Book Review

Celebrating the Capital of Taste

Posted: November 9, 2014 at 5:48 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Designer Adil I. Ahmad brilliantly recreates the culture of refinement that produced Lucknow’s tradition of gastronomy



By Adil I. Ahmad. Photographs by Anshika Varma

Lustre Press/Roli Books. Price not stated.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

FOOD is the expression of the refinement of culture. Few Indian cities express this truism better than Lucknow.

Having grown out of the Mughal empire’s inevitable demise, Lucknow, the seat of the court of Awadh, was unencumbered by the requirements of war and gallantry. Instead, its ruling class and landed gentry, reared in absolute indolence and taught the lessons of life by the tawaifs of Chaval Gali, nurtured a culture of refined living, rambling havelis and elevated eating, celebrated by Lucknow’s Samuel Pepys, the essayist Abdul Halim Sharar.

It is this old Lucknow, where time ambled along like a royal elephant, now reduced to a caricature of its glorious bygone self by the lumpenisation of politics and the resultant decline of adab and tehzeeb, the two pillars of Lucknavi culture, the designer of bespoke interiors, Adil Iqbal Ahmad, celebrates in his cookbook interspersed with the story of his illustrious family. It is the story of an inheritance that survives a tectonic loss.

Ahmad, to use an expression rampant in the Rajiv Gandhi era, was one of the baba log, but unlike most of his peers, not gifted with his creative eye and power of expression, he has been able to recreate the greatness that accompanied the grandeur of the times, and of the Ganga-Jamuna culture jealously guarded by the city’s elite, in which he grew up. He’s the Sharar of our age, and unlike the essayist of yore, he’s fortunate to have his narrative embellished by portraits dug out of his family albums and the evocative images shot in an Impressionist style by the visibly talented Anshika Verma.

Lucknow, the city embedded in Ahmed’s DNA, became the home of his family after his great-grandfather, Sir Iqbal Ahmad (he was knighted by King George V), moved to the city from Allahabad, after gifting his palatial home to the Allahabad Bank, in the 1950s. He was the first Indian Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court and after completing two terms by the time he was in his mid-40s, he chose to move out of Lucknow because he believed it would not be fair on his part to practise the law in the very same court that he had presided over.

The writer’s maternal grandfather, Chaudhury Sharfuz Zaman, who came from a family of Awadhi talukdars, studied the law in England and became a judge in Rampur State. Talat Mehmood, the unforgettable singer, was his mother’s uncle. Another of her uncles, a barrister named Ishtiaq Ahmed Abassi, caused a social kerfuffle when he married the legendary singer, Begum Akhtar. Sir Iqbal’s son, Islam Ahmad, an officer with the Imperial Police, was a flamboyant personality who lived well and had a large circle of accomplished friends, from the writer Attia Hosain to the Mehmoodabad family, from Rani Sita of Kapurthala to Vijayalakshmi Pandit, from Leela Matkar, who went on to marry the Hollywood director David Lean, to Captain Lakshmi Sehgal of the Indian National Army. It was a family of learning, attainments, wealth and refinement that Ahmed has been fortunate to be born into. And it is this legacy that he celebrates in the cookbook.

“The great Indo-Islamic culture, its poetry, music, language, cuisine, adab and tehzeeb,” writes Ahmad in one evocative sentence of his essay, “continues to painfully languish within the soul of Lucknow, and will hopefully flower when the time is right for it to ignite and shine like a beacon once again.” But with an eloquent ‘brand ambassador’ such as Ahmad, the Lucknow of the Chowk and the Bara Imambara, of Kaiser Bagh and Hazratganj, will continue to evoke a sense of joie de vivre, despite the proliferation of the Lucknow on the other side of the Gomti, steeped in what the writer describes as “rootless modernity”.

The cookbook, with replicable recipes provided by aunts and family friends (whose names will be familiar to those who are in the inner circle of Delhi’s A-List), follows the languid life of Lucknow’s elite. It starts with a chhota hazari (breakfast) of toast with home-made guava jelly or orange marmalade, or tikkia (flattened wheat bread) with alu kalonji (potato tempered with onion seeds) or with keema, mutthia (meat balls), kaleji and nahari. At lunch,the menu changes to cold tomato soup, macchi do pyaza, murgh musallam and mutton korma, accompanied by chuqandar ka bharta (beetroot mash), yakhni pulao and kofta biryani, and rounded off with sewain kheer or the more exotic kind made with cabbage.

High tea came with its complement of kaki sa (potato basket), dal pakodas, sponge cake and chane ka halwa (or the variety made with egg). One wonders how people had the appetite for dinner after a day of such indulgence, but they still had room for simple delicacies such as lauki kabab, keema kakdi (with cucumber) and shabdegh to the more elaborate fish mussallam, raan and of course, the unbeatable shahi tukda. Ahmed calls Lucknow’s affair with food an “eating odyssey”. Those two words best describe the city’s epicurean legacy.

This book review first appeared in Mail Today on November 9. 2014. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.