For all its holy rivers and temples, Uttar Pradesh has pure sin reigning in its kitchens – lashings of ghee, marbled meats, decadent sweets and creamy drinks. Lucknow is the food capital, but everywhere you go you’ll find lavish breakfasts, delicious desserts and, always, at least one jealously guarded speciality.
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With its silky paté-like consistency, the achingly tender galawat kebab is said to have been originally created to accommodate the gums of a toothless but meat-loving nawab who’d misplaced his dentures. This must have been an act of the culinary gods because there is no kebab quite as pleasurable to eat as this one, whether you have all your teeth or none. The best place to try it is in the original Chowk branch of Lucknow’s legendary Tunday Kababi.
Varanasi clearly lives by the adage of eating like a king at breakfast, with food stalls stirring to life with the first rays of the sun. The most celebrated, and justly so, breakfast combination is kachori and sabzi, and the best place to try it is at Kachori Gali. The flaky deep-fried pastry is delicious dipped into a chickpea or potato curry, with a dash of tangy tamarind chutney.
Old Lucknow has been waking up to this filling winter breakfast since time immemorial; it’s usually partaken after the first prayer of the day. The undisputed place to try this mutton-and-bread repast is Raheem’s in Chowk. Pieces of mutton are stewed overnight in trotter stock and eaten with special ghilafi kulchas – flaky on the outside with a soft inner layer – which Raheem’s bread specialists artfully fashion from two kinds of dough.
When in Jaunpur, known also for its distinctive mutton preparations, an immarti (also known as jhangri) is the preferred dessert to put a sweet craving to rest. Made from stone-ground lentil flour, it is deep fried and dipped in sugar syrup with a dash of saffron, which gives it that extra-zesty orange colour. Commonly used aromatics include cloves and cardamom. They can be eaten hot or cold. Try them at Beniram Pyarelal’s.
The taste of Mathura’s pedas is nothing short of divine. Made from fresh khoya (condensed milk), the soft sweets will melt in your mouth. It is believed that a young Lord Krishna loved pedas and thus the Braj region has maintained a certain reverence in preparing and consuming the treat. The best places to pick up a batch are Brijwasi and Gosai Pede Wala.
Agra’s twist on poori-sabzi is the dangerously addictive bedai, which manages to marry the airiness of a poori and the crackle and crunch of a kachori. A stuffing of spices and potatoes (sometimes other vegetables) adds some more heft to the dish, which is often consumed along with an alarmingly large tumbler of lassi at the small snack shops and stalls in the old city, especially in Sadar Bazaar. We particularly like the version served up by Deviram.
If there’s one truly home-grown kebab in the Awadh region, it is the shaami kebab, a fragrant and mildly spiced patty of minced meat with finely chopped onions, green chillies and, in summer, green mango. To truly taste how great these kebabs can be, you need to be invited into a Lucknavi home. Failing that, give a ring to home chef Rashida Zaheer, who has created quite a name for her Awadhi specialities, particularly the shaami; it’s not likely to be matched in taste and texture in any eatery in the city.
Mutton Biryani at Dastarkhwan
Dastarkhwan, one of Lucknow’s best known eateries, is a Mughlai specialist which also lists some Awadhi fare on its menu. The tandoori selection, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, is a cut above the rest but it is the mutton biryani, though, that is simply transcendent and one of the best you are likely to eat in Lucknow. Fragrant and flavourful, the dish is spiced with a light touch, the meat is succulent and substantial and the rice is cooked to perfection. If you wish to compare, do try the excellent biryani at Idris which produces a refined iteration of the dish from a grubby shack in the Chowk area.
This gooey, translucent and tooth-achingly sweet dessert is surprisingly delicious and indulgent for something made of the usually virtuous white pumpkin or ash gourd. Agra claims the title of petha king of India, and the specialists have been nothing if not creative over the years. Today you’ll find it in dozens of flavours, from chocolate to coconut to cherry. Shopkeepers hawk their stuff all over the city, but the undisputed leader is Panchhi Petha.