The legend of Lucknow’s Tunday Kebabi

I have recently begun blogging on the Times of India site. My blog there is called The Chopping Board. This is my first post which appeared there a couple of days back. This reproduction on Finely Chopped has some very minor proofing changes and lots of photos of course. Apart from the high of featuring on the Times of India site, the biggest thrill for me was the fact that the post published just after mine was one of my favourite features writers in India, aapri Bachi Karkaria!

This is a long read but then these kebabs were a century in the making too.

Tunday's kebabis

The first thing people will tell you on hearing that you are going to Lucknow is ‘go to Tunday for kebabs’.

Just as they would say go to Paradise biryani if you say Hyderabad, Nizam’s rolls if you say Kolkata or Bade Miya if you say Mumbai or Kareems if you say Delhi.

Chances are that quite a few of these places would disappoint you if you actually went there. Nizam’s today after many labour trouble closures no longer seems to pack the same punch. I found Bade Miya to be hugely over-rated when I moved in to Mumbai in the late ‘90s. I believe things haven’t changed since. I’ve just once packed food from the Kareems at Nizamuddin and am yet to see its charms. And a recent biryani expedition to Hyderabad made it clear to me that Paradise is for tourists but not a place where locals eat.

So would Tunday, supposedly the origin of the famous gulauti kebabs, be a damp squib too?

The fact is that there were a few who told me that Tunday has had its time and is no longer the gold standard at Lucknow.

While others said ‘go to Tunday’!

For whatever it is worth, Tunday featured right on top of the list veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta sourced for me from his local Lucknow contacts when he heard that I was going to Lucknow.

My verdict on Tunday?

Well I had 2 meals at two Tundays. One at their original outlet at Lucknow’s Chowk and the other at their second one at Aminabad. The first one run by the grand man, the Late Tunday Kebabi’s son, while the second managed by his grandson. On both occasions I stuck to the basic burre (buffalo) kebabs. Once with parathas and once with shirmals.

To cut a long story short, both experiences were phenomenal....the perfect balance of meat and spices...poetry on a plate.

Mystical Chowk and the century old Tunday Kebabi

tunday kebabi at chowk

I first went to the Tunday at Chowk which, the folks at my hotel told me, was the original or first one.

I landed at Chowk on the first evening at Lucknow. There was a certain mystical feel to the place at night...as if one was at a grand wedding feast where the ceremonies were over, the lights dimmed, friends still lingering on catching up with each other before calling it a night.

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There was a certain sense of calm to the roundabout at Chowk which was surrounded by some grand yet old buildings.

I began ticking off from my list the moment I entered Chowk with chaats at Dixit’s. Then I walked around soaking in the atmosphere. Nepalis making vegetarian Hakka noodles at a local restaurant...a sweet shop which was packed...a man on the street scooping out kulfis for the throng surrounding him...a cycle rickshaw guy smoking a quiet cigarette, framed in the yellow light, before he set off looking for customers again.

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I walked around Chowk feeling the magic of the place in my bones. And then I begun to get to know the merry men of Chowk...Guptaji who smiled as I photographed the namkeen in his cart. He proudly made me taste them all. Lekh who told me about the hidden delights of Chowk and said I should come back in winter when the dawats happen. The ebullient young white bearded venerable Tripathiji who asked me to have tea at his tea cart...a wizened man so full of life and good cheer. And many more on the streets who welcomed with open hearts and outstretched arms.

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Our impromptu soiree over I headed to Tunday down a long deserted alley. Stopping to ask for directions at shops that were open.

“Walk on” urged the voices in the dark night... “bas thora hi aage hain”.

 the entrance to the tundays lane the road to tundays

The build up to my first Tunday experience was as cinematic as it gets. There was a cold breeze around me and my driver called me on the phone “hurry up sir...there could be an aandhi (dust storm)”. I walked on trying to shield my eyes from the dust. Shrugging off the eeriness of the empty streets.

And then suddenly there it was after a ten minute walk in the clouds. Tunday Kebabi.

