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Although hailing from the northern state of Punjab, the Michelin-starred restaurant Kutir chef's love for Indian food spreads across the nation, including to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh on the Nepalese border
It only takes a quick look into Gwalior to discover it’s one of the most fascinating cities you’ve probably never heard of. Even its very first origins deliver a captivating tale, and one that's linked to what we consume, too.
Gwalior was named after an eighth-century sage, called Gwalipa, who happened upon a lost and dehydrated king in a forest and gave him a drink. This seemingly ‘normal’ water not only quenched the king’s thirst but also cured his leprosy, a handy side effect, which prompted the monarch to name a city after him, or at least build one in his honour around a fort and some walls.
And, long story cut short, like nearly every village, town or city in India, people have been talking about its food and drink ever since. Especially those who hail from it, such as Michelin-starred chef Rohit Ghai, who was born in Punjab in the north, before moving to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh when he was still young.
As we talk through his culinary upbringing, Rohit puts Gwalior in his top three in India (more on the others later) but it's really the Punjabi-inspired dishes coming from his mother's Gwalior kitchen that continue to have influence on him today. 'When I was a kid, as the youngest in the family, I spent a lot of time with my parents,' he explains. 'I was always trying to help out, and although I was never allowed to cook, I was still always there when my mother was making dinner. 'She’d make her own spices, stuffed breads with aloo matar – a pea and potato curry – makki ki roti, which is made with corn, and usually eaten with sarson ka saag, made from spicy mustard greens – whenever I get a moment I still cook it now in London, especially in the winter.'
Passionate about his mother's Punjabi cooking, Rohit reels off more dishes from her repertoire, many of which he’s paid homage to at his restaurants, which are almost always outstanding. His latest, Kutir, now almost two years old, is no exception and joins a list that is almost a glitterati of modern Indian dining: Jamavar; Trishna, Gymkhana, Hoppers and, of course, Benares, where Atul Kochhar gave him a break as sous chef. Within five years Rohit’s reputation was such that he was snapped up by the JKS group to launch a string of Michelin-starred success stories.
'I also make rajma,' the chef continues, 'a kidney bean stew my mum makes. She was vegetarian and a lot of people would turn vegetarian because of her and how good her cooking was. 'Whenever we get back to India, we’re always eating lots of lentils, vegetables, cauliflower, kidney beans, chickpeas and a lot of very nice rice dishes – often cooked with lentils, onions, tomatoes and clarified butter. One of my most popular dishes, vegetarian kedgeree, is inspired by this, but to make it more interesting and flavourful I use fresh truffles and wild mushrooms.
The spices and ghee adored by Punjabi families flavoured Rohit’s taste in every sense, with Northern Indian influences clear in his food. 'Punjab is one of the most prosperous states in India and the food of Punjab attests to this in every morsel,' he says. 'A lot of people think that most North Indians are Punjabi and you can't blame them given all the Punjabi influence in the culture up north. No matter what divides people, food has the power to unite us as Indians, especially the rich Punjabi food, with its succulent taste and clarified butter, desi ghee.'
With a ‘look but don’t touch’ rule in his mother’s kitchen, Rohit had no idea about any culinary talent residing within and admits ‘there was no plan to enter the food industry’. But he signed up for a course in hotel management in Delhi, which opened his horizons to food beyond his mother’s kitchen – and one place in particular stood out. 'When I was studying hotel management in India, I would go to lots of places to discuss the food and one of them was Lucknow,' he says. 'I would go for the kebabs and biryanis – the way that they make them is from the time of the royal family in Lucknow.'
The capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and bordered to the north by Nepal, Lucknow’s history is an ancient one with its tide rising particularly with the arrival of the Mughal Empire, which swept across South Asia from the 16th to the 19th century. Under their rule, Lucknow replaced the original capital of Faizabad in one of the hubs of its most powerful provinces, Awadh. 'Lucknow has so much history and the royal family influenced a lot of different things, especially the Awadhi cuisine,' says Rohit. 'Perfumes, oils, ittar, made from the essence of real flowers, spices – I still go back to Lucknow whenever I can for the food, especially the kebabs, such as tunday ke kebab and boti kebab, where you have tender, spice- and yoghurt- marinated pieces of meat cooked under intense heat.'
