In the heart of Lucknow city lies Tulsi Theatre. Defunct, it no longer plays Hindi movies, but it does still lend its name to the adjacent street, which bustles every day with some of the most famous Awadhi and Mughlai restaurants in the city.
While the restaurants begin operation around noon and are open till late night, the Tulsi Theatre food lane visibly springs to life once the sun sets. The aroma of kebabs, tandoori chicken and a host of other dishes fills the air, as waiters shout order after order for a seemingly unending stream of customers. These restaurants are no places for fine dining: the setting is comfortable but mostly crowded, and often, customers have to hover at the elbows of seated diners, waiting for them to finish their food and vacate the table.
Among these food joints around Tulsi Theatre is Naushijaan restaurant. Small in size, with around 12 tables, it has been around for decades, serving the universally liked kakori kebabs. But it is another Awadhi offering that has defined its popularity in recent times: the majlisi kebab.
Majlisi kebab, in its most common form, is minced meat marinated with spices and aromatics that is fried till it loses moisture and then cooked using the dum technique. Shameel Shamsi, the owner of Naushijaan, says majlisi kebab was born of the need to serve food to large congregations of people. “It was not possible to make regular kebabs for a large group of people because the process of shaping individual kebabs and shallow-frying them is effort-intensive and time-consuming,” he said. “So, the cooks preparing food at such events came up with the idea of majlisi kebab, a dish that can be prepared in bulk.”
At Naushijaan, it is served in earthen platters – just as it was always intended to be – and usually before the restaurant closes. It is, Shamsi says, the “most popular dish on the menu, sought after by culinary greats from far and wide, including Chef Sanjeev Kapoor”. Shamsi, who has been serving it for 22 years, recommends eating it with khameeri roti or sheermal.
A more popular name for majlisi kebab is ghutwa kebab, which means pulverised meat. This alternative name emerges from the process of cooking. Marinated minced meat is fried for hours and then cooked in its own dum, eventually emerging as something resembling a paste (different from keema).
A mention of the ghutwa or majlisi kebab in a 2019 web series on the royal foods of India, hosted by celebrity chef Kunal Kapur, had brought the dish some well-deserved attention. “I have many friends from Lucknow and I have visited the city many times, but I had never heard about this dish,” Kapur had said on the episode dedicated to kebabs.
Elaborating on the history of majlisi kebab, Shamsi says that foods like nahari, biryani and majlisi kebab gained prominence during the days of the construction of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow in the 18th century. “Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula used to have food cooked for all his workers twice a day, and these were the dishes that were the easiest to cook in large quantities,” he said.
A gourmet version of majlisi kebab is being made popular by Mohsin Qureshi, the executive sous chef at Azrak Restaurant in Lucknow’s Lebua Hotel. Qureshi remembers eating it as a child on Sundays and other holidays. “In many Muslim households, majlisi kebab was a delicacy that was served with besan ki roti [flatbread made with chickpea flour] and a red chilli-garlic-tomato chutney,” he said.
Qureshi’s majlisi kebab follows a three-step marination process, which starts with ginger-garlic paste, chillies and raw papaya, then proceeds to the addition of close to 35 spices, and ends with khus-khus, cashew paste and a hint of coconut paste for texture (although it does not manifest in the taste of the kebab).
At Azrak, once the mince has undergone rigorous frying for a few hours, the majlisi kebab is dum-cooked in little earthen dishes with a layer of sheermal dough on top, which is cracked open and eaten as the bread with the dish. The dough is topped with a few nigella seeds and the little pot carries a slice of lemon for added zing. The recipe for the majlisi kebab served at Azrak is an original from Mohsin Qureshi’s grandfather Haji Zuhoor Qureshi who, in his time, had connections with the Awadhi royalty, the executive sous-chef claims.
Past Vs. Present
The majlisi kebab at Naushijaan is starkly different from that at Azrak. At Naushijaan, it looks more like a curry, somewhat along the lines of boti kebab, but tastes very similar to galouti kebab. “Our starting mixture for majlisi and galouti kebabs is the same, with a little variation in the spices,” Shamsi said. “The difference in the cooking of the mince determines the end product.”
Qureshi says the spices that go in their galouti kebab and their majlisi kebab are not the same. Also, it is easier to spot different ingredients like bits of green chillies and onions in the dish at Azrak than it is in the dish at Naushijaan.
There is no good or bad version, just different manifestations of traditions that have been passed down in families involved in guarding Awadhi culture. In a city that occupies a formidable space on the culinary map of India, the different versions of the majlisi kebab are a reminder of the influences, personal and civilisational, that have seeped into its food.