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The first sign was not a board or shop display. Just a throng of people. Ahead of them was a huge flat girdle and on that a gentleman rhythmically tossing in kebab doughs. Splat they went in only to come out a bit later as a grown up kebab.

Thin discs of meat. Unevenly formed. Very quick to make. Dozen to a minute.

No wonder Vir Sanghvi had called Tunday’s gualutis ‘the poor man’s kakori kebabs’ in his book Rude Food.

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Behind the kebab guy was a cavernous hall. The restaurant. A hole in the wall if there ever was one. Albeit a big one. This was not a place for the faint hearted. Dusty, neon lit, tables spread haphazardly. Men eating with serious intent. There weren’t any women around if I remember right.

The place was quite haphazard and reminded me of Candies on a busy Sunday afternoon. I looked around and feebly asked a couple of folks who seemed like waiters...no uniforms here...on what to do. They walked on harrowed without answering me.

I stood helplessly while folks seeing me camera asked me to photograph them. They love that apparently at Lucknow. A group of four young men asked me to photograph them thrice in fact at Tunday’s.

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Then I spotted an empty table where two gentlemen sat and I joined them. I took the chair opposite them and sat down.

They seemed to be ‘regulars’ and called for the waiter confidently. I took the opportunity, jumped in and placed my order for a plate of kebabs and parathas with them.

Then we got talking. Turned out they were of Nepali descent but born in Lucknow. One of them explained that they were ‘regular’ to the extent that they came to Tunday’s once a fortnight when they felt like kebabs. “You can’t eat this every day. Your body will give in. But we love the kebabs here. My wife has a government job. I don’t work. Once in a while she gives me money and we come here for kebabs.”

“We get special kebabs and parathas. Different from what others get”.

“Are these ‘beef’?”

“Beef as in?”

“Gaai ka”

'”Nehin. Bhaains. Buffalo”

The bigger built of the two did all the talking while his friend kept smiling. He had decided to take me under their wings.

“Wait I will tell them to get special kebabs and parathas for you too. The ones we get”.

I smiled happily and then we chatted while our order got ready.

The bigger of the two gentlemen, Ashok, looked at me fixedly and said, “What do you do”

“I am a market researcher”

“Is there any future in that?”

Stumped I looked at him for a while...

Bang came the next question “Is there any job satisfaction in what you do?

Brilliant! Here was Obi Wan himself in the middle of a desolate chop shop at Lucknow. But then this was a mystical night. Not your usual 9 to 5 night. The restaurant at the end of the universe.

Thankfully the kebabs came and our catechism ended. It was time for me to take a figurative sip out of the Holy Grail.

I broke a piece of the paratha...thin...muslin-like...made in the manner or rumali rotis on an upturned wok. Swiped some of the pate-like kebab with the ‘ulta tawe ka parathas’ and popped the combination into my mouth.

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I broke into a smile.

The sheer delicacy of the soft minced meat formed into thin kebabs...slightly burnt edges ...the ‘special touch’ that Ashok promised...the spices with the residual heat of chillies...tantalising yet not overwhelming. The beauty of freshly ground meat. All wrapped in the thin crisp paratha.

Just the sort of simplicity in taste that I am willing to travel the world for.

I was in a happy place.

As were my dinner mates when they saw the expression of bliss on my face. They were apparently so happy to see my enjoyment that they refused to let me pay. My dinner was on them.

A story which got repeated a few more times in the big hearted city of Lucknow. I had to struggle, often unsuccessfully, to get people to take money from me. It was as if all the honest and humble eateries of Lucknow, and the people there, had decided to adopt me.

After dinner my new friends introduced me to the elderly gentleman at the counter, Haji Raheez Ahmed. His father was known as Tunday Kebabi and had set this restaurant about a century years back.

Kebabs and parathas...they had hit on a winning formula and stuck to that. Simple business principles which made so much sense. That’s how legends are made.

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I said goodbye to my new friends and traced my way back through the long alley...in the dark...the promised dust storm adding to the sense of adventure as I tried to shield my eyes again from the dust and headed back to the car.

