There are some journeys which challenge the way you have looked at things. Make you realise that perhaps you were biased and judgemental. That you need to accept that you were wrong and need to change your mind.
A realisation that is sobering, humbling, but in the long run makes you a better and wiser person.
My recent trip to Lucknow is a good example of this.
I had always associated Lucknow with biryani and kebabs. In a sense they defined Lucknow to me.
I honestly didn’t think that Lucknow would have the sort of vegetarian delights that would make a meat eater like me whimper with joy. I am taking of its chaats, its puris and kachoris, its mithais…its street side smorgasbord laden with some of the best food that I have eaten.
Dixit Chaat House…. Chowk
The chaats at Dixit Chaat House for example.
Actually the first of the gourmet delights that I tasted at Lucknow. Ironically at the beginning of a trip which had Tunday’s kebabs as its destination. Dixit’s shop is at the beginning of Chowk at Lucknow and was mentioned as a must eat in the list veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta had sourced for me on Lucknow eats
Dixit’s Chaat House is about forty years old. Run today by Gaurav Dixit. Grandson of the founder. Gaurav today sits and fries and prepares the chaats keeping the family tradition alive. The steady flow of people to the shop showed how popular it is. You place your order, wait for Gaurav to assemble it and then you sit on the flat wooden benches and enjoy your chaat. Most of the food fried in front of you sanitising it from the assault of the streets. The chaats fried in pure desi ghee as the sign board at the shop proudly proclaims.
I asked Gaurav what the most popular chaats were and then ordered a small portion of each that he recommended. Dahi tikki and mutter.
Both were splendid. The dahi alu tikki a beautiful medley of tangy curd, sweet tamarind chutney and a wonderful fried potato croquette (tikki). A synthesis of diverse tastes which in India is possible only in chaats perhaps.
The mutter, a Lucknow speciality, of boiled gram, cooked and mashed in spices and then drenched in lime juice whose sharp taste cuts the robust solid taste of the protein legumes and indulgent ghee….served with some of the crushed deep fried flour crust of the khasta kachori.
If I was forced to to choose I would go for the tikki simply because I am a slave to a sinful starchy bite of potato. It would be a tough choice though because the mutter was such a unique taste experience with its lovely jugalbandi of tangy and solid tastes.
But that alu tikki was something else with its beautiful airy crunchiness….makes you wonder how the person who invented the ragda pattice at Mumbai, a distant cousin of alu tikki, got it so wrong.
I got up to pay but Gaurav waived it off. I was a guest. A Lucknow thing as I found out later. Possibly the city with the most hospitable and earnest folks that I have come across.
It took me a bit of convincing before he agreed to take the payment of Rs 30.
I had another alu tikki experience at the more swank sweet shop, Chhapan Bhog at Sadar at Lucknow. The tikki, again straight of a flat girdle. Richer, fuller, more expensive and even more intoxicating with its curd, chutney and potato straw mix.
The alu tikki at Lucknow is truly phenomenal.
Paani ke batashe
And there were what they call ‘paani ke batashe’. Lucknow’s version of Kolkata’s phuchka, Delhi’s golgappa and Mumbai’s ‘paani puri’.
I first tried one at Kailashnath Shau’s stall opposite Chhapanbhog at Sadar. He has been practising his art for more than three decades and has mastered it.
The stuffing is different from phuchka as they put boiled chickpeas here unlike the masala and green chilli infused tamarind juice soaked mashed potatoes at Calcutta. That apart the paani ke batashe in Lucknow with its light crispy shell and sour tamarind water filling come closest to the phuchkas at Calcutta, which, as any Calcuttan will tell you are the best in the universe.
The paani ke batashe at Lucknow gave me a glimpse of the much sought after inner peace that Poh the Kung Fu Panda searched for.
A couple of days later I got to try out another Lucknow speciality. Here they often served their paani ke batashes with a number of chutney water mixes of differing tastes and consistencies. They take great pride in the fact that the waters don’t taste the same.
