Awadh or Oudh, which is present day Lucknow, was ruled by many kings over the years. It was during the reign of the Nawabs of Awadh that the quaint province transformed into a major centre of art, culture and learning, and most importantly, culinary art.
Owing to this contribution of the Nawabs, Lucknow today is also fondly known as the 'City of Nawabs' - upholding the rich legacy of Nawabi culture that the royals have left behind. It is the fine cuisine of Awadh that holds a prominent place in this royal Nawabi culture among other elements such as polite mannerisms or tehzeeb, art, music and Urdu poetry.
The erstwhile province of Awadh was famous for its high standards of gastronomic etiquette.
The phrase 'Nawabs and Kebabs', which is popularly used while talking of Lucknow, is reminiscent of the illustrious times of Nawabs like Asaf-ud-daulah and Wajid Ali Shah who had royal bawarchis creating melt-in-the-mouth Kakori Kebabs, Galawati Kebabs, Shammi Kebabs, Zafrani Kebabs and Seekh Kebabs, to name a few on the platter.
Over the years, the Awadhi cuisine travelled far and wide, but the right concoction of secret ingredients and spices like zafran, cinnamon and cardamom, dried fruits and fragrant herbs is believed to be known to only a handful of chefs with royal Khansama lineage who can prepare authentic delicacies such as fragrant biriyanis and exotic kebabs fit for the royalty.
This culture is still preserved among the aristocracy of Lucknow; and of course the legacy of the rakabdars or the master cooks, who with tremendous discipline bordering on religious fervour, still follow the traditional style of cooking handed over to them by their ancestors.
Awadhi royals embraced the 'Dum Pukht' style of cooking - a traditional technique of slow cooking rice, meat and vegetables in big cauldrons sealed off using dough and topped with flaming charcoal to cook the ingredients perfectly in their own juices.
The Dum Pukht style of cooking is believed to have originated during the rule of Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah, perhaps as a food-for-work program for thousands of workmen constructing the famous Bada Imambara shrine.
To make a simple, one-dish meal for the workers, large cauldrons were filled with rice, meat, vegetables, and spices and sealed.
Legend has it that one day the Nawab caught a whiff of the aromas coming from these cauldrons and he ordered his royal kitchen to serve the dish.
The rest is history.