Surely this was one of the one thousand and one Arabian Nights.

Tunday at the meat markets of Aminabad

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My Tunday tales didn’t end that night at Chowk.

A couple of days later I landed at Aminabad at Lucknow as I went out in search of lunch.

I was told that I HAD to go to Aminabad if I was looking for the meaty delights of Lucknow. There was of course the big daddy of them all. Tunday Kebabi. Some even thought this to be the original outlet. More people knew of this one than the Chowk one. Many small kebab and nihari shops beyond Tunday were promised to me. My list spoke of a few places like Wahid’s biryani too.

Turned out that you can’t miss Tunday Kebabi when you enter Aminabad.

Unlike the original one which is hidden away in the depths of time at Chowk the ‘newer’ one stands bang in the middle of Aminabad and dominates the lane. In front is a big girdle with kebabs being made on it by the minute. A man in a corner making parathas with a fan cooling him. The saffron coloured shirmals, local parathas, being made at another corner. And a huge biryani pot from which a man was doling out technicoloured biryanis for customers.

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I walked in to the restaurant. This was different from the Aladdin’s cave like one at Chowk. Still very basic in ambiance. But this one was air-conditioned, divided into sections. The overall look grey and yet lively if that is possible. The ‘decor’ consisted of pictures of film stars. SRK in his 90s haircut and jacket with sleeves rolled up. Anil Kapok, in his pre Oscar and MI3 days, in a bathrobe of the sort that heroines of the 80s would wear. Some more modern faces from Bollywood. The Tunday hall of fame.

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Wahid’s next door. The older biryani restaurant next door had just one picture amongst faux prints of Sydney for some reason, that of Yousuf Saab AKA Dilip Kumar.

I spoke to the gentleman at the counter at Tunday’s at Aminabad. Mr Muhammed Usman. The grandson of Tunday Kebabi, the name the Late Haji Murad Ali was better known as.

Mr Usman confirmed that the hundred year old shop at Chowk, which has father managed, is the original Tunday outlet. The shop at Aminabad is about thirty years old. Most of the other ‘Tunday’ restaurants were owned by folks who had used the Tunday name apparently but had nothing to do with the family. Usman just shrugged when he said this. Copyright infringement didn’t seem to keep him up at night.

I placed my order. I stuck to the basics as I had already downed a biryani at Wahid’s.

My order was a plate of burre (buffalo) gulautis, which is what the grand old man Tunday had started his empire with, and a shirmal.

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For the first time I had a table to myself at Lucknow. I didn’t know what to do with the solitude of an empty table. Luckily the food came soon. I tore a bit of the shirmal and scooped up a bit of the pate like kebab and popped it in to my mouth.

I took my first bite and then smiled once again as I had the first night at Tunday’s. The smile broadened as the warmth and finesse of the delicately spiced kebab and the hot, soft and crisp at the edges, shirmal embraced me. A burst of meaty carby goodness which filled you with life.

With each bite I marvelled at the sheer artistry of what I was eating. And this, mind you, after I was already full. Yet I took each bite with increasing anticipation and subsequent ecstasy.

The hot bites of the burre ke gulauti and shirmal that I had at Tunday that afternoon was the standout experience of my trip to the city of many gastronomic delights, Lucknow.

And that was quite an achievement for the kebabs and shirmal of Tunday’s.

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The wisdom of kebabs

So are Tunday’s kebabs overrated? Do they deserve to be called the best kebabs in India? Are their glory days over? Are their better kebab places at Lucknow now?

Well I will ignore the cynicism for the moment.

To me Tunday Kebabi will stand for two magical eating experiences.

One flavoured with history and the warmth and generosity of strangers. The other where I was lucky enough to experience the gastronomic experience of a lifetime.

The memories of both meals bring a smile to one’s face.

And that folks, is something to be treasured.

Shukriya Haji Murad Ali Janab AKA Tunday Kebabi…your legacy made this hungry traveller a happy man.

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