November 4, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
Autumn, by now, has very much arrived in Lucknow. Growing up in New England I always dreaded this time of year for two primary reasons. 1: It meant that summer was over and school was starting again, which always instilled in me a strong sense of anxiety and dread, and 2: I absolutely despise raking leaves. Not only is it unbearably monotonous, its also cruelly futile. Leaves inevitably continue to fall on spaces just cleared, even as you work, no matter how barren the trees above you seem. Breezes carelessly scatter carefully collected piles back across portions of the lawn you have worked so hard to liberate from their suffocating weight. Perhaps the only thing worse is stripping paint.
As I grew older, though, and spent fewer of my fall months in Connecticut, I gained a new appreciation for the season’s New England variant. That distinctive, earthen scent of summer’s disintegration carried through the air on crisp, dry breezes. The enormous rustling cacophony of wind through dry brown, yellow, and red foliage, still resistant to autumn’s downward pull, and the shower back to earth of those that can hold out no longer. The cascade of colors riding up and down rolling hills.
Its enough to make a guy a little nostalgic, if you haven’t noticed.
Autumn in Lucknow, nonetheless, has its own sincere charms. The temperature, by now, has cooled to a very comfortably consistent high 70s-low 80s range during the day, and dips to around the mid-60s during the night. Aside from being far more comfortable, the lack of a continuous need for air conditioning has also meant fewer blackouts. Monsoon season having ended several months ago, however, the lack of rain has allowed a thick veil of smog and dust to accumulate and sit just above the city – a constant veil the prevents one from seeing more than two or three blocks in any direction. The combination of pollution and the changing seasons makes this one of the most common times of the year for colds and sinus infections. I’ve already fallen victim to the latter.
The cool weather does make this an ideal time to explore Lucknow, however – a place I am steadily becoming more attached to. Last night a few of us went out to sample some of the local cuisine with the son of one of the home-stay families (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I used his name but I haven’t asked him yet, so I won’t for the time-being), who, aside from a close friend, has become an excellent guide to the city. The first stop, at around 7pm, was a local Chaat stand. Chaat doesn’t really have a precise English translation, but it is essentially a style of (usually roadside) savory cuisine based around fried hollow balls of dough (Puri) or potatoes (Aloo).
Yes, yes, I know. The blog name. My mother’s excellent advice. This remains true, and is generally a very wise suggestion.
However, our friend being the knowledgeable guy that he is, I felt confident in his assurances that this place could be trusted. The large crowd that gathered outside the stand seemed to speak volumes to his cooking abilities as well.
I had already eaten dinner, but it was difficult to resist the steady line of savory fried goodness that passed in front of me on bowls of dried leaves. First, Aloo Tikki: a wonderfully seasoned blend of fried potato patties, Dahi (yogurt), curry, and a whole bunch of other delicious stuff (I’m not a chef, ok? I think there might have been some chick peas in there too). Hot, crispy, satisfying. Next was the Dahi Puri: warm hollow fried balls of dough filled with chick peas, fried potatoes, cool, sweet yogurt, coriander leaves, and spices. After several errant attempts at consuming one of the delicious (and generously portioned) morsels “politely”, I was informed that pretty much the only method that prevented yogurt from spilling everywhere was just to eat the whole thing at once. It was excellent, and I wound up eating more of it than anything else I was offered, although it was very much unlike anything one would get in the states. The stark contrast between the savory and the sweet was made even more dramatic by the coolness of the yogurt resting on the freshly fried Puri. A very interesting flavor combination. Finally, the Pane (Water) Puri: from American eyes, this was probably the most unusual dish we got. Essentially, we were handed a plate of empty Puri balls and a cup of water, into which a very salty curry mixture was dissolved. The closest thing I could compare it to might be a very strong chicken broth. The instructions were very simple: pour the water into the Puri and eat it quickly before it all seeped through the dough. I found it to be not half bad, but I don’t think my fellow Americans shared even my quasi-enthusiasm. Oh well. You can’t win them all.
From there we drove around Chowk a little bit and hit up a few tea stands, including one renowned throughout the city for its pink-hued Kashmiri Chai. Garnished with the dollop of a clotted cream-like substance that, to be honest, was a little off-putting at first, but lent the sweet pistachio and cardamom hues a delicious, creamy backdrop.
Finally, as the night grew late we made one last stop for some passanda, which was by far the highlight of the evening. Lucknowi Muslim cuisine is very much based around meat – particularly finely chopped and seasoned meat cooked over coals or a fire (this style is known, generally, as kebab), which is then flavored with lime juice and/or onion and eaten by hand or with Parata (a doughy fried flatbread). See my previous entry on Chowk for a discussion of Lucknow’s most famous Kebab stand.
Whereas most Kebab is fried, however, Passanda is slow roasted over coals until it is so tender you can pull it apart using only one hand (essential given Indian eating taboos). Aside from being wonderfully savory with just the right amount of spicy bite, the coals give the meat a fantastic bit of smokiness that makes the flavor fully rounded and complete. I know I’ve ascribed to numerous dishes the title of “my favorite Lucknowi food” over the past few months, but Tunday Kebab’s mutton Kebab may have just been unseated. Tunday Kebab: you’re on notice. Perhaps a side-by-side taste test is in order.
Life moves on pretty slowly in this big city with a provincial feel. I have, of course, been following the news regarding Hurricane Sandy. I can personally attest that Urdu-language newspapers over here have been doing the same as well. Although my hometown was spared too much damage, the images and stories coming out of New York City and New Jersey, two places that are, literally and figuratively, quite close to home for me, are heartbreaking. I have total confidence in the region’s capacity for recovery, but the thought of such a proud, unflappable place full of proud, unflappable people in such dire straits hits a deep nerve.
Wishing everyone the best.