Reviewed by Shikhandin
Title: The Lucknow Cookbook
Authors: Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli
Pages: Soft Cover, 228
Years ago, before Narcopolis, the DSC Prize winning author Jeet Thayil had shared a moment during a reading at a poetry festival. He had said that he read and collected cook books, not because he cooked, but because he enjoyed reading them. Cook books provided both welcome relief from an excess of poetry, and also stirred up creative juices. His words had immediately resonated with the men and women, many of whom were poets, writers and artists, present among the audience.
Thayil’s words came back to me when I held my reviewer’s copy of The Lucknow Cookbook written by the mother and daughter duo, Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli. Books from Aleph are a pleasure to hold and behold. This book of recipes and family food lore does not disappoint. A comfortably sized book with an elegant outer cover and a rich olive green inner cover, it immediately leaps at you from the shelf. Since no food book is complete without appetite inducing pictures, The Lucknow Cookbook has them too. Bang in the centre, an eight-page long visual feast, spread back to back with photographs of Lucknowi fare laid out in style, rather like an Awadhi dastarkhwan, as Sunita Kohli notes in her forward, ‘a Persian term literally meaning a meticulously laid out ceremonial dining spread…’
The Lucknow Cookbook is one family’s chronicle of what turns out to be more than just about food. It is about an era, a city and a society where culture and refinement absorbed from various influences produced food, the first and foremost expression of good hospitality, that was as intricate and nuanced as the art and architecture, the jewellery and furniture of a people who loved to live well.
Lucknow, according to Kohli, ‘had a high degree of refinement as compared to Delhi. It was known for its “tehzeeb, tameez aur nafaasat (manners, etiquette and sophistication).”…Lucknow was home to some of the most vibrant and artistic expressions of its time.’ Even in comparison with Lahore, a vibrant city in its own right, Lucknow stood out. In her words again – ‘The hospitality in Lahore is extraordinary and its food is legendary. There are some striking similarities to the cuisine of Lucknow. But one difference is that the cuisine of Lahore is more robust, in the tradition of the Punjab. The traditional cuisine in Lucknow is more refined, more aromatic, more aesthetically creative and it is served with a greater nazaakat (elegance).’ For Lucknow is the place where Hindu and Muslim traditions blend and become something exclusive to the city, whose chefs ‘took the best …, absorbed them into their current cuisines and made it into a uniquely Lucknowi experience.’
Chand Sur, the other author of this book, and Kohli’s mother, arrived in Lucknow in 1948. The partition had dispossessed them, her family as well as that of her husband’s, as it had thousands of people from both sides, but it had not been able to rob the Surs of their zest for life. They threw open their home to friends and relatives and, in turn, were warmly welcomed by their increasing circle of friends. Lunches, dinners, high teas and bridge parties, every single item on the menu prepared lovingly at home, and lavishly served. It is this hospitality that The Lucknow Cookbook bestows on the reader, through family recipes.
The contents page lists the dishes under separate, self-descriptive headings, the way a five star restaurant’s menu book would read. It begins with that universally relatable Lucknowi platter – kebabs. This is followed by shorba or soups. Then come the vegetarian dishes, but preceded by potatoes, which get a whole chapter to themselves. The reason is short and sweet – ‘Being the most versatile of vegetables makes potatoes a saving grace for all vegetarians. Everytime one was confused as to what to make for a meal, a new potato recipe was created.’ Next come mutton with vegetables, and includes Irish stew, a most heart-warming winter dish, followed by a chapter on stand-alone mutton dishes, some with interesting names like ‘Khubani ka Salan’ – a mutton dish made with dry apricots or khubani – and ‘Khichhhra’ which is essentially mutton or chicken cooked with a variety of lentils. Chicken recipes follow, with classics like ‘Murgh Mussallam’ and exotic sounding like ‘Chicken Chasseur,’ which turned out to be a regular Anglo-Indian or British Colonial dish requiring both shallow frying and baking. I’ve eaten this in my childhood, but remember it being referred to as baked chicken curry. Kohli shares an anecdote regarding this dish’s pronunciation in her note to the chapter. One of the dishes she shares – Dahi Chicken – is a family recipe that she learnt from her mother and embellished in turn.
