Sunday, March 17, 2013

Takeaways from Awadh

By the time India entered the eighteenth century, the great Mughal empire was starting to fall apart. Hyderabad was an independent state and so was Oudh/Awadh. Awadhi cuisine had transformed itself into something quite exquisite. They had abandoned the greasy and spicy Mughlai dishes for more delectable and delicate art.

What happened with the Awadhi cuisine was very political but went towards the right direction and tempted the palettes to create something special. During the skirmishes with Delhi, the nawabs of Awadh had started a culture of one up-manship. They were trying to project Lucknow as the better city and a place of excellence. They were doling out huge amount in salaries to the best cooks, poets, bards, singers, painters and other artists, to come and work in Lucknow. One nobleman is rumored to have payed an amount of 1200 Rupees to his cook, "an amount greater than the salary of any cook in the highest courts in the history of India".

Lucknow took the Mughlai cuisine and transformed it by incorporating it with the products of the fertile region of Awadh. They loved cream and used it to perfect the Qaurama/Korma. The Mughals had used the Persian method for cooking this. They used to first marinate the meat in yogurt, ginger, garlic, onions and spices before simmering it gently in the yogurt sauce. The mixture was thickened with ground almonds. The Lucknowis used a lot of cream instead and created a more rich and voluptuous preparation.

There are a number of good stories behind every Awadhi preparation. The most funny one to my opinion is the discovery of Sammi Kabab. We have all had our hands on the nice, soft, creamy kebabs that stand out as renegades in the world of highly spiced and sometimes hard to chew kebabs.  Lucknow was the place where it was discovered.


In contrast with the Mughals, who ate sparingly, the Awadhi nawabs were gluttons. In fact, nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah had become so fat that he could no longer ride a horse. He gained a lot of weight even after he had lost his teeth and thus the ability to chew. But the nawab needed his kebabs and the cooks had to do something to satiate him. The cooks abandoned beef for lamb, which was softer, and minced it into keema. The cooks would grind the keema into paste, add ginger, garlic, poppy seeds, some spices and some cream, and roll it into balls or lozenges, put them on skewers and roast on fire. The resulting kebabs were silky and soft and could be eaten by even a toothless person.

I would have more of Awadhi stories in a later post. But, for now we can conclude that what had happened in Awadh was something incredible. It had come out of mere politics and power struggle. Politics had not always been bad to the people. It may not have been a direct benefactor, but did help people in discovering new ways of living and thus enhancing the overall cultural diversity; the diversity that we all are proud of. Politics is a powerful tool to construct or destruct.
Today we do have the right to choose our own nawabs; but let's choose them well; to enhance the diversity and freedom and not to stifle the flexible and innovative tradition into a bottle in the ocean of intolerance.