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.’