As a hotel management student, every year for 5 weeks, we are put up in different cities for practical experience. Being in the food industry as part of my hotel management course, in my final year, I was placed in the nawab city of India – Lucknow.
I remember my manager telling me, ‘ The one thing that you will learn better than what we have taught you is Hospitality. People will give life lessons.
The training is for 4 weeks starting Monday. I decided to reach Lucknow on Friday and have the weekend to myself.
Being a travel buff. I made a list of places I want to visit in the 2 extra days that I get in the city.
Reaching Lucknow, the hustle and bustle of the place wake you up. I reached half past 4 in the evening. My institute has arranged for a car service. My driver was a local called Nawab.
He was holding a card in my name at the arrival. I smiled at him and said, ‘ Hi, I am Saba. He put down the card, wished me with his right hand to his face, ‘ Salam Alaykum Saba ji’. Lucknow mein aapka Swagaat hai’.
I instantly felt at home.
Being a chatty person, I said, “ Nawab miya, 2 din mein Lucknow dekhna hai, possible?
He smiled, Ji madam. If you are on time, Lucknow is on time.
The next morning, I set out. My first impression of the city was that Lucknow is an orderly city, with beautiful mirror glass multistore houses, with people running to earn their daily wage in various markets and minding their business.
My first stop of the day was to - Bara Imam bara and Chhota Imambara.
The Bara Imambara was built in 1783, a year of famine and ruin in the region. The ruling Nawab at that time, Asaf-ud-Daula, hit upon the idea of building the Imambara as a means of providing employment to his people.
The upper floors of the Imambara contain an intricate 3-D labyrinth of interconnecting passages, balconies, and about 489 doorways. According to legends, the place was not planned to be built like that. The roof of the Bada Imambara offers some great views of the city and one can see many other landmarks of Lucknow from there — Rumi Darwaza, the Safed Masjid, Ghantaghar, and the dome of Chhota Imambara. The view of the Asafi mosque, which is located within the Bada Imambara complex, from the rooftop is simply mesmerizing.
The Chhota Imambara can be described in just one word — stunning. Built-in 1838 by Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah, this Imambara looks like it is spun of white lace, and capped with a golden bronze dome and several turrets and minarets. Compared to the Bada Imambara, the Chhota Imambara is more elaborate in design and has its interiors filled with exquisite chandeliers and large gilt-edged mirrors.
It was lunchtime. My driver nawab had suggested Lucknowi Biryani, tunde ke kabab with garlic naan.
My mouth was already watering. He took me to the famous tunde ke kabab shop and oh my my!
The place was filled with foreigners and natives with a huge waiting line. Since Nawab knew the owner, I got a table soon. I felt like time was running. Waiters were juggling 5-6 plates in one hand. The waiter who came to take my order was spelling out the names of dishes like we say A-Z in speed. I guess, in a span of 30 secs he must have said 30 dish names. I was blankly staring at him.
He looked at me, “ Madam, are you new in Lucknow?” I said – yes.
Allow me to place your order – Lucknow special. I smiled and said, Okay.
And he yelled in the kitchen direction, ‘ Eeee maqbul, likh, - Ek tunde ke kabab, 2 naan, Kakori Kabab, Sheerman, Lucknowi biryani aur phirni malai mar ke.
I cannot put into words. What food. What texture. Each marination, every pinch of spice was simply – Masha-allah. Loved it. Being a cook myself, I could tell. Not one masala extra, not one grain of rice overcooked. What precision.
While paying the bill, as a compliment, my waiter handed me a paan. I politely declined. He said, ‘ Lunch adhoora reh jayega madam’. So I ate it. And he was right. The paan was the bonus desert.
My next stop was at Ambedkar Memorial park. Such a beautiful and mesmerizing place. The 107-acre park consists of several smaller sites, including the Sangrahalay Museum, a gallery containing murals made of bronze.
It is a huge place. I sat there counting the elephants. Sixty-two magnificent elephant statues guard the memorial’s entrance and the Ambedkar Stupa, which features a bronze statue of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar in its sanctum sanctorum.
