Lucknow by a Chef

Chef Ajay Chopra has more than 10 years of kitchen experience tucked under his toque. And this was evident as he and his team at The Westin Mumbai Garden City laid out the Phir Phele Aap, an Awadhi food promotion, at the hotel’s Indian restaurant Kangan.

On a special re quest, Chef more than kindly met me over lunch and the fare of course was Awadhi. Meeting chefs is perhaps the one few things in my profession that I find genuinely satisfying. They are a basket full of knowledge and more than happy to share this wealth to a willing audience. I am more than willing!

So while he regaled me with tales and anecdotes from his early days in the hospitality profession and MasterChef India, I enjoyed subtle flavours from Lucknow. Now Awadhi food like a lot of other things has its root in the Mughal style, but as purveyors of subtlety they have altered many things to their liking. Added to that was Chef Chopra’s contemporary style. The combination was authentic tasting food with a modern twist in style, presentation and calorific count.

Chef’s selection of starters for me included Seekh e malmal and Lauki dum Musallam in vegetarian;Murgh Hazrat Mahal and the quintessential Awadhi Kakori kebab in the non-vegetarian starters. For a vociferous meat-eater like me, anything different with vegetables comes as a revelation and so were these starters. And while the Kakori kebab were to text book specifications, soft and melt in the mouth; the interesting bit was the Murgh Hazrat Mahal. It looked deceptively like the Reshmi kebab, but Chef revealed the secret – the chicken was marinated in perhaps the most unlikely ingredient, Isabgol. He said that before it was famous for its laxative properties, Isabgol was used in drinks along with almond powder.

For the main course there was Gosht kundan qaliya, Murgh rizala, Dum ka khumbh and Dal quereshi.The kaliya had gold leaf on it, hence the name kundan. Giving the gold run for its money was the gravy with its beautiful ochre colour. Chef Chopra gave out another bit of information on the gravy – a key ingredient was yellow chilli powder. After racking my brains for a bit it hit me that it was the powder of dried chilli seeds. Chef did seem impressed with my reasoning skills. Now since chilli seeds are the spiciest in the fruit it is dried thoroughly to reduce the heat before ground into a powder. The rizala with its cashew gravy was what a rizala should be, rich and silky. The best part about it was the missing cloying greasy heaviness that generally ensues. The meats, both chicken and mutton, were soft succulent and falling of the bone. All of this was paired with Ulte tave ki roti (roti made on an up side down pan) and Warqi kulcha. The kulcha is made with two types of dough, a heavy one made with cream and lighter dough made with milk.

After all that, I had no space for the khumbh or mushrooms and I had to give my stomach time to settle before hitting the must-have Awadhi Degh ki biryani. In the meanwhile Chef Chopra and I discussed many things related to food and as many things not related to food. One thing was clear from my conversation with him — Chef Chopra is driven by his passion to do something new and exciting. He hates stagnation and believes that it can result in missing out on finer things in life. Food for thought indeed! Finally I dig into a spoonful of the aromatic biryani and a succulent piece of mutton.

The final piece in this culinary symphony was the dessert, the famous Shahi tukda and Gil-e-fidaus.Shahi tukda as we know it is made of fried bread dipped in sugar syrup and topped with rabdi or cream, chef’s team added a twist with chocolate to it. In the days of the Nawaabs they used Khameer roti instead of bread. Gil-e-firdaus was none other than Lauki halwa, a well known dessert in north India. What was commendable about it all was that both the desserts had the perfect balance of sweetness, which is not often the case with Indian desserts.

And so ended my hour-and-a-half sojourn with Awadhi food and a great conversation.