When I returned to Lucknow for some unfinished business. Namely Rahim's Nihari, Idrees Biryani & Tunday kebabi

Freshly baked kulcha and slow cooked goat meat nihari at
Rahim's Lucknow
Link to where you can buy my book, The Travelling Belly, to check out more Lucknow tales

My 'unfinished business' at Lucknow

I was happy to return to Lucknow this weekend when I was invited by the Renaissance Hotel there. I had some unfinished business in the city after all. Let me explain what I mean.

Last time I was in Lucknow it was for a market research trip. During my free time, I went out and ate in local restaurants and those memories formed the base for the Lucknow chapter in my book, The Travelling Belly.

After I returned to Mumbai, I realised that there were a few places I had missed going to during that trip.

Idrees for its biryani for example and Rahim's for its nihari. Both of which I couldn't make it to due to paucity of time. I also heard of chaat and kachori places which folks like who grew up in Lucknow said they preferred  to the Dixit's and Vajpayee's that I had been to. Tastes in food are subjective and I had thoroughly enjoyed my chaat and kachori outings so I was not too distressed about that. However, I did want to go back to Tunday Kebabi as people told me it is no longer the same. All iconic places face the same problem of 'no longer the same' laments and I wanted to go back to Tunday see what the reality was.

A day of discovery starting with Hazratganj nostalgia

We did go out to the city centre in evening after we checked in to the hotel in the afternoon.

The folks at Renaissance took us to  Hazratganj, or Ganj, as downtown Lucknow is known. The area looked a bit disheveled this time because of the metro construction that was going on. Still,  I was happy to be back as I had spent a fair bit of time here last time and had happy memories from then.
Matar chaat at Moti Mahal. Didn't live up to memories of what I
had at Dixit the last time. The kulfi was the bomb though

Fatima Abbas of Renaissance, a proud Lucknow local, took us to Moti Mahal where I had piping hot imartis and gulab jamuns at midnight last time. This time around I asked for the mattar chaat which I had at Dixit last time. I think I enjoyed their's more. 

Suddenly someone thrust me a plate of kulfi while we were at Moti Mahal. It was served with falooda  noodles. I smiled when I saw it as I had recently recently a blog post about how the kulfiwallahs of Bandra serve kulfi without falooda unlike in Kolkata. I took a bite of the kulfi...and then continued to do so again and again. Its comforting taste made me forget that I am not supposed to eat sweets. I remembered this after I finished half the plate and then quickly gave it away. I didn't take a picture to upload so my doctors and my wife wouldn't know what I was up to, but the truth is, my body would.

We walked around the market. I was excited to see an old Chinese restaurant. The sort of place run by Chinese immigrant families across cities in India at what point. I think I spotted the patriarch of the family that runs it inside. I am told that they do a great mutton chilli fry at this restaurant which is called Jone Hing.

I am sure that the food here comes with history lessons

I was thrilled to walk into a 4 storied and 90 year old  book shop, Unviversal Biokstores, and the find out from the owners that they had stocked my book and that it was sold out and they they were ordering more!
I was thrilled when then folks at Universal Bookstores
said they had stocked The Travelling Belly and were sold out

We then went to a chikan shop and the ladies on our media familiarity trip got very excited. I put my foot down and said I needed mutton, forgive the poor joke, and said I wanted to head out.

The chirpy and bubbly food writer, Rupali Dean,
At a chikan shop called Aada

Getting to the meat of Lucknow 

Young Syed Ahmed Bilal, who runs a social media agency in Lucknow with his cousin, and  who was working with the Renaissance Hotel on the trip, volunteered to accompany me. We headed off in a car lent out by the hotel in search of the meaty marvels of Lucknow that I had missed out on last time.

Syed Ahmed Bilal is your perfect Lucknow food sherpa
Last biryani at Idrees

Our first stop was Idrees at Chowk. Fatima from the Renaissance Hotel had told me that the biryani here gets over by 7.30 pm and Bilal warned had warned me of the same too. 