In the chapter on fish dishes, Kohli notes that fish used to be considered a poor man’s food, but now the rich enjoy it more. Their house specialities were Masala Fish and Soya Fish, the latter made not with soya nuggets, but soya leaves! Two chapters follow, one on dal and the other on raita, which also has a recipe from the famous Hindi writer Shivani, who lived in Lucknow for thirty years, which Kohli received from her friend and the late author’s daughter, Ira Pande. And then come the recipes on Biriyanis and Pulaos, preceded of course by the forwarding note where Kohli explains the difference between pulaos and biriyanis! Whether you are from Lucknow or not, no feast from the city can be complete without their world famous biriyani, and by all measure Lucknow’s ‘best contribution to Indian cuisine.’
Lucknowi breads are rich and stress more on the intricacy and taste than caloric content, like the Baqarkhani for example. Some of the recipes in the (separate) chapters on Meetha and Puddings are familiar, and I am not sure why they should be considered exclusive to Lucknow. The steamed yoghurt for example, is exactly like the Bengali Bhapa Doi, except that the Lucknowi variation uses grated lemon/orange rind instead of saffron or powdered green cardamoms. Aam Malai too, was a quick easy dessert enjoyed in summer, but then eating fresh fruit with fresh cream was both common and popular. Then again, this is a book of family recipes, ‘the good food that we (Kohli and siblings) had not only in our own homes but also what was served in the homes of our friends.’ And no matter where they had originated, the recipes would have been shaped and changed in the expert hands of the matriarchs. Speaking of which, I did not know that Jalebi pudding was a dish created by Chand Sur. Its popularity must have spread like wild fire because it was frequently made by westernised Indian ladies even in the eastern corners of the country during the sixties! The bread pudding too was a winter favourite and usually eaten hot. It was often made without the brandy, depending on how conservatively Indian the family was! And, a more adventuress cook would use whiskey instead of rum! But bread puddings are comfort food, with or without the alcohol, and I was delighted to find the Sur version here. As for the ‘Everyday Ice Cream’ recipe, I would recommend it to everyone, if only as a tribute to that bygone era when even ice cream was actually, and truly, hand churned at home! Not all that difficult, and can be turned into a family/friends joyously combined effort. Kohli has a confession to make regarding her duties as the official the ice cream server at home, but I won’t give it away here!
The Lucknow Cookbook is nostalgia. By the time you move from the chapter on drinks to ‘Lucknowi Coffee, High Tea, Cocktail Snacks and Cakes’ you will have slipped away half a century or more into a quiet era, when the air was scented with flowering shrubs, trees and cut grass, and the silence was deepened by the sound of a distant tennis ball hitting a racquet or a fly buzzing outside netted doors. The recipes are uncomplicated, created specifically for the home cook. And the Indian names of the ingredients and condiments come with English counterparts for those who are unfamiliar with local names. This is a book one can gift to those who have long left these shores, and wish to soothe their longings for home through their taste buds. This is a book one can keep for idle readings during quiet afternoons, for conversations with friends who enjoy food and cooking, and for an authentic recipe to fulfil that sudden urge to consume something that is the far opposite of commercial, a dish evocative of families and friends gathered around a table. Nothing draws as much comfort as the food of one’s childhood, even when you are peering into someone else’s, as I just did. And, as Ravi Trehan (Sunita Kohli’s cousin) sums it up in his tribute to the book, ‘I sometimes wonder what I would do without these memories. My life in my aunt’s house and my mother’s home centred on the warmth of food and family. Lucknow was for me a celebration of food. And my aunt defined those heights of culinary Lucknow.’
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection ‘Immoderate Men’, was published by Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). A children’s book is forthcoming from Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad, and been widely published worldwide.