience this wonder of Lucknow.
 
As a gentleman at Wahid’s told me when I mentioned Lalla’s “sirf khaane ka shaukeen ko unke baare main maloom hain” (Only true gourmands know of Lalla’s)
 
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Best Western Lucknow’s Peeli Kothi and its biryani
 
My biryani tales didn’t end there. I had to extend my stay at Lucknow and had my last dinner at the Best Western’s fine dining Awadhi (Lucknowi) restaurant, Peeli Kothi. It was set at a place where Mirza Ghalib once wrote his poems. For me this was an interesting counterpoint to my earlier commoner’s meals. An opportunity to see how the new nawabs of Lucknow dined. And yes, like all fine dining Awadhi restaurants in India, Peeli Kothi too had a ‘Qureshi’ as its head chef!
 
Apart from some goat gulautis and kakoris I went for the biryani here. No half plates of course so I couldn’t finish it all.
 
Where this biryani was different from the earlier ones was in the quality of rice. More exquisite and fragrant here. Suddenly not playing a passive role to the meat unlike at the humbler biryani shops. Here both the rice and meat vied for your attention unlike elsewhere when the meat had you in its spell. What I also liked was the touch of caramelised onion interspersed strewn through the rice. The taste perhaps a bit more nuanced than the raw passion of the biryanis at Wahid’s and Lalla’s.
 
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And so my biryani pilgrimage ended. I had gone to the source of the Calcutta biryani, Lucknow, and came back baptised. This was an experience which in a way was life defining.
 
I came back with the knowledge that there is nothing wrong with setting your expectations high in life. If you yearn for something hard enough at Lucknow then your desires will be fulfilled at the end. Your prayers answered.
 
And the biryani will be exquisite.
 
PS: I have no idea how the chicken biryani tasted but would strongly urge you to try the mutton or goat biryani first.  After all best to try things the way God meant them to be.

This post was shared by Blog Adda as part of their Tangy Tuesday picks. Thanks guys and thanks for sharing the Lucknow Love

 
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