Saturday, May 12, 2012

Porn in the Gully

Food Porn, I believe, is the new  “in” term. Quite appropriate too – because much of what is dished out in the form of “food blogs” these days is so crass it could easily pass of as Porn.  Real Food writing is supposed to evoke the taste buds of the reader through words and titillate the palate by description of the experience (somewhat like what Music or Art critics do) – rather than photos uploaded from smart-phones with smart-alec captions.

Most people who like to call themselves Foodies actually know trifle little about food. Gourmets and Food Connoisseurs are a vanishing breed – not surprisingly, because ‘fine dining’ is a dying cult.

With fewer people cooking at home and domestic  chefs  (bawarchis and khansamas) nearly extinct  - people have to look outside  for great dining experiences.  But, even that is difficult find in a world taken over by  fast food revolution. What today passes off as  “specialty restaurants”  are rip-offs  and “nouvelle cuisine ” is a con-art.

Therefore, other than in Europe (essentially France), Tokyo, New York, San Francisco and, perhaps – arguably, London and Singapore  - the best places to eat are actually in the streets and hole-in-the-wall eateries. And, which can be a better place to go on a culinary expedition than in the by-lanes of Lucknow.


Tucked inside the serpentine gully encircling Awadh Gymkhana Club in Quaiserbagh is Sakhawat.  In my book , by definition, any food joint in Lucknow that has a web-site is at once to be disqualified, as it can't be authentic. Blatant self-seeking publicity is against the grain of the city’s Nawabi culture. So, as soon as Tunde Miyan’s decided to open outlets in Malls and extend franchises to other cities, they immediately got knocked off my list.  But, I am willing to make a concession for Sakhawat’s , as yet – even though they have a web site (http://www.sakhawatrestaurant.com/ - warning terrible navigation) and the present co-owner Mukhtar Ali has a visiting card listing their credentials , which he hands out on asking.

Mukhtar Ali’s great-grandfather  - Nazim Ali - was a chef for a Brigadier of the British Army and had also cooked for several Nawabs’. In 1911, his son, Wahid Ali opened a small dhaba near a mazhar opposite the Awadh Gymkhana Club.  He later obtained the contract for running the canteen of the club, which he ran for 36 years till his death in 1960. Later, following differences with the Club Management – his son, Haji Sakhawat Ali, started the present day Sakhawat Restaurant.

Mukhtar Ali

Nazim Ali and Wahid Ali were highly decorated. But the subsequent generation too are accomplished as you will find listed on the site. But, what - to my mind – really sets Sakhawat apart is their Institute ( or Training Centre) of Awadhi Cuisine – which, if run well, can be a great service towards preserving the royal tradition of Awadhi Food .

Sakhawat’s has a repertoire of over 100 dishes – many of which they make only on order or for private catering. But, they have daily specials on the Menu, like the Mutton Champ and Boti we had on Thursday evening.

Wahid Ali's Decorations
Recent Awards & Recognitions

The Kebabs of Lucknow are characterized by their softness – “melts in the mouth” quality - unlike the more challenging, tougher and sinewy Barbecues of the North West Frontier that traveled to India via Peshawar. That's because most Awadhi Kebabs are “cooked” on Tawas or pans rather than roasted in the Tandoor. Even those – like the Kakori – which are skewered over fire – are mashed and tenderized to perfection. North Indian Kebabs use very little condiments other than ginger-garlic paste, dried red-chillies and yoghurt for marinade – but subtle spices like saffron and garam-masala make a quiet entry as  east towards Lucknow.  As the preparations rise up  the evolution ladder the more exotic nutmeg, mace, shah jeera and shah marich find their way  into recipes. The Boti Kebab  at Sakhawat was sautéed  with juliennes of ginger  and black pepper – which gives it a zing which is pleasant and not sharp on the tongue.  The champ, in contrast,  had a touch of elaichi and cinnamon.

Kebab Paratha being made
Even the texture of the breads turns more sensuous.  They are no longer the challenging ‘break me if you can’ variety of Karari Tandoori Rotis or Naan – but have a more inviting ‘bite me with love’ quality  of the  nubile Shirmal or the more sinful paratha. All this might lend credence to the theory  of the Lucknowi Nawabs having poor dental health.  However, at Sakhawat’s they make an interesting  variant of kebab - paratha by pounding the dough on an up-turned Kadai lightly brushed with oil. It’s a thin flat bread slightly burnt in the middle – crispy but only just so  to scoop up the masala of the kebab from the plate to linger on the taste.

Prakas Kulfi House -Aminabad

Like any honest "only meat" restaurant, Sakhawat doesn't serve any sweets. So, we had to adjourn to another part of the town to indulge our sugar craving.  Prakash in the old quarters of Aminabad – is a basic, no non-sense Kulfi-wala. The best part is – they make only one variety of Kulfi – take it or leave it – knocked out of old-style metal dabbas .  No weird variants of colour and flavours that’s become the bane of  so many, once traditional, dessert counters.





No not exactly a Nawabi end to an evening of food adventure – I succumbed to the Kulfi as someone had told me – the frozen condensed milk helps to settle a heavy greasy meal. Be that as it may, it was a nice wrap up of a professionally unproductive but gastronomically rewarding day.