Taj Lucknow’s Chef Nagendra Singh on Awadhi Culinary Arts

Executive Chef Nagendra Singh describes the ingredients and cooking methods of Awadhi cuisine while discussing the nuances of the region’s culinary traditions with Kaveri Ponnapa

Nagendra Singh, Executive Chef at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Lucknow, is a soft-spoken man who brings to his position almost three decades of experience spread across various prestigious Taj Hotels, including Taj Exotica, Maldives. Since 2008, he has added depth and excellence to the menu at the celebrated Awadhi fine dining restaurant, Oudhyana, while also exploring the more rustic dishes of the region. The elegant space, with powder blue arches and columns echoing the magnificent lines of the Bada Imambara built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, is an icon of fine dining in a city known for the formal elegance of its culinary traditions. For over two decades, Oudhyana has offered a menu of Nawabi cuisine, hosting a steady stream of guests, including heads of state and other dignitaries.

The legendary cuisine of Awadh, synonymous with refinement, subtlety of flavours, sophistication, intricacy of cooking techniques and presentation, evolved from a complex blend of historic Afghan, Persian, Mughal and Hindu influences. It reached its zenith with the creation of the city of Lucknow, established by Asaf-ud-Daula in the 18th century. Lucknow’s famous syncretic culture and opulent lifestyle inspired an unrivalled heritage of elaborate gastronomy. Lavish patronage by a rich and leisured aristocracy gave rise to generations of celebrated chefs. At Oudhyana, dishes such as the iconic, meltingly soft galawat ke kebab, supposedly created for a Nawab who had lost his teeth, dum ki gosht biryani and the exquisitely scented, delicate sewai ka muzaffar cooked in traditional style are a delectable introduction to a rich culinary heritage.

What would you say is the essence of Awadhi cuisine that sets it apart from other Indian cuisines?
Like all Indian food, Awadhi cuisine is shaped by locally available vegetables, herbs, pulses and various cultural traditions, but in this case, it is also mingled with Persian influences. Burhan-ul-Mulk Saadat Khan, the first Nawab, was of Persian origin and introduced Persian cultural practices into the court culture of Awadh. The cuisine that evolved is distinguished by the dumpukht style of preparation, and a subtle use of spices, which is considered the essence of Awadhi cooking.

Dumpukht is cooking over a low fire in a heavy-bottomed vessel, the lid sealed with dough, for several hours, a style thought to be derived from the cooking techniques of Persia and Central Asia. Dum means to ‘breathe in’ and pukht means to ‘cook’. The technique allows the food to steep in its flavours, becoming deeply infused with the character of the spices used. People often confuse Awadhi cuisine with Mughlai cuisine, but it is in fact distinct, a reflection of the refinement and sophistication of a unique, Nawabi way of life.

Executive Chef Nagendra Singh at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Lucknow

What are the principal dishes that make up Awadhi cuisine?
Delicate flavours, refined techniques and perfection on the palate define Awadhi cuisine. It is an elaborate cuisine, where the kebabs alone are of several kinds. Tawa kebabs, including galawat kebab (delicate shallow-fried minced and spiced meat patties) shammi kebab, nukti kebab and so on, are shallow fried on a mahi tava (a special griddle with raised edges). Seekh kebabs such as kakori kebab and reshmi kebab cooked on skewers over a coal-fired grill, are another category, requiring great skill in handling. Then there are the various tikkas like murg afghani tikka, and saffron-infused mirza hasnoo. Patili kebabs, also known as ghutwa kebab are made with minced meat and cooked in a deep, round-bottomed vessel. More elaborate classic dishes include murg awadhi korma (chicken in a rich curry base), kaliya (a light mutton or chicken curry), salan (gravy with meat and seasonal vegetables) and biryanis. Other renowned dishes are nihari (lamb shanks) cooked in broth and murg mussallum, whole chicken stuffed with spices and boiled eggs, then slowcooked).

Vegetable dishes include dabi arbi ka salan (colocasia root curry) and matar ka nimona, a dish of winter peas. Accompanying rotis and breads are equally distinct, such as sheermal (light, flaky bread, kneaded with cream and milk, brushed with milk and saffron and oven-baked) as well as taftan, gilafi, kulcha and baqarkhani.

