Few Indian Chefs Still Cook in the Courtly Tradition Nawabi cuisine is part of a centuries-old Indian tradition, where dozens of spices are used and unexpected dishes are created. This involved style of cooking is a fading tradition in India.
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Few Indian Chefs Still Cook in the Courtly Tradition

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Few Indian Chefs Still Cook in the Courtly Tradition

Few Indian Chefs Still Cook in the Courtly Tradition

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Back now with DAY TO DAY.

And off to India, where for hundreds of years the city of Lucknow has been known for its opulent cuisine. The style of cooking is still practiced by a few chefs there, most of whom trace their culinary lineage back to their grandparents and beyond.

David Kohn traveled to India to taste for himself.

DAVID KOHN: Until the British arrived on the scene, Lucknow and the surrounding area were controlled by Nawabs. Incredibly wealthy, each Nawabi ruler had a team of chefs, who competed to create the most sumptuous meals. It was a luxurious style, heavy on cream, oil, marinated meat, and innumerable spices.

Pushpesh Pant is an eminent Indian foodie. He described the cuisine.

Dr. PUSHPESH PANT (Diplomatic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University): The first thing I would say is that it had to be exotic. It had to be unexpected. It could be something like, you say, you eat a dessert, and you say, oh, is it reduced milk? Is it eggs? And there would be a twinkle in the host's eye and will say, no, it is grated potatoes, you know.

KOHN: These riddle dishes were central to Nawabi cuisine. At one famous 19th-century feast, cooks used sugar, honey and other sweets to create an entire riddle meal. Desserts masquerading as entrees like kebabs, curries, even whole fish.

Pushpesh compares these chefs to composers, blending many instruments into a symphony.

Dr. PENT: Even a simple, everyday dish would use instead of, shall we say, three, four basic spices, every day it would change with the recipe and would include 30 odd spices, condiments, flavoring agents. But what would be essentially always there is an aromatic spice, which is dominant. It's exactly like music.

KOHN: Now, of course, the Nawabi lifestyle is no more.

(Soundbite of kitchen utensils)

KOHN: One of the few places left to get the food is Dum Pukt, a five-star restaurant in the Delhi Sheraton. I had dinner there with some hotel officials, and the chef, Gulam Qureshi, who comes from a long line of Nawabi masters.

My odyssey began with something called kakori kebabs, made with lamb and topped with a thin layer of silver leaf — made from real silver. The metal is so thin that it isn't actually worth much, but the simple fact that the Nawabs gilded their food tells you something about the level of luxury. I ate the metal. It did not add any flavor as far as I can tell, but these kebabs needed no help.

Unidentified Woman: How does it taste?

KOHN: It's a kind of remarkable texture to it. It's so — it's almost like a liquid. It's so smooth. My god, it's amazing. I've never tasted anything like this before.

Unidentified Woman: Flowing down your throat?

KOHN: Absolutely, absolutely. It's incredible.

(Soundbite of kitchen utensils)

KOHN: How does Qureshi make this magic? His recipes are secret, but he did share two key steps.

Mr. GULAM QURESHI (Chef, Dum Pukt, Delhi Sheraton, India): Twenty-two ingredients. You will put some like this. (Indian spoken).

KOHN: Translation: He uses 22 spices. He's not saying which, and he minces the meat not one time, two time…

Mr. QURESHI: Five time, six time, seven time. Seven time…

KOHN: Seven times, giving it a kind of gooey texture. We went through five luscious courses. There was kundun kalia — a succulent lamb curry made with yogurt and almond paste, this time topped with gold leaf; subz milani — a delicate puree of vegetables; and shai tikla — a creamy yet understated dessert made with milk, sugar, and crushed rose petals. All were remarkable, but my favorite was murg kush purda, a rice and lamb dish covered with a blissful bread and cooked for hours in a thick, metal pan on a low flame.

The Sheraton's Tejinder Singh explained the process.

Mr. TEJINDER SINGH (Food and Beverage Manager, Delhi Sheraton): Now, this top is like crisp layer. It's so crisp it can become powder. See, this?

KOHN: Yeah. It is (unintelligible).

Mr. SINGH: (unintelligible) powder.

KOHN: Yeah.

Mr. SINGH: This is it. Like the bottom…

KOHN: It's just like a pastry.

Mr. SINGH: Yeah.

KOHN: It's like a croissant.

Mr. SINGH: Yeah, croissant. And the base is like, you can almost, you know, like stretch it out. That's because, you know, it gets cooked from under with steam and there from the top, it's getting dry heat.

KOHN: But Indian epicures worry that Nawabi knowledge is disappearing. Pizza Hut and McDonald's are increasingly popular in India, and modern life isn't conducive to armies of chefs and recipes that required days to prepare.

Amir Naqi Khan remembers those glory days. When he was a boy, his family lived in a palace in the heart of Lucknow. His father was part of the local royalty. Twelve cooks prepared Nawabi food for every meal.

Mr. AMIR NAQI KHAN (Resident, Lucknow, India): It was very luxurious. Economic restraint was not there. There were several dishes - breakfast and lunch and dinner.

KOHN: These days, Khan has only one cook, and he's had to sell off most of his palace. But a few times a year, he throws a Nawabi dinner party. He invites some friends and a few tourists eager for a real regal meal. Afterwards, it's back to less fantastic fare. But Khan still has his lavish memories.

Mr. KAHN: That sort of life is like a dream now because you cannot imagine, at this time, you can live such a life. In urdo(ph), it is said that Jode Karuhata(ph) or Josena Osanata(ph), that is what to put away (unintelligible) that was a dream, and it is like a story.

KOHN: Hopefully for gourmets everywhere, the story isn't over - yet.

For NPR News, I'm David Kohn.

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(Soundbite of credits)

COHEN: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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