So imagine my glee when we reached there at around 7.45 pm and I found that they still had some biryani left. I managed to to get a piping hot plate of biryani from the penultimate deg (pot) or biryani for the day.

Idrees biryani

As I had been warned, it was not the most pleasant place to sit and eat in and apparently lot of people pack their biryani from here and go home and eat. They did have a little eating section inside. 
I went in there, stood and waited while a waiter came to us with plates of biryani on one hand, holding on to his cigarette with another. 

I had never been so happy to see a plate of biryani. I had heard so much about it and I hadn't really hoped to get it as we were late till the Gods of food smiled on me.

The biryani at Idrees

The rice was steaming hot. Full of flavour and fat. Salted or seasoned perfectly. Not too high on chilli heat. The rice was short grained and not the basmati one is used to. When I asked, I was told it's called 'arva'. Seeing how much we enjoyed the biryani, our chain smoking waiter got us some extra rice. Bilal excitedly pointed out that this had khurchan.

Khurchan, he explained, is the burnt bits of rice from the base of the vessel in which the biryani is made. It is most sought after he told me and given to the kids in the house. Reminded me of tahdig in the pulaos of Iran from when we lived there. 

Food writer, Simon Majumdar, saw the picture on Instagram and wrote, "every nation that cooks rice craves the bits at the bottom of the pot. Socerat in paella. The bottom of the Korean bibimbap and guobo in China. I've been known to fight over it."

The dining section at Idrees. Pretty grimy to put
It mildly

The meat pieces in the biryanis were generous in number and ever so tender. They use goat meat hereBilal told me that most popular biryani joints in Lucknow use goat and not buffalo meat. Chicken biryani is a thing too  he said, though not at Idrees.

The biryani was quite a complete dish for me but they serve it with a meat gravy or salan on the side There was a marrow bone on one plate which I grabbed at, and sucked on, and the marrow lovingly jumped to me. 

This was not a place for social niceties and cutlery.

I had never been so happy to eat a plate of biryani

I got a biryani cooking lesson on my way out at Idrees. 

From what I gathered, the meat is slow cooked with spices, milk and cream, to form the salan. The rice is boiled simultaneously in another vessel and then the water is drained out. The two are then put together, in layers I suppose, in a cauldron or deg and the lid is sealed and it is cooked under dum for another 15, 20 odd minutes. 

A biryani has to be cooked in large quantities to get magical if you ask me and which is why I never cook it at home!

As biryanis go, the one at Idrees is the stuff legends are made of.

Cost was Rs 100 for a half plate.

1. Make the salan

2. Boil the rice

Keep the coal fire going for the dum
3. Last step. Dum
I was thrilled that i could make it to Idree this time
Most locals will know the directions. It's near Patanala Police Station
As Bilal explained, the name referred to an open drain that was there earlier

Celebrating the romance of slow cooked meat and fresh bread at Rahim's Nihari

We then went Rahim's for nihari. This hundred year old nihari place reminded me of Javed's nihari at Jamia in Delhi in terms of the layout. They make the rotis on the upper floor and you go down to the basement to eat. It's pretty spartan down there. No air-conditioning of course. Reasonably clean but not for the very finicky.

Nihari should always be paired with kulcha said Bilal
He is wise for his age

They used to do to a bade (buffalo meat) nihari here. With the recent crackdown on the illegal slaughterhouses by the new UP government, it is chhote of goat meat nihari for now. Bilal, wasn't happy about that as he felt that bade tasted better.

He insisted that I have the nihari with kulcha and not with shirmal.

"You have to eat nihari with kulcha and kebab with shirmal," he said.

I thought that the kulcha would be like an Amritsari kulcha but it was not. The kulcha at Rahim's was made in a tandoor too and with all purpose flour or maida like in Amritsar, but that's where the similarity ended. This had a near puff pastry like crust and crunch and, when had freshly baked, was perfect to mop up the nihari with. Different from the stuffed paratha like kulchas of Amritsar.