As with many Indian dishes, this one has a story to tell. 'Galawati kebab is made with beef mince and it’s so soft, it just melts in the mouth. You take a bite and it just disappears, it’s so flavourful. 'The story goes that it was made for a king who didn’t have any teeth, so they had to make him a kebab that you didn’t need to chew.
'Wander around the city for a day or two and you'll never know which narrow alley takes you to food heaven. The taste, the smell and the air of the city... all just heaven.'
Biryani is the second jewel in the Lucknow crown. 'Chicken biryani is straight from the streets of Lucknow,' says Rohit. 'The basmati long-grain rice is cooked separately with whole and fresh spices and the marinated chicken is then added later. This means it infuses just the right amount of flavour in the dish.' Lamb-trotter broth is another favourite. 'It’s called Lucknowi payai ki nihari and it’s basically slow-cooked, overnight, for six-to-seven hours and you’ll eat it in the morning, with flaky kulchas.'
And where you go for all the ingredients is the same as across India – the market. 'Lucknow Chowk is the food hub. It’s one of the of the oldest markets in the whole of North India,' explains Rohit. 'It’s where everyone has had their own place for such a long time – it’ll be grandads who inherited it from their dads. It’s such a contrast to the modern, new government buildings and shopping markets.
'The market is also about old traditions and old methods: you will find authentic chikankari and zardozi dresses; typical handmade jewellery; home decor items hand-crafted from wood and bamboo; nagara shoes; perfume made from the essence of real flowers, and innumerable other small and big items, in varieties beyond your wildest imagination. 'But it still holds on to the Awadhi ambience of the past and remains true to its roots. Wherever I am in India, I always prefer to eat at places like this, with street food and stalls on the roadside, you get to see the preparation, too – it’s not all hidden away like it is in restaurants.
'It is one of those places in the city that acts as a window into its rich cultural heritage, taking you from intricately embroidered fabrics to succulent kebabs.' A population of 3.6 million also makes the city of Lucknow comparatively compact when you look at the likes of New Delhi (30m) and Mumbai (20m). 'India is such a big country that wherever you go is interesting,' says Rohit. 'Everywhere has so much history and every different region has its own unique food and cooking style.'
And much as he loves
Lucknow, putting it in his
top three for food in India
– alongside Bombay and
his beloved Gwalior – he
draws from every palate
in India for inspiration.
'My dishes and cooking
are often inspired by the
north but it’s not just the
north, it’s from right across
India – I have dishes from
the south, too.
'South Indian food is
completely different in terms
of flavours and cooking style,
actually. Whatever they grow
they incorporate in the diet,
like anywhere in India, so lots
of fresh spices, peppercorn,
good-quality cashew nuts
– although most of South Indian cuisine is flavoured with coconut only, so you get rich and velvety, milky curries.
'And we shouldn’t forget about west and east India,' he continues. 'Western India, which includes Goa and Gujarat, and eastern India, including West Bengal, all have their own distinct and rich cuisines, too. 'This is why studying the foods of India is so fascinating: there is always something new to learn. With Indian food you can’t really go wrong.'
Tunday Kababi As you'd guess by its name, this place is famed for its kebabs but the rice is excellent, too, as is the charcoal-grilled chicken. Mohan Market, Aminabad
Rahin Ki Nihari Always full during the day but especially in the morning, as local people head here for paya ki nihari to set them up for the day ahead. Phool Wali Gali, Chowk
Prakash Kulfi Has been making the best falooda and rabri kulfi going back a long time. His kulfis (traditional Indian ice creams) are proper home-style – they are very rich and flavourful. Khayali Ganj, Aminabad
Idrees Ki Biryani These are my favourite because they are the best at making and serving traditional and hardcore Awadhi Lucknowi food in Lucknow. Not very fancy but if you want to try amazing food, go here. Raja Bazar, Chowk
Taj Mahal Lucknow Nowadays, there are lots of good places to stay in Lucknow but I personally recommend and prefer the Taj Mahal because I used to work for Taj Hotels when I was in India and, secondly, my mentor and former boss opened and ran this one. tajhotels.com
Words by Alex Mead. Photo by Peter Cassidy.
This interview was taken from the October/November 2020 issue of Food and Travel magazine.
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