In a Time of Excess – a Famine, and a Biryani


The Nawabs of Awadh were a decadent lot who spoiled themselves silly luxuriating away the hours and days of their lives in all sorts of indulgences, with nary a thought for their people.

The flag of the Nawabs of Awadh

Descended from a Persian adventurer called Sadat Khan, who was named Nawab of Awadh in 1732, a dependency of the Mughal Empire, successive generations, in fact all 12 of them, pushed the limits to which profligacy and extravagance could be taken.

They were the newest royal family of all the Muslim states at that time, the nouveau riche of the 18th century, the new playboys on the block with pocketfuls of gold coins to throw on whatever they fancied.

As the Mughal empire waned, the Nawabs grew stronger and more independent and the need to out-do the Mughals and impress the British became more important than running their kingdom.

An English visitor to the court of Awadh wrote, “The style in which this remote colony lived was surprising, it far exceeding even the expense and luxuriousness of Calcutta” the then capital of India.

While the Nawabs were lovers of poetry, song, dance and kept large harems, most of the money from their treasury went towards food.

The average spend on food in those days would be in the region of Rs 70,000 per month (equivalent to approximately Rs 1,000,000 or US$ 20,835 today), and this did not include the salaries of the vast retinue of cooks who were a highly prized and zealously protected lot during their reign.

There were three categories of cooks in the household. The ‘bawarchis’, who cooked food in large quantities; the ‘rakabdars’ who were gourmet chefs and prepared exquisite dishes and meals; and the ‘nanfus’ who made a selection of rotis and breads. There were many ‘rakabdars’ in a household, each specializing in a particular dish or cuisine.

An army of assistants and helpers who had specialist roles to perform in the royal kitchens assisted these highly paid and highly regarded cooks. And to supervise them all, a ‘daroga-e-bawarchikhana’ or head of the kitchen would keep an eye on quality and ensured that the Nawabs and their entourage were always happy.

It was unwritten law that the Nawabs would sanction whatever quantity of ingredients the cook demanded. No questions were asked nor doubts raised. A popular story goes that Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din slapped his vizier (minister) Agha Meer for reducing the quantity of ghee (clarified butter) used by the cook in preparing parathas. The nawab was no fool. He said that even if the cook pilfered some ghee, so what? The parathas he made were excellent, while “You rob the whole monarchy and think nothing of it.”

The British, already impressed with the lavishness of the Mughals, were flabbergasted by the Nawabs excessiveness. An officer of the East India Company noted in his diary, “They kept a table which, both in appointments and in the fare provided, could vie with any belonging to men of rank in England. There were three separate dishes provided for each course. That at the upper end of the table was cooked by an English cook; that in the centre by an Indian; and that at the lower end was prepared by a French chef”.

A typical everyday ‘dastarkhwan’ or spread of food in Awadh would not be complete unless it had the following dishes:

Korma (braised meat in thick gravy), salan (a gravy dish of meat or vegetable), kheema (minced meat), kebabs (pounded meat fried or roasted over a charcoal fire), bhujia (cooked vegetables), dal (lentils), pasinda (fried slivers of very tender meat, usually kid, in gravy), rice cooked with meat  in the form of a pulao, chulao (fried rice) or served plain. There would also be a variety of rotis. Deserts comprise gullati (rice pudding), kheer (milk sweetened and boiled with whole rice to a thick consistency), sheer brunj, (a rich, sweet rice dish boiled in milk), muzaffar (vermicelli fried in ghee and garnished with saffron).

The menu changed seasonally and with the festivals. In the winters, paya (trotters), meat koftas and kidneys were favoured along with birds like partridge and quail. In the spring and summer, they included fish in their diets.

Biryani, as a dish, did not feature on the menu of the Nawabs for a little more than half a century into their reign. It took a famine for it to be recognized as a dish worthy of a Nawab’s table.

Dum Gosht Biryani from Kakori House

1784. A prolonged dry and dusty period befalls Awadh. The plains heat up and the rivers dry into small polluted streams. Even the nobility fall on hard times. And all this pains the 4th Nawab of Awadh.

Asaf-ud-Daula, besides being a man of exceptional taste and a connoisseur of fine food, was known more for his generosity. As a famine relief measure, he ordered the construction of the Bara Imambara and splashed out more than a million pounds on it. It still remains one of the grandest buildings in modern day Lucknow.

Legend has it that it was destroyed every evening and rebuilt the next day so that more people could be employed. The nobles, to protect their position in society did no work but were quietly paid when night fell and neither was their identity revealed nor was it asked.

To feed this army of construction workers, large cauldrons were filled with rice, meat and vegetables, sealed and slow cooked for hours to create a one-dish meal.

One day on his rounds, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula caught a whiff of the aroma emanating from these cauldrons and immediately instructed his royal cooks to serve the dish. After a bit of tweaking, it began gracing his table. The rest, they say, is history.

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula discovered the ‘dum’ style of cooking and then patronized it

‘Dum’ or cooking off the steam, is an elaborate method that involves cooking a combination of ingredients over a slow fire in a large bottomed vessel, which is sealed with dough to allow the contents to cook in their own juices. This process allows the spices and the meat to release their flavors gently and retain their natural aromas.

The Lucknow or Awadh biryani is a ‘pakki’ biryani, where cooked meat in special spices is layered over cooked rice and then sealed and given ‘dum’. The Hyderabad biryani is a ‘kucchi’ biryani, where raw meat and rice are combined with spices and then given a ‘dum’.

In Mumbai, two restaurants serve you an authentic Lucknow style biryani. You can unravel the mystique of the Nawabs either at Dum Pukht/ITC Maratha (+91 22 28303030) or at Kakori House (+91 22 65229211). An enjoyable meal fit for the Nawabs it would certainly be.

At the end of Asaf-ud-Daula‘s reign, his grand construction spree emptied out his treasury. He died a poorer man. But his kingdom was enriched by his biryani.

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2 thoughts on “In a Time of Excess – a Famine, and a Biryani

  1. A bit judgemental and opinionated in the storytelling, don’t you think? Living a life of beauty and pleasure and having the means to do it doesn’t need to be viewed so strongly in B&W. What would Lucknowi culture be without the `profligacy’ and d`decadence’? What would ANY rich culture be without the necessary patronage? The Nawabs also ran their kingdoms, btw, until, just like every other princely state in India, the EIC, twisted them into corners and forced them to sign the Doctrine of Lapse for various contrived reasons.

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