Kulchas fresh from the tandoor

The slow cooked gravy of the nihari was as meaty and intense as it gets. Not high on chilli heat but not the easiest to handle if you are not used to such indulgent food. This is full fat frenzy and portion control might not be a bad idea if you are not from Lucknow.

The mutton was cooked very tender, and since I didn't have a yardstick of buffalo meat to compare  it with, I must say that it tasted very  good to me.

I knew that nihari is traditionally had as a morning dish. Bilal introduced me to the phrase 'nahar moonh' which apparently means a dish that can be had before you wash your mouth in the morning.

I am not a morning person though so all my nihari eating experiences have been in the evening and well after I have brushed my teeth!

'Hurry up, the kulchas will get cold,""
He told me while I did my table top pics

There was a bit of light hearted banter in the shop about when buffalo meat would be back. Humour and good cheer is what we need to sail through today's choppy times and we need to hold on to that.

At Rahim's I met Mr Zaid Ahmed at the counter. He told me that he is a descendant of he late Haji Abdul Rahim who started Rahim's a century back. He also told me with a smile (everyone at Lucknow loves to smile) that the late Mr Idrees was a cook at Rahim's who left and set up his biryani joint. It is now run by the latter's descendants. I haven't been able to verify this story.

Two niharis and two kulcha cost us Rs 180.

With Zaid Ahmed
Kebab Diplomacy at Tunday Kebabi, Chowk

Located next to Rahim's is the original Tunday outlet at Chowk. I had gone there during my last visit to Lucknow and you can read about what happened in my book, The Travelling Belly.

Tunday from the The Travelling Belly

Many say that the quality has changed at Tunday's but that's not all that has changed as current affair buffs will know. When I last came here they served only buff meat kebabs here. The outlet at Aminabad had a larger menu and offered goat meat and chicken back then too.

Tunday Kebab, now in goat and chicken meat options

With the recent crackdown on buffalo meat, the Chowk outlet of Tunday now serves mutton and chicken kebabs with parathas. It is not shut though unlike what had been reported in social media. Bilal puffed his cheek and refused to eat these and I had to coax him to do so. I asked him about the reported dip in Tunday's quality. Bilal said that this had happened a few years back but things are back on track now with the owners getting more involved and taking on people who were using their name or franchising it and trying to ensure quality there too.

I did understand Bilal's pain though as I had recently gone to Noor Mohammadi in Mumbai. They have replaced the water buffalo shammi kebabs with chicken ones. Doesn't taste the same. I hope the meat issue is solved soon and people get the kebabs they love.

Digging into old memories at tunday

I ordered a plate of mutton kebab sand paratha at Tunday. I don't remember much about the taste last time except that I loved it then. As did I this time and I am talking of the mutton version and not buff. I have had many galawati kebabs over the years, mainly at posh places, but the texture, spicing, salt and char were the most perfect in what I had at Tunday a couple of days back. 

Tunday kebab is still alive and kicking if you were to ask me and the joy of having it fresh from the tava is something else.

The famous Tunday kebabs are best paired with parathas.
Bilal says you should have the onions too.
I avoided them as one should avoided raw stuff at such places

Bilal explained to me that galawat, in galawati kebabs, refers to the marination of raw papaya juice, spices, ginger and garlic paste which is applied to the meat to tenderise it. The term used is, 'kebab pe gulawat lagayee jaati hain.'

A plate of mutton kebabs with paratha cost Rs 70.

While Bilal didn't approve of the goat meat kebabs, he is not just a meat fanatic. He loves good food in general. He feels sad that no-one writes about the vegetarian food of Lucknow and would be happy to show anyone who is interested in that around.

United by the love of food

Bilal told me that his life's aim is to lead people to good food. That's possibly why we got along so well as that is what I would love to do too. We were united by our love for food.

Some reviews of my book said that I seem to 'like everything' and some readers and friends tell me that they want me to do more critical posts.