This is a cuisine renowned for its complex layering of spices, yet achieving delicacy and lingering flavours which are its distinguishing features. What are your key spices and some techniques used?
Awadhi dishes are fashioned around a meticulous and harmonious blend of spices. Cinnamon, peppercorn, cloves, cardamom, bay leaf, cumin, mace, nutmeg, kala namak or black salt, saunth (dried ginger powder), and aamchur (dried mango powder) are used. Spices may be placed in a potli (pouch) in the food and then removed after cooking, for greater subtlety. Dried rose petals, rose water, kewra water, (screwpine flower), saffron and sometimes ittar, aromatic essential oils, serve as flavouring agents. These ingredients are combined with elaborate techniques, such as bagher dena (tempering the dishes), dhungar dena (smoking the dishes), dum dena standing a vessel on an iron plate, sealing the lid with dough, and placing live charcoals around it; ghee durust karna (ghee flavoured with screwpine flowers or cardamoms).

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To present even more refined dishes, galawat or tenderizers such as papain, from papaya, are used. Gil-e-hikmet is a process where whole vegetables or meats are stuffed with nuts and spices, wrapped in a banana leaf or a cloth covered with multani mitti (Fuller’s earth), buried four to six inches in the earth and cooked with a slow fire for six to eight hours. Loab, the final stage when the oil rises to the surface, further enriches the gravy. Bund lagana is a process used to thicken gravies with roasted chickpea flour. Sometimes fat is rubbed into flour and worked into a dough, making it a crispy, flaky pastry when cooked. Awadhi cuisine requires time and effort for the creation and presentation of every dish.

An elegant view of the interior of the fine-dining Indian restaurant, Oudhyana

Awadh is known for the hereditary chefs, who cooked in the kitchens of aristocratic families for generations. Are there any chefs at Oudhyana from such backgrounds? How was the menu for this restaurant developed?

The restaurant was opened by Gulam Rasool, the Awadhi chef renowned the world over for his expertise. A native of Lucknow, he trained under Ustaad Hazi Ishaque for over 15 years. He regards perfect cuts of the meat as the secret of a great non-vegetarian dish, and the balance of aag, paani, namak and mirch as the key to good food.

Chef Rasool has been cooking this sophisticated blend of Mughlai, Persian and Hindi dishes preferred by the Lucknavi nawabs, for nearly 60 years. We continue to use the same recipes he introduced to the restaurant.

After he retired, Camellia Panjabi approached Safiya Siddiqui, who belongs to a Nawabi family, to guide us with the cuisine when the hotel opened in 1995. Over the years Safiya Siddiqui has trained a number of chefs. I have been privileged to master unique dishes such as tar gosht and khagina thanks to her training. In addition, our chefs visit local eateries, and we interact with head chefs of bawarchikahnas and renowned Muslim caterers in the city to understand minute details of the this style of gastronomy. We also visit local villages to research and retrieve the lesser-known dishes of Awadhi cuisine. Chef Gulam Rasool is considered Awadhi’s greatest culinary guru and we still seek his guidance while developing new menus. Our chef Gulam Qureshi, in charge of the kebab section, comes from a family of chefs. Every year we consult local rakabdars, to develop and add new dishes to our menu.

What are some of the famous dishes on the menu that guests return to enjoy?
Oudhyana’s nihari gosht is famous. Some other celebrated dishes are lagan ka murg, the iconic galawat ke kebab, kakori kebab (minced mutton with cardamom, saffron, rose petals and spices) khumb ke shammi (mushroom kebabs) and dahi ke kabab (kebabs with yoghurt and cottage cheese). Sultani khushka (rice with saffron) and dum ki gosht biryani are other popular rice dishes. Our breads, such as sheermal and kulcha are uniformly outstanding.

A selection of mouth-watering, authentic specialities of Awadhi cuisine at Oudhyana

Which are the dishes that you most enjoy cooking, and why?
I come from a rural background, where my family has been involved in farming in the sugar belt of Uttar Pradesh. I love to cook the dishes of this rustic cuisine. My background has inspired me to put dishes such as dal ramdana kebab (amaranth kebabs) and khumb ke shammi, which I developed, on the menu. I enjoy cooking desserts like ramdana kheer, atta ka halwa and phirni (flavoured rice pudding).

The restaurant has remained highly rated over decades. In the city of Nawabs, with a high level of connoisseurship of excellent food, this is a remarkable achievement. Oudhyana has been a standard bearer for Nawabi cuisine. What makes it so successful?
Oudhyana, with its outstanding food, ambience and service always has repeat guests. Lucknavis choose to celebrate their special days here. We always ensure the use of high-quality raw materials, and make sure we maintain the distinct taste and quality of every dish. We create new menus and strive to bring in dishes from the region that will appeal to our guests. It is a matter of pride that local families bring their guests here to showcase Nawabi cuisine. We are their first choice in the city.