What’s the heritage food walk about? Throw in some passionate foodies, add the main ingredients, which happen to be generations-old food shops, swirl them in the dusty bylanes of the old city. Serve hot in the architectural marvels of the area and garnish with the local shops selling knick knacks around them. Tastes best when accompanied by stories from old timers about the joints. Simply put, it’s a gastronomic tour of the old city where the sights and sounds are as important as workings of the olfactory senses and taste buds. Like the idea? You begin like this:
The ideal time to start is 7.00 pm. Reach the Chowk area, park your car at the entrance to the Akabri Gate. Walk through the imposing facade of the gate. You are in the Sarraafa Bazar, the hub of the jewellers trade where, if you are lucky, you might come across a bargain which the shopkeeper might be tempted to squeeze in because it’s just about closing time. Amble towards the end of the lane while browsing through the countless chikan shops which dot the market. Towards the end of the lane you come across Rahim’s, famous for nahari-kulcha.
Nestled between a few ittar walahs, the smell of the freshly baked kulchas hits your before the ittars’ can. Nahariis a thin syrupy gravy dish available in two types: the paya ki nahari and gosht ki nahari, which needs no translation. The paya is a bony member devoid of flesh, but much more aromatic than the gosht ki nahari. Paya is supposedly very rich in calcium and is sometimes prescribed by bone setters and malishwalllahs if you have weak bones.
Depending on who you’re visiting with, you go up to the family eating room or descend into the stag area, which is much like any happening rave party. I order the gosht ki nahari since I have Punjabi bones. A plate full of gravy overflowing with ghee with two pieces in it is served. The accompanying kulcha is made of flour kneaded with what I suspect some milk and ghee. It is perfectly baked in the tandoor to give it a crispy crumbly exterior with a golden sheen. The insides are perfectly done and slightly thick. It is done this way to soak up the ghee-laced curry. The curry itself is hot, though the heat is tempered by dipping the kulcha into it. The pieces of flesh are tender and fall off the bone easily.
The ingredients are not what they used to be, rue regulars, though the taste continues to reign supreme. Whereas in the old days, one’s nails used to stay yellow for days from dipping into the curry, now it doesn’t happen much. Maybe the new hand sanitizers are to blame. On one of my earlier sojourns, I also sampled the kali gajar ka halwa. The combination of the terrace, the full moon and the steaming hot halwa has stayed with me since. You get this delicacy now only if you are lucky, it’s the right season and if you ask for it in advance.
Next, you move inwards into the bylanes and saunter through the local confectionary shops where picking up a candy is almost de rigeur after the spicy meal. The ittar and confectionary shops soon give way to a certain buzz which grows louder with each step. This is the sound of the warq makers. These warq makers keep a bit of silver between two wooden blocks and beat it with a wooden mallet to make chandi ka warq. Welcome to Chowk wala Tundey. Amid this din you sample kebab and parathas there. Having many branches in the city and as many owners, this branch was picked because it’s the oldest and still does not serve anything except the kebab and paratha while some others branches have become full-fledged fast food joints. In the days of yore, I remember taking my own onions to have with the kebabs since no onions were served then.
The uniqueness of this joint is also due to the fact that this is the only branch to be cooking the kebabs on a wood fire. And that gives them an element of smokiness not found otherwise. Though the branch in Aminabad does smoke the mince by placing a white-hot ember between the mince to trap the smokiness into it before roasting the kebabs on a gas lit stove, but it’s not the same thing.
Timing is very important when you have kebabs since a time devoid of customers adds up to charred and dry kebabs, which keep waiting on the tava and at rush hour, the kebabs are a bit underdone. So, go at about 8 pm when the dinner time rush is just about to start to get kebabs done to perfection.
We then walk towards the Nakkhas Market Road at the end of this lane. Pass alongside innumerable silversmiths selling all kinds of curios and trinkets. Research says that the right time to shop is on a full stomach, so after the two delicious meals, the right time to pick up a bargain is now. Once this lane ends, you will find yourself at a T-junction with the left road going towards Nakkhas and the right one towards Chaupatiya, while bang in the middle, on the opposite side of the road, stands Mubeen’s. The eatery which started by serving everything from nahari kulcha to kebabs and roasted chicken and gravies, due to the exigencies of the market, it is now best known for its pasandas. A pasanda is a distant cousin of the tikka but a more battered and moist avatar. The mutton pasanda made on request (they usually serve the beef variety), is served with his signature chaat masala, which gives an earthy twang to the dish, they need no accompaniment save for some onions in lemon juice.
Next, we take the right side of the lane and keep going down past the architectural marvels once bustling, but now occupied by nuclear families, many having become backdrops of film shootings in Lucknow, towards a fork in the road from where you take the left towards Chaupatiya. You will know you have reached Chaupatiya when you reach a crossing and you see a grand mandir sharing a boundary wall with an equally imposing and beautiful mosque. One of the things keeping the communal fabric intact is our Lalla Bhaiya, a pandit, selling biryani. Yes, that’s right. How I found him is fodder for another story, but suffice to say in our foodies’ quest to find the best biryani in the city we discovered, ate and crowned Lalla Bhaiya’s biryani as the best. The best thing about this place is the owner. Lalla Bhaiya lords over the one handi he doles out food from, every evening roughly between seven till whatever time it lasts. So, book ahead if you plan to go late.
Sitting there chewing what I suspect is something more sinister than an innocent paan, he greets you with a quiet nod and a polite smile. He can be found there come rain or sunshine, except for all Hindu festivals. He is a pandit, so what if he makes the best biryani: good quality rice coated with the juice of mutton, infused with cloves and cardamom, the melt-in-your-mouth mutton and the bheenee-bheenee khushboo!
Some stories surrounding the man and his mutton biryani go thus: Lalla Bhaiya learned to make biryani from his ustad, who now runs a chola bhatura stall! I don’t know if this is true but the next one definitely is. My friend got some biryani packed and placed the leftover in the kitchen. Next morning it was gone. His dadaji had eaten it. When confronted about having eaten mutton in spite of having dentured and soft teeth, his grandfather replied, “It was so soft, I just swirled the mutton in my mouth a few times and swallowed it”.
After doing all this you turn and walk back. The walk will do you good and help everything settle down and digest well. It will also help make space for something sweet, without which no meal is complete. If you can’t walk, take a rickshaw and take the circuitous route through Nakkhas back to the car park, and if the day is right you might go through the remains of the weekly makeshift antique flea market there. Reach the car park and cross the road towards the other side and you are accosted with a horde of sweet shops. Go further up a few meters and have thandai at Raja Bhaiya’s.
One of the oldest shops on that circle, this shop is choc-a-block on Holi when the sweet yellow coloured thandai is mixed with something sinisterly green for an extra punch. The devout owner of this establishment is a soft spoken gentleman who knows what to serve to which customer and has his regulars who imbibe the lethal green stuff. The perfect blend of sweet and spice makes this thandai the perfect end to a perfect evening.