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Nazakat is very important in Awadhi cuisine: Chef Deepak Verma

Tripti Nath/New Delhi

Chef Deepak Verma has spent nearly 40 years sampling and preparing a variety of dishes from different continents but it is the Awadhi cuisine that he describes as truly global.   

In a special interview with Awaz-The Voice, Verma explains how Awadhi cuisine originated and flourished. The Awadhi cuisine attained its distinctive flavour under the patronage of the Nawabs of Awadh. The first Nawab, ‘Burhan-ul-Mulk’ Saadat Ali Khan was of Persian origin and the cuisine that was perfected in the royal kitchens of the Nawabs was a harmonious blend of Mughal, Persian, and local influences. 

He says, “The heart of the Awadhi cuisine remains in Lucknow and surrounding areas. The Awadh cuisine was developed and perfected by the Nawabs very meticulously. Awadhi cuisine is incomparable and is known for its irresistible dishes such as Kakori Kebabs, Galauti Kebabs, Shami Kebabs, Boti Kebabs, Patili kebabs, Seekh Kebabs, Biryani Korma and Nihari. There is demand for Awadhi cuisine everywhere because of the unforgettable taste it has. It is very popular and you will find Awadhi cuisine restaurants in every city, especially metropolitan cities.’’  

Chef Verma says that what is unique about Awadhi cuisine is that you do not eat food, you eat Nazakat.’’ Nazakat (elegance) and the mannerisms are very important in Awadhi cuisine especially the way the food is laid out, served, and savoured- which makes it very special. The food is to be savoured not eaten. You eat the food first with your eyes, then with your nose, and then your mouth. This is also true of French cuisine which is my favourite and which I specialize in.’’ 

He explained that the Dum Pukht and Kebabs are central to Awadhi cuisine. “What is important in Awadhi cuisine compared to the Mughlai cuisine is that it follows a set menu of nine to 11 courses. The Dastarkhan (the food table) is laid and the dishes are served one by one. All dishes can’t be served in one go. One cannot have any dish at any time. It is a very delicate cuisine. So, in a way, the menu is set as in the seven to nine-course French cuisine – like you have the starters, the entrée, the sorbet (liquid cleanser to clean the palate and prepare the guest for the next meal), and the legumes. The sorbet options normally have Jal Zeera, Roohafza, Chaach (buttermilk), Shorba of Tomato, Mutton or Chicken. The main course includes Nihari (thick gravy), a wholesome dish (gravy made with cashew nuts paste and whole wheat flour).

Tundey kebab of Lucknow (Pics by Tripti Nath)

“Traditionally, Nihari was made for soldiers to give them strength as it is a perfect mix of proteins and fibers.  Mutton, chicken, and fish can be used for preparing Nihari. It goes well with Rumali roti, Sheermaal, and Bakarkhani.’’  

The Awadhi meal always ended with a paan. 

Asked to what extent the tradition of Awadhi cuisine has been preserved, the Chef said, “Most of the old techniques have been preserved. If you go back and look at the old Nawabi royal kitchens, you will find that they had Rakabdars and Bawarchis. The Bawarchis prepared staple food for the entire family day in and day out. The Nawabs had a hierarchy in the kitchen. A baker would not cook. A cook would not bake The roles were very defined. The Rakabdar specialized in dishes. For instance, a Rakabdar would specialize in a chicken or mutton dish. Then, you had the Nanfus who were the bakers. They would make only breads- Roomali, Sheermal, and Bakarkhani. What happened was the Rakabdars were so secretive about their recipes that they talked to nobody about the dishes other than their children. And this is one of the reasons that many of the fine, delicate recipes were lost. The recipes were never written. Once the generations ended, the recipes were lost. We lost many recipes but many recipes are still there. Chefs are creative and continue to make new recipes.’’ 

He drew attention to the fact that the super popular Tunde Kebabs of Lucknow uses nearly 172 spices. It is said that the spices are made by the ladies of the house. Verma says that Tunde Kebab, Kakori Kebab, and Boti Kebab are to die for and deserve the GI tag just like the Benarsi paan. The Daal Gosht at Tunde Kebab is also a must-try. 

While agreeing that Mughlai food is often confused with Awadhi cuisine, the seasoned Chef explained that Mughlai food is very rich in nuts, cream, Khoya, and milk. ‘’They use a lot of dairy and dry fruits. Awadhi cuisine is not so much into nuts and cream. The balance of spices is much more in Awadhi cuisine than in Mughlai food. He says that Lakhnawi food is very rich. They cannot do without ghee.”

Mutton Biryani

Chef Verma makes a special mention of Dum Pukht Biryani and Geele ke Kebabs. He says that the Awadhi cuisine is very rich in non-vegetarian dishes as 99.9 percent of the Nawabs ate meat. “When you talk about Awadh, you have to talk about meat. Since India has a very good variety of vegetables, the Nawabs experimented with Kathal (Jackfruit) and Arbi (Colocasia), Chana (Black Gram). There is a Kebab called Dalcha Kebab which is made out of a mixture of lentils. “There is a legend behind every dish. For example, Galauti kebab which is very soft was made when an old Nawab who could no longer chew food asked his Chef to make something easy to eat.’’ 

For those with a sweet tooth, Awadhi cuisine offers the Shahi Tukda, Sewaiyan and Kheer.  

Verma who passed out in the mid-80s says that those aspiring for a career in hotel management have plenty to choose from. “I worked as a Chef for 25 years and then branched out into designing kitchens. The career choice is not limited to cooking food.’’ 

He says that students must first work hard, and learn the ropes of the trade for at least a decade before they try something else. 

Born in Oorai near Lucknow, Deepak, the eldest among three siblings, always enjoyed eating a variety of dishes. “My parents were government teachers. I remember that the Sundays in my childhood and growing years were mutton curry days. My mother made very delicious mutton curry while my father made Daal ke Dulhe, a specialty of U.P. when my mother would be away visiting her parents. We relished it.’’  

Verma lives at his native place of Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh. He says he is only a call away for kitchen designing. “Fatehpur is a laidback city. They still like Daal, Chawal, subzi and roti. The Lucknow cuisine did not really influence Kanpur and areas closer to Kanpur such as Fatehpur.’’ 

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