When it comes to Street Food in Lucknow, Chowk is perhaps the first name that comes to mind. Many newer places have come up in the last few decades, especially around the Hazratgunj area which serve good food, yet the charm of Chowk remains completely unmatched.
So what exactly is Chowk? It's an old market area located in the busy and bustling old Lucknow. The chowk area starts from Gol Darwaza on one side and ends at the Akhbari Darwaza on the other. It's a short stretch of a about 500m, yet it encompasses much of Lucknow's history. It's well-known for many things which are essentially considered quintessential Nawabi, including it's much renowned cuisine of Awadhi food.
Nawabs were great patrons of arts and culture, and food automatically became an essential part of it. They built on the already elaborate Awadhi cuisine and brought it to the forefront of Indian cuisine. What’s really interesting is that it’s actually this area of Lucknow where many of these food innovations took place. Even today when you step a foot in Chowk, the flavour of old world can quickly suck you back in time. I am a very moody foodie, and often my food experiences are governed by the environment and the context. Maybe for this reason alone, I loved food at Chowk in Lucknow in every possible way!
It's difficult, and possibly unfair, to classify the food served at Chowk into groups, but I am doing it here based completely on my experiences. I am a vegetarian myself, so all the non-vegeterian recommendations come from my friends who relish the food (and yes, they are all from Lucknow or meat lovers). I am a huge fan of sweets and since Lucknow is perhaps one of the best places to enjoy the North Indian mithai (sweets), the post focuses a lot on the sweets in Chowk.
Chowk is often known as jannat for all non-vegetarians, and the food here has often been referred to as the best non-vegetarians food on the country. Much of this comes form one single shop which has become an icon much beyond the city. I am talking about the famous ‘Tunday Kebab’ shop in Chowk.
Now Tunday Kebab have a very interesting story. Long long ago there was a Nawab (of Kakori) who loved kebabs but was too old to chew on them. So he called for a competition to make a kebab so soft that anyone without teeth could also eat it. The competition was won by one man called Haji Murad Ali who had only one hand. Just as a man without legs is called Langda in Hindi, a man without hands is called Tunda and that’s how the place got its name. With time these became the most popular kebabs, not just for the old and teeth-less, but almost everyone who took a bite out of them. Arguably they make the best and the most famous kebabs in the entire country. I am a vegetarian and can’t vouch for its taste, but I am told that one bite can take you immediately to jannat (heaven).
As I walked on the main Chowk road (its actually just a slightly wide alley), I could just not locate the shop. In fact, I passed it by and asked the shop next to it about the address. He laughed and showed me the shop, and I must confess it was perhaps one of the most understated shop possible. There wasn’t a name board visible (I did see one later on) and place was just so simple and basic. The chef grinned broadly when I took his picture and invited me inside for some food also, and was rather disappointed when I told him that I ate no meat!
The most famous Tunday kebab is Galawati Kebab which basically comes from the term ‘gala’ or soft. The recipe uses papaya as a softening agent and also includes about 150 different ingredients in it’s preparation. It’s also a popular kebab with many Bollywood personalities who have been patrons of the food here for decades, including Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh Khan.
Another very famous must-have food to be had in Chowk is Nihari and Kulcha. It started off as the breakfast for the common man but has now caught on the imagination of everyone. The shop most famous for this is calledRahim ki Nihari and its located near the Akhbari Gate.
The non-vegeterian food story of the Street food of Lucknow will be incomplete without a mention to it's Biriyani. The Biriyani from Huyderabad is famous across the country, but my friends from Lucknow tell me that it's the Lucknawi Biriyani which will take any Biriyani lover by surprise. Cooked with secret Nawabi flavors and spices, the Biriyani here has much more influence from Persia as compared to it's southern counterpart and it's unique in it's own way. Two of the best places to try out Lucknawi Biriyani are Idris ki Biriyani and Lalla Biriyani; I would let my non-vegeterian readers to help me pick the best of the two :)
When it comes to vegetarians also, the there are multiple food options, but to me they all fail when you look at the sweet shops of the Chowk area.
On my first visit I was exposed to Nimish which is essentially light, set cream, flavoured with saffron and rose water. In the traditional Persian recipe, horse milk is whipped with saffron and then kept overnight under the stars for that delicate flavour of dew. In India, however, we use cow milk. I took a small bite and was suddenly in the seventh sky! Food doesn't often surprise me and rarely surpasses my expectations, but Nimish did just that. Damn! I had to immediately eat more as I couldn't resist at all and only then could ask me about what it actually was.
Some of the other names for Nimish are Makkhan Malai, Daulat ki Chaat or Lab-e-Mashook.
On my second visit to the area, I was by myself and it was already evening. It had started to drizzle a little and I was still not done talking to the people, as always. However, I was hungry and needed to fill my stomach so went on the streets hunting for food. Chowk is extremely crowded area and on a normal day it’s actually difficult to walk on the main street, but rains made it easier that day to be on my foot. Now, chowk has food shops all around, and as you walk you are constantly pulled by these, especially if it’s evening.
I recommend focusing solely on sweets and leaving the dinner to another evening. You won’t come to Chowk again and its very important to soak in all flavours of sweets here. Start with the royal halwas from the Ram Asrey sweetshop. It is one of the oldest shops and has been making sweets from 1805. The shop actually serves there different types of halwas and all of them should be tried out. The three types are - Kali Gajar halwa, Zuazi halwa and Habshi halwa. All of them very very unique in taste and must be all tried to pick your favourite. What was my favourite? Well, I will keep all prejudices out and let you experience them all to pick yours!
Once done with halwa, it was time for gulab jamuns. For those who do not know Gulab Jamuns, they are black balls made with milk and sugar, and then deep friend and dipped in sugar syrup. There is a nameless right opposite ‘Tunde’s Kebab’ which serves the best Gulab-jamuns that you can ever have! I was there when these were sizzling hot and almost burnt my tongue, but still ate four of them. I am not a food critic, but this delicacy was simply outstanding!
If you still have some space left for actual dinner, walk towards the Gol Darwaza and have some Lucknow chaat. Now people across the country claim to serve chaat, but if you ever visit Lucknow you will know what great chaat is like! Even the chaatwallas of Delhi can’t match the taste of Lucknawi chaat. Thankfully not all of it is very spicy (except golgappe), so even I can easily enjoy it!
One of the best and the most recommended place in Chowk for Lucknow chaat is Dixit Chaat House. The other very popular but much heavier North Indian meal is that of Chole Bhature, and for this try Shree.
And finally, whether you eat vegetarian or non-vegetarian food, finishthis also with sweet Banarasi paan like every good North Indian mea. There are numerous paan shops and you can virtually buy it from any one of them.
If you are looking for hygienic food, maybe you will be disappointed by Chowk. It’s like any other very busy and old Indian market, and that makes cooking food hygienically a little difficult. Most food is cooked right in front of you on the street-side, and focusing too much on the food practices can potentially kill your food experiences.
If you are a foreigner and willing to try this very authentic food, you must just go ahead and do it. I saw so many foreigners enjoy the kebabs, that I was actually surprised. The one thing to be careful about would be water though - always carry your own safe water bottle (even I do that).
I feel that no matter how much I can add here, it can never be complete and comprehensive. Every time I visit Lucknow, I make it a point to explore Chowk area for food as well as other stories, and each visit helps me make a new discovery.