How the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb enriched Lucknow’s cuisine (and why it’s better than food in Lahore)

The traditional cuisine in Lucknow is more refined than in Lahore, more aromatic, more aesthetically creative and served with greater elegance.

The language and manners in Lahore have always reminded me of Lucknow, even though in Lahore they speak mostly in Punjabi, but a Punjabi full of Persian and Urdu words. My father, like many well-educated men of his generation, was conversant with Persian and Urdu. My mother spoke Pashto, Multani and Punjabi and although she could read and write in Urdu, her spoken Urdu was very anglicised.

The hospitality in Lahore is extraordinary and its food is legendary. There are some striking similarities to the cuisine of Lucknow. But one difference is that the cuisine of Lahore is more robust, in the tradition of the Punjab. The traditional cuisine in Lucknow is more refined, more aromatic, more aesthetically creative and it is served with a greater nazaakat (elegance).

This city of Lucknow, the ‘capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which extends along the banks of the river Gomti was once the centre of a distinctive and highly sophisticated society’, says Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. It was here that a unique composite culture, known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, which is syncretic and genuinely embraces both Hindu and Muslim traditions, was born. That intangible tehzeeb is tangibly symbolized in objects of silver with gold plating and in textiles woven in fine threads of gold and silver, as one sees in the many kamkhwabs (gold and silver brocades) created in cities such as Lucknow and Varanasi and in the traditional ghararas and shararas embroidered with gold and silver gota and mukaish work.

It is the culture of the nawabs of Lucknow that most permeates its lifestyle. Lucknow is well known for the richness and the variety of its cuisine. Its cuisine consists of elaborate dishes. Many of these are described in Salma Hussain’s excellent book on Awadhi cuisine. Lucknow is also famous for its street food – both chaat and the ubiquitous samosa originated in this city. The city has always been culturally diverse and its flamboyant buildings, many in the Indo-Saracenic style, have reflected this multicultural style of living, as documented by Adity Chakravarti in Rehaish, her book on the homes of Lucknow. Sadly, many of these once gracious homes are dilapidated and need urgent conservation. Despite this they are evocative and genteel.

In the Awadhi dastarkhwan, a Persian term literally meaning a meticulously laid out ceremonial dining spread, one always sat on the floor, where beautifully embroidered dastarkhwans were spread on dhurries or white sheets. Sometimes this arrangement was spread on a takht, a low wooden table. With the growing influence of the British, the dastarkhwan, from the nineteenth century onwards, started being laid out on European-style dining tables, such as the solid high art deco one in our home in Lucknow.

Nowhere is the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb better illustrated than in our immediate family, in the marriage of my cousin Ravi to Seran, a Turkish Cypriot. They met at Columbia University in New York. He is a secular Hindu married to a secular Muslim and they live in New York City. Ravi continues to be pulled towards Indian art and architecture and aspires to collect Mughal and Ottoman pieces. Seran’s eye and taste are peerless. They represent a perfect union of Hindu and Muslim cultures.

Lucknow is one city in India where Muslims and Hindus celebrated the same festivals and even worshipped at the same shrines. As Salma Hussain says, ‘the city’s taraanah (symphony) is created jointly by Hindus and Muslims living happily alongside each other and sharing common interests and habits and speaking a common language. Lucknow has been the “melting pot” of various cultures – Hindu, Persian and British.’ Till today, popular biryani shops often remain closed on Tuesdays and during Navaratri, when even most non-vegetarian Hindus in northern India eat shudh shakahari (pure vegetarian) food. It is still customary for Muslims and Hindus to exchange gifts of prepared delicacies during each other’s major festivals. Our neighbour, the former Chief Justice of India, Justice Baig, who lived across us on Newberry Road, always sent us delicious seviyan or biryani at Eid. My parents always reciprocated at the time of Diwali. (It was another matter that my brother Ashok and I, were often caught raiding Justice Baig’s huge mango orchards where they cross-bred different varieties of mangoes, and always forgiven.)

Lucknow had a high degree of refinement as compared to Delhi. It was known for its ‘tehzeeb, tameez aur nafaasat (manners, etiquette and sophistication)’. It is in Lucknow that the Urdu language acquired its finesse and perfection. Lucknow was home to some of the most vibrant and artistic expressions of its time. The Lucknow gharana of Kathak became one of India’s major classical dance forms. The culture of Lucknow has often been the subject of Indian cinema, including Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi and Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan.

