Butter and biryanis: India's Awadhi cuisine

Butter and biryanis: India's Awadhi cuisine

by Tom Shingler 04 April 2017

Famous for its rich spices, indulgent flavours and iconic dishes, Awadhi cuisine is steeped in history. Tom Shingler heads to Zaika in Kensington to learn more from head chef Shoeb Haider.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

The UK’s love affair with Indian food has been well documented over the years, but it’s only in the past decade that we’ve really started to pay attention to the regional differences in the country’s cuisine. India is, after all, a huge country, so it seems silly to lump all its food under one generic umbrella of ‘Indian’ cooking. We now know the southern states are where ingredients like coconut, jaggery and tamarind are used with aplomb, while northern India is home to many of the breads and curries we love. But that’s just scratching the surface of one of the world’s great cuisines – to truly understand the flavours of India, we need to dig a little deeper and look at specific states.

Awadhi cuisine is a bit of an unknown in Britain, despite being the basis for many of our favourite Indian takeaway staples. Seekh kebabs, biryanis and kormas are all legendary Awadhi dishes, which are regarded as some of the best in India. The cuisine comes from Lucknow, a city in the north of India, but has spread across the country thanks to its aromatic flavours and unique cooking techniques.

To find out more I sat down with Shoeb Haider, the head chef of Awadhi restaurant Zaika, in Kensington. Shoeb grew up in Lucknow and had never cooked using gas or electric until he went to Mumbai when he was twenty-two. Now he works in London, recreating the dishes of Lucknow and sticking close to tradition. It’s the kebabs and biryanis that the restaurant has become famous for, proving that the dishes we often take for granted in the UK have some serious history, technique and skill behind them.

Chef Shoeb grew up eating Awadhi cuisine in Lucknow, before moving to Mumbai and eventually London
Almost all Indian kebabs are Awadhi, thanks to the Mughals that ruled over the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

‘Awadhi cuisine is all about slow-cooking, known as dum in India, much of which is done in the tandoor,’ explains Shoeb. ‘This brings out amazing flavours and textures, which when combined with the rich, perfumed flavours from the spices create one of the best cuisines in the world. About ninety percent of all Indian kebabs are Awadhi, and it is the home of korma and biryani. Everything is cooked over charcoal – not just the kebabs, but all Awadhi dishes. The food isn’t as ‘showy’ as cuisines found in other parts of India – the biryani, for example, looks quite plain, but the texture and taste is just incredible.’

This slow cooking helps to meld flavours together to create something totally unique, but it’s the rich, indulgent spices that really set Awadhi cuisine apart. ‘Awadhi cuisine is very rich, with lots of nuts, cream and ghee, but in the olden days that was fine because people did a lot of physical work,’ says Shoeb. ‘Now it should be regarded as a treat; even though it might look simple, the second you taste it you will realise just how special it is.’

Breads are a staple in Lucknow, and many different varieties eaten in the UK are Awadhi
Traditionally, all Awadhi cuisine is cooked over charcoal, but in a restaurant setting gas is used alongside charcoal tandoors

Awadhi cuisine: a history

To truly understand the food of Lucknow and Awadhi cuisine in general, we have to go back to the time of the Mughal Empire, which in the early eighteenth century ruled over nearly a quarter of the world’s population and conquered vast swathes of India. It was in places like Lucknow that the Mughals introduced their own food culture, which in turn shaped India’s cuisine.

Dum cooking originated in Awadhi because of the Mughals, who ruled the area around Lucknow at the time,’ says Shoeb. ‘They used to fight many wars, so needed a way of cooking food that worked around that. By digging a hole in the morning and slowly cooking food in it, they could go to battle and then return to eat. Dum cooking also preserved meat for longer, which was handy for armies on the move.’

At first, Awadhi cuisine was only ever eaten by royalty or the guests of Mughal kings who wanted to show off their wealth. They’d do this by serving lots of richly flavoured food covered in gold and silver leaf (especially biryanis, which were full of expensive ingredients like saffron). Back then cooks would keep their methods very secret to ensure no other chef could steal their methods, which meant if someone wanted to taste Awadhi cuisine for themselves, they had to travel to Lucknow.

‘Even today, some chefs in Lucknow won’t share their recipes or methods,’ adds Shoeb. ‘India has changed so much but there are still small towns or areas where nothing has changed for one hundred years. That’s where a lot of India’s top chefs come from, or at the very least they will have trained there.’

Many of the cooking and serving dishes in Lucknow are made of bronze or copper, which also adds to the cuisine's unique textures and flavours
The biryani at Zaika is legendary, combining slow-cooked pieces of lamb with a fragrant sauce and rice

Spices and dishes

It takes an Awadhi chef a long time to properly master how to cook dum-style, but it takes even longer to understand how to correctly use spices. ‘Understanding how to select, toast and blend the spices together to create a proper Awadhi flavour is much harder than it sounds,’ says Shoeb. ‘Many of them are sharp or sweet, so the balance is very important. There are easily fifty spices used regularly in the cuisine, but in total it’s more like 150. The most common are cinnamon, saffron, green cardamom and mace, but other aromatics like rosewater are also popular. And while you might see a cardamom pod in your dish, you’ll never be able to taste it – the aim is to combine the spices in such a way that they create a single, unique flavour that tastes amazing.’

Sealing the biryani with dough before it goes in the oven ensures no steam escapes, cooking the rice perfectly
It is then sliced open just before serving, releasing the aromatic aromas

There are dozens of Awadhi dishes that are famous throughout India, but in the UK the most popular are the kebabs and biryanis. We tend to think of kebabs as anything cooked on a skewer and a biryani as a curry with rice mixed in, but this is an incredibly simplified way of looking at things. In Lucknow, kebabs come in all shapes and sizes with fiercely guarded recipes for the spice blends that flavour them. ‘The most famous Awadhi kebab is the seekh kebab, but there’s also kakori, which is a lamb kebab that melts in your mouth, and shami, a combination of lamb and chickpeas which was traditionally only made in the evening for men as they came home from work,’ says Shoeb. ‘Some are left fibrous, others like the shami are ground down to a very fine paste before being mixed with the spices (a method known as bawarchi) – legend has it that this was so Nawabs (Mughal rulers) who had lost their teeth were able to still eat meat.’

Despite the biryani being one of Lucknow’s most famous culinary exports, the staple of the region is actually wheat. ‘Breads are very important in Awadhi cuisine even though both rice and wheat grow in the area. All the different breads like parathas, naans and sheermals (a sweet, saffron-flavoured flatbread) are cooked in the tandoor and tend to take a long time, as you need to leave the dough to ferment the night before.’

As you can see, many of us have been enjoying the tastes and textures of Awadhi cuisine for years without even realising it. The gentle heat of the charcoal tandoor combined with rich spices and a tendency to add cream or ghee to sauces makes it incredibly luxurious and an instant hit the world over. But it’s only when you go to somewhere like Zaika and talk to a chef like Shoeb that you realise just how highly regarded the cuisine is, and how hard it can be to master. As you can imagine, the food itself is a world away from the typical high street Indian takeaway as it’s cooked using quality produce and to traditional methods, but it’s fascinating to see just how influential Awadhi cuisine is for Indian chefs in both the UK and abroad.

Some kebabs are left fibrous, others like the shami are ground down to a very fine paste before being mixed with the spices (a method known as bawarchi) – legend has it that this was so Nawabs (Mughal rulers) who had lost their teeth were able to still eat meat.

Shoeb Haider