One of the best ways to get a sense of all that Lucknow has to offer is to take a food trail through the city. The Nawabs who ruled Awadh (of which Lucknow was the capital) in the 18th and 19th centuries, contributed greatly to its culinary heritage; their influence is palpable even today in the city’s food, both on the street and in more formal settings.
The stories are often as colourful as the food itself; the melt-in-the-mouth galouti kebab, for example, is said to have been created for an old nawab who had lost all his teeth but craved meat. In The Emperor’s Table, author Salma Husain describes how Mughal cuisine, which had a large influence on Awadhi cooking, combined indigenous traditions with their own Persian-influenced culture. Its emphasis on nuance and flavour trickles down even to the street food I gobbled down, such as the delectable Idris ki biryani, made according to the Awadhi technique of dum pukht, in which meat and vegetables are slow-cooked in a sealed container over a very low flame.
Some of the best eats are on the street, in the bustling markets of Chowk and Aminabad – although if you’re squeamish and a stickler for hygiene, stop by The Mughal’s Dastarkhwan or Mughal Zaika instead. Here’s a guide to get you started on discovering the culinary delights of Lucknow. Luckily, it’s an adventure that won’t dent your pocket too much – a kebab at Tunday Kababi costs ₹8 while a meal for two at The Mughal’s Dastarkhwan would rack up to about ₹800.
While the original Tunday Kababi for legendary galouti kebabs is in Chowk, I’d recommend the outlet at Aminabad. It has both beef and mutton options, while the one at Chowk dishes out only beef kebabs. The joint is named after the one-armed cook who created the kebab, Haji Murad Ali – “tunday” refers to an arm amputee. Stop by the entrance to watch the flat patties being flicked on to a large pan and fried until crisp on both sides. Naaz Cinema Road, off Aminabad Road.
While you’re in Aminabad, walk through the market to sense the pulse of the city. Keep an eye out for stalls selling freshly baked nankhatai, chana churmura (the local term for sukha bhel, made by tossing together chana, cornflakes, chilli, onion and lime), and sweet and sour sheets of aam papad.
This one’s a new restaurant that offers Mughlai and Awadhi cuisine. Try their roasted chicken, mutton stew and very soft kulchas. Naaz Cinema Road, Aminabad.
The Rastogis, a wealthy North Indian Hindu community of moneylenders, jewellery-makers and businessmen, have contributed greatly to the city’s vegetarian repertoire. Sample a typical Rastogi meal of khasta kachori, vada and varieties of aloo-chana, which make for a filling breakfast at this 75-year-old shop. Finish off with a bottle of refreshing badam milk and hot-hot jalebis. Rattilal Chauraha, Hewett Road, Shivaji Marg.
For a sit-down meal, go here. One of their most interesting offerings is the lagan ka murgh, a thick gravy with delicious, tender chicken that’s cooked slowly in a wide, heavy-bottomed vessel that gives the dish its name, “lagan”. Also try their bhuna gosht, dal makhani and ulte tave ka parathas. 29, BN Road, opposite Ismalia College, Lalbagh.
Grab a bowl of this unmissable creamy, hand-churned malai kulfi, and cool off on a plastic chair under the large tree that shades this shop. 3, Shyam Awadh Bazaar, MG Marg, Hazratganj.
The bun-maska at this little shop comes with a layer of creamy white butter inside a soft bun. We were taken aback by their tasty giant samosas, each stuffed with an entire potato – skin and all – with peas and masala squeezed in at the sides. Wash it all down with a tall glass of hot chai. 30, Maqbara Road, Hazratganj.
If you’re hankering for mutton biryani, this is your go-to place. “Idris ki biryani”, as it’s known, is some of the city’s best, although the shifty ambience makes it best for takeaway. Opposite Patanala Police Station, Chowk.
Descend on Lucknow’s stalls that sell a variety of flavoured pani puri. Ravi’s does gyara pani-wala pani puri, that has a spread of 11 varieties. There’s an order to consuming the flavoured pani puri: the regular pani, followed by hing (asafoetida), aam (mango), hari mirch (green chilli), mixed aam, adhrak (ginger), jeera (cumin), pudina (mint), kala namak (black salt), nimbu (lime) and a “special” dry one bringing up the rear. Half the joy is just watching the staff dole out the puris in perfect synchronisation. If you’re in the city in winter, look out for neighbouring stalls selling malai makhan or nimish, which is a sweet, creamy foam sprinkled with pistachios. Behind Gol Darwaza, Chowk.
The locals wrap up their meals with paan, because of its digestive benefits, and the betel leaf doubles as a mouth freshener. This paan bhandar is one of the oldest shops in the area. Get some maghai meetha paan, made with tender betel leaves here. Shop no 18, Kasturba Market, Chowk.
Stop by for a tall glass of chilled, saffron-yellow thandai (milk flavoured with spices and almonds) that reminded me a lot of the badam milk I had earlier in the day. You can also opt for bhang, a form of cannabis, to be added to the drink – and find a quiet, safe place for the next few hours. 10B, Kasturba Market, Chowk.
Raheem’s is a little hole in the wall known for its nalli nihari, a gravy of beef or mutton trotters that’s mopped up with kulchas. The locals prefer to breakfast on this, but Raheem dishes out nalli nihari all day long. Akbari Gate, Chowk.
A tiny joint that serves up great nalli nihari and kulchas. While you’re there, try their pasanda kebabs, boneless pieces of beef that are cut into ribbons and then mashed, marinated and barbecued over an open fire. Their chicken korma and mutton stew are also good. Opposite Ek Minara Masjid, Akbari Gate, Chowk.
With inputs from Rashida Zaheer and Cyrus Kherawala.
Updated inNovember 2017.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.