Today, it is interesting to see that Lucknow cuisine, whether in homes or at great daawats (lavish meals), has seen a revival of many of its age-old gastronomic traditions. Lucknow has always had a vast and interesting variety of food that has belonged to different cultures and cuisines. Lucknow chefs took the best of these ideas, absorbed them into their current cuisines and made it into a uniquely Lucknowi experience.

Many people, including my family have, over the decades, made Lucknow their home. We all belonged to different faiths and we each came with our own version of social mores, culinary etiquette and food preferences. But it all became absorbed, in the broadest sense, into the cuisine of Lucknow, as we saw and savoured it in the homes of our friends. For instance, our Parsi friends like the Kharases and the Viccajees introduced us to the delights of dhansak and other Parsi specialities which had their antecedents in Persia. Although the majority of the great dishes of Lucknow’s fabled cuisine belonged to a sophisticated Muslim elite that is highly subtle and refined, many dishes were influenced by Hindu families who were vegetarian but who took inspiration from non-vegetarian dishes. Yet other dishes were incorporated into Lucknow’s cuisine from Anglo-Indian, Christian and Eurasian tables. All of this was referred to as the angrezi khana of Lucknow.

Gilawat Ke Kebab


Mutton: 750 gms, minced thrice from lean gol boti
Raw papaya: 6 tbsp, ground to a paste
Desi ghee: 2 tbsp
Dhania (coriander) seeds: 2 tsp
Jeera (cumin) seeds: 1 tsp
Hari elaichi (green cardamom): 4 pods
Badi elaichi (black cardamom): 1 pod
Laal mirch (red chilli): 10 pieces, whole
Dalchini (cinnamon) powder: 1 tsp
Javitri (mace): ½ tsp
Laung (cloves): 6 cloves
Jaiphal (nutmeg): 2 pieces
Besan (gram flour): 9 tbsp, roasted
Salt to taste
Charcoal: 2 pieces

Grind the raw papaya into a fine paste.

Sauté the coriander and cumin seeds, green cardamom, black cardamom, red chillies, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and 4 cloves in a pan on a low flame for about 5 minutes. Then grind into a fine paste. Mix in the minced mutton, salt and the raw papaya paste. Keep it aside to marinate for 1 hour.

Mix the gram flour and the rest of the ingredients except the 2 cloves, the ghee and the charcoal. Put the mixture in a large pan. Then put the burning charcoal, 2 cloves and a teaspoon of ghee in a small steel bowl and place it in the centre of the large pan. Cover the pan with a heavy lid for the smoking process and let it smoke for 30 minutes.

Divide this mixture into 12 equal portions and roll into a ball. Then, using the palms of your hands, press it into round flat patties about half an inch in thickness.

Heat a frying pan on a low flame. Add the ghee and individually place the patties in it and shallow-fry them on both sides for 4 minutes each. Serve hot with onion rings.


This is a Lucknow speciality. Kali Gajar (black carrots) are available only in the winter season and this halwa can only be bought in the Chowk in Lucknow.


Kali gajar: 1 kg
Desi ghee: 250 gms
Full-cream milk: 1 kg
Khoya (whole milk fudge): 250 gms
Sugar: 250 gms
Hari elaichi (green cardamom): ½ tsp, pounded pods
Almonds and pistachios: 12 each, soaked, peeled and slivered
Khoya, almonds, pistachios and for garnishing silver leaf

Wash, peel and grate the carrots. Boil the milk and let the carrots cook in it until they are tender and the milk is absorbed. Once the milk is absorbed, roast them for 5 minutes. Then add the ghee and further roast. When the ghee separates and the carrots are well roasted, add the sugar.

Roast the khoya separately until it is red and the raw taste disappears. Set aside a little raw khoya for the garnishing. Add the roasted khoya to the halwa. Mix in well. Add the ground cardamom and mix in. Decorate with white khoya pieces, almond and pistachio slivers and silver leaf (chandi ka varq).

Excerpted with permission from The Lucknow Cookbook, by Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli, Aleph Book Company.

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