So here's the thing. I've developed a nose for seeking out good food through folks like Bilal. When I find this, I appreciate it and feel grateful about the food in front of me. When I enjoy what I eat, I share its stories with others. I don't praise food I don't like.

I pay for the food I eat or am treated to it by friends and family. When I am hosted for commercial purposes, I state it.

I do come across bad food occasionally. When I do, I tell the staff in the concerned restaurants and try to get it corrected. If I don't care much for the place, I don't go back there. I rarely write about these experiences on social media now but if there's something I feel you should know of, I will share it.

I believe that the job of a food critic should be to dispassionately and constructively critique food. This cannot be reduced to a tweet. Food criticism is a serious job.

My blog was called Finely Chopped as it was meant to be acerbic one when I started it. Today I am older and wiser and I generally prefer to share stories of food that makes me happy and could make others happy.

I believe that good food should be celebrated and should bring people together and that's what I try to do through my writings.

At Rahim's
As you can see, good food makes me happy

Also read and watch:

A phone video that I shot at Idrees on how the biryani is prepared:

A Periscope broadcast that I did from Moti Mahal

Post on kulfiwallahs of Bandra
Post on tah dig in Iran

Post script: 

I still have some 'unfinished business' in Lucknow. I want to go back there and have a trip where I can spend my time without needing medical attention. In my last trip, the heat and bhaang spiked thandai (very avoidable) made me land up in a hospital. I was taken good care of by the doctors there and the staff from the hotel I stayed in at Lucknow then, Best Western and K flew in to bring me back.

This time the rich food and heat during my evening of eating out got to me and I decided to spend the next day in the hotel and rest. The rest of the group went on what seemed like a wonderful haveli safari. During my forced break at the hotel I realised that there's something very warm and cheerful about the Renaissance that I can't put my finger on. Either it was the lovely view from my room on the 11th floor and from the coffee shop at L14 where I spent the day in. Or concern showed by the staff anout my well being and the granny like khichri made by Chef Balvinder and his team for my lunch and sukha alu, dal, roti and rice for my dinner bucked me up. That and a good afternoon nap and the company of lovely folks in the Fam trip made me feel better by evening and at home too though I was in a hotel.

 I must also compliment them on the excellent cappuccino, mushroom soup and aglio olio too.

The restaurants that I went in the city won't be everyone's cup of tea as they are quite grimy and grim. They are meant to serve food that is affordable to all and are hence pretty bare. I didn't see any women in places like Tunday (I saw families at Aminabad in my earlier visit though) and Rahim's. If you want to have the nihari and biryani and kebabs without hitting the streets then you can check out Sepia at the Renaissance where chef Qureshi dishes out royal Awadhi food at night.

I am not sure about what specifically didn't agree with me or whether it was the heat but these blips happen occasionally if you love to explore food .  Sometimes you need to pop your ridols and imodiums and O2s and tell yourself that this too will pass and that you will live to eat another day.

There is no denying the fact that I was supremely happy for those 2 hours when I was out eating in Lucknow.

Of course discretion is the better part of valour and yes, I will go back to Lucknow and I look forward to that. 

My trip to Lucknow was courtesy Renaissance Lucknow and I leaving you behind with some pictures of the room, the view from the room and the coffee shop and the lovely food I had there. Here's the link to their website

My room on the 11th floor

View that welcomed me in the room

View from L14 the coffee shop

Life saving khichri and hot tea and lime with dahi

View from the L14 at dusk

Ghar ka khana for dinner

A sepia tinted meal
My suggestion would be to pick and choose

Tip: If you couldn't shop in the city then the airport has a Chhapan Bhog outlet to buy namkeen and mithai and mewa bites for. Given the La La Land that Lucknow is, even the security staff at the aiport is more courteous and it's thankfully old fashioned so you don't have to run a marathon to reach the boarding gate.

Some pics from Chowk:

Had some lovely company on the trip and that's some of them
Rupali Dean and Surina Sayal
It was an honour to give Bilal a copy of my book
as I am sure he has some great stories to tell himself