I tried out a range of chutneys once with my batashes at a stall at Hazratganj. It’s good fun specially since you will rarely come across a sweet mix, the presence of which riles me in the paanipuris of Mumbai. These were all good.
The gentleman earnestly added some alu when I asked him if they serve paani ke batashe with potatoes. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the potato should be mixed with chaat masala, chilli powder, chopped green chillies, tamarind water and coriander leaves to satiate a Bengali phuchka epicure.
Talking of Hazratganj, Lucknow’s Istiklal Cadesi, I must say that I was quite surprised to see the hoards of folks…happy families…who would gather on street even up to midnight having ice creams from vendors on the street and desserts and juices from shops open till then. Such a contrast from the big bad city of Mumbai where folks like Dhoble want to do a Wee Willie Winkie on us and make us go to sleep by 8 pm.
In true Lucknow tradition I stopped after dinner at Moti Mahal, the sweet shop just outside my hotel, Best Western, at Hazratgunj. I saw the a bunch of folks eating koolfis and then there were some eating imartis and rabdi. Imartis are like fat jalebis…what are sold in Calcutta as Aamittis.
The Imartis at Moti Mahal served piping hot straight out of the wok with cold rabdi was one of the most amazing dessert experiences that I had. The combination of the searing hot, juicy crunch of the imartis with the cool milky rabdi was a divine one whose taste lingered on long after the rest of the trip became a distant memory.
I had the hot gulab jamuns there the next night on a twitter recommendation. Sweet, chubby, very comforting but admittedly lacked the sizzle and panache of the imarti.
Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar
The standout vegetarian experience for me on the streets of Lucknow would be at Vajpayee’s Kachori Bhandar at Hazratganj. Forget the ‘vegetarian’ bit. It was a standout food experience. Period.
I went there one searing hot afternoon. Despite the blazing sun people had queued up there heading patiently towards their goal…piping hot kachoris served straight of the wok….cooked by a man in a singlet and lungi frying kachoris in the heat with zen like composure.
Like Dixit’s, Vajpayee’s kachoris is run by a grandson of the founder. Manish, the grandson of Balkishan Vajpayee. A gentleman who was related to the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and they are really fond of their ‘Atalji’ here at Lucknow.
You need to stand in a queue and get your goodies and then carefully carry them on the plate of dried leaves to the rickety bar table like stand on the side and gorge. Try doing that while you are also photographing the sizzling treasures with a huge DSLR. But then the DSLR ensures that you can jump the queue…the bull in a china shop tourist that you are seen as.
I took a plate of puris first which came with chhole (chickpea curry). Photography done I gingerly broke a piece of the puri. Crisp, straight out of the wok, easy to break…the first bite transported you to a sinful garden of Eden. Everything was perfect…the consistency of the crust, the seasoning, the wholesomeness…this was the sort of dish that could rejuvenate the weariest of souls on the hottest of afternoons.
I then mopped up a bit of the chhole with the puri.
The first tantalising mildly tangy bite of the chickpea curry tempered with the searing inherent heat of chillies and I knew I had come across one of my defining culinary moment of a Lucknow trip. A trip which was redolent with great beef gulauti kebabs and lamb biryani.
Just imagine how good a vegetarian dish must be to have muscled its way into the hall of fame crowded with such meaty delights.
It is as if the word piquant was coined just for the chhole at Vajpayee’s puris.
I had to go back to Manish and try out the other dish in the shop…khasta or khasta kachori served with chhole on the side. A carbo-sensation of a crisp Indian fried quiche stuffed with a daal stuffing which reminded one of the flavours of the mutter of Dixit. What gourmet brilliance served out of this grimy shop in the middle of sun soaked unforgiving street.
This was a taste of royalty and Manish made me feel like one by first letting me cut the queue and then absolutely refusing to let me pay.
Yes, Lucknow, you taught me that life could be full of the unexpected.
Some of which could be very very pleasant.
Note: I am yet to taste the famed basket chaat of Lucknow and Prakash’s coolfi at Aminabad. Next trip