If you ever find yourself in Chowk in Lucknow, please take the incredible alley that finds its origin at the Gol Darwaza.
The Darwaza is not round, but it is adequately big. The alley, known also as Phoolwali Gali, will provide you with an immense array of experiences. It is one of those few places in this country where traffic truly gets chaotic to an epic degree. Even pedestrians fail to move – I speak from personal experience.
But eventually people manage to move. By this time the pedestrian is seething with irritation. The reason is not the traffic but the calm tea-sipping, gutkha-eating, pan-chewing policemen. They manage to keep looking upon this physical reality with such metaphysical disinterest that palpable objects (such as bricks, stones, sticks etc) start crowding the imagination of those who watch them. However, this test of patience and restraint will be duly rewarded. This is the place where you will get the true Lucknow chikan (chicken as some locals call it; and the art is called ‘chikankari’! Imagine my confusion when I heard it with a hungry ear). Not only is it the cradle of the chikan, the prices are also true. Quite unlike the other markets where the prices are doubly fat. There is variety, there is loudness – both in design and in decibel counts – but if you are a true hunter and gatherer you will end up with magnificent trophies.
But that is not the only reward. If you keep walking you will find Raheem ki Nihari. Raheem and Tunday Kababi are neighbours. Invest some time here. Start with what they call Kulcha (not quite the filling-filled stuff, basically tandoor baked paranthas) and Nihari (Big or small, if you know what I mean) and then go for a “half-plate” biryani. You will not regret it.
Then walk around for some time, admire the crowd and let the locals admire you, and when you are reasonably motivated and feel like refuelling, go to Tunday Kababi. Just sit there and let the food do its magic. For magic it is. But be warned, your gastronomic impulses will want to run amok. Don’t let them. There is a tiny (foot)note here. If you are a wildlife aficionado, you might be lucky enough to find a few wildly happy mice frolicking at or just licking your feet. Do not get scared. Though they have a healthy population they are full of courtesy, they generally do not disturb people when they are eating. Do not look too closely at the cutlery though, life is never that perfect.
The narrative doesn’t end here. Go back to the Chowk. Turn left from Gol Darwaza. Take the first alley to the left. For some reason it is called Banwali Gali. It is about three feet in width. Don’t feel daunted. And don’t let the unending line of bikes intimidate you. Remember, you are on a quest. Ask for Ram Asrey’s shop. When you reach there get immersed in the Kali Gazar ka Halwa. This is a true black culinary beauty. Nowhere else have I had such delicious darkness.
If you are still feeling incomplete, try the Malai Paan. You will feel as if someone’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. (If you need more info, please visit: Ram Asrey.) I must express my gratitude to my friend Dr Kausik Sarbadhikari for directing me towards this establishment. He is a man who enjoys finer things, and the sweets here are definitely finer things.
If you are still not quite happy, do go directly to Aminabad. An app-cab is the best bet. The traffic will leave you breathless. So the air-conditioned mode of travel will help. The crowd will crowd you. But again, one spoonful of Prakash’s Kulfi and you are ready to take on the world. As a fan of the genus Kulfi, I can safely guarantee that that was the best I have ever had.
What I love about most of these establishments is that they do not confuse you with variety. Prakash (the Aminabad outlet) has three kinds of Kulfis – half, full and sugarfree. No artificial or newfangled flavours. Tunday Kababi has only, you guessed it, Tunday Kabab (along with lovely roomali paranthas) and I told you what Raheem offers. There are other branches of these institutions, but they do not have the feel that these originals have. The others might offer you greater luxury (some even have swanky restaurants with better amenities like Tunday Kababi in Aminabad) but the food is made more personal here.
All these establishments are incredibly old; Ram Asrey was established in 1805. It is older than Presidency College, Kolkata. The current owner of Ram Asrey assured me the shop has been there in that very spot ever since inception. If you want to know Lucknow and its past, you must make it a point to visit all these places. They will give you the feel and the flavour, quite literally, of the Nawabi past.