As we were heading back to my hotel, Nawab pointed out to a mosque, beautifully lit, and said, ‘ On your right is Jama Mashid madam.
I was always under the impression that Jama Masjid is in Delhi. But Nawab told me, The Jama Masjid of Lucknow is equally sacred and beautiful. I asked him if he can take me there. He smiled.
Lucknow’s Jama Masjid follows the usual form of a square building surmounted by three domes and two minarets. Of the three domes, the central one is the largest. All three are capped by the inverted lotus finial, seen commonly in Islamic structure in India. The mosque stands on an elevated platform and there is a large open courtyard in front of the main entrance.
It was namaaz time. To see 100’s of heads bowed on the ground, the silent prayer on the lip seemed so blissful. I stood there, paying my respect and believing in the divine.
I had reserved my day 2 for 2 things: Shopping and Street Food.
Nawab picked me at 11:00 am and dropped me off in Hazathganj. The famous Lucknow market is known for delicate embroidery – The world-famous Chikankari.
I lost it. Completely. Out of excitement and craze for Indian wear.
The way people sell their work. With passion and warmth. I must have picked a dozen chikankari Kurtis and dupatta. I was sold at the way the shop owner explained the intricate detail and work behind it. He even draped 3 dupattas around him to tell me the difference between the delicate touches. The people sell their hard work there. Not their product. I was impressed.
Coming out of the shop, I could smell dry fruits and malai. As I looked around, I saw a man stand with a round box on a big stand called – Lucknow ki Makan Malai. I was tempted. The heat had already drained me out. Makan Malai is a fluffy milk cream product topped with almonds and pistachios served in a mud pot. It was delicious. I ordered one more and then one more! Makan Malai melts in your mouth. One should not miss it. Ever.
My nose smelt perfume or as it is called – Iktar in Lucknow. Depending on your sense of smell and how strong you like tar smell, one can buy from over a hundred different fragrances.
In my shopping spree, I lost track of time. It was when I was feeling hungry, I saw the time. It was a quarter to three.
To my luck, there was a chat counter. Being the Indian I am, I sneaked to know what others were eating, Did I tell the guy behind the counter, bhaisaab, aapka, running item kaunsa hai?
Madam, Naye toh kya idhar? I said, yes. He smiled and said, ‘ Basket chaat kha lo vo bhi extra dahi aur sev ke saath’. I nodded.
Hailing from Delhi, I always thought that the best chaat is from my city, but I was wrong. Lucknow is not far behind.
It was close to evening time. I was dying to try Awadhi and Mughlai style street food. Nawab took me to the famous street food lane of Lucknow. It was filled with college students, travelers, and families.
From left to right, the tandoori chicken was being grilled, kababs were being marinated and lassi was being shuffled from one glass to the other. The aromas were making me drool.
I sat at one of the stalls. The tandoori chicken with spicy green chutney and lemon squeezed on top seals the deal. It was so spicy; my eyes were watering. So subside the spice, I asked for malai lassi. The big glass of malai lassi not to help with the spice also filled me up with its thick sips.
The twist in the story was – I forgot my bag in my car, including my phone.
I freaked out so much that I started panicking. The stall owner gave me a glass of water and calmed me down. When I told him about it, he said, ‘ Mohtarma, aap fikar na kare’. Just in time, Nawab came searching for me with my bag. It was a sigh of relief. I yelled, Nawab. He looked around and raised his hand with my purse in his hand.
Nawab said, “ Madam, your phone buzzed, that’s when I saw your purse in the back seat. I knew you would panic so I came searching for you’.
I was so overwhelmed, I picked out extra cash to give to the stall owner, but he firmly declined. He said, ‘ Haq ka dijiye, Insaaniyat ki kya kimaat’.
Now, I understood what my manager meant. People. They are living examples of humanity. Had it been any other place, I am sure, calm would have been the last emotion on their mind.
That is the lesson, I take back to my training. Insaaniyat ki kya kimaat.
Dil Jit liya – Lucknow.