Eating Well on Delhi Side Trips
The Awadh region, with Lucknow as its traditional center, has a vibrant culinary history that arose from the royal courts of the Muslim Nawabs who ruled the area.
The often quite refined dishes that make up Awadhi cuisine are reminiscent of the Mughal traditions of Delhi, Agra, and Kashmir and the Nawabi cuisine of Hyderabad, but they remain distinct. Awadhi bawarchis and rakabdars (cooks and specialty cooks) are most-often credited with inventing the "dumpukht" style of sealing ingredients like rice, spices, and meat in an earthen pot and slow-cooking them.
Agra's better hotels offer a taste of nonvegetarian Awadhi food, but in the part of Varanasi near the Ganges you’ll mostly find just simple vegetarian restaurants and international backpacker-friendly cafés. The city's importance as a Hindu holy site has led to the popularization of bland, "sattvik" food, made by using vegetarian ingredients deemed conducive to meditation and avoiding others, such as onions and garlic, deemed too stimulating.
Chewed as a digestive all over India, paan is a slightly intoxicating slug of areca nut and other ingredients wrapped in a betel leaf. It often includes varieties of tobacco, which can be left out on request. Paan can also include chutneys, spices, and sweets. Every paanwallah (paan vendor) has his own way of doing things. Beginners should ask for a sweet or "mitha" paan, "no tambacu."
Resembling blocks or cylinders of marble cut from the Taj Mahal itself, petha is Agra's most famous sweet. Usually white and slightly translucent, this somewhat gelatinous confection is made, improbably, from boiled and sweetened winter melon. There's also a yellow version called angoori petha. The sweet varies in consistency from soft and syrup-filled to crunchy and nearly crystalline. Petha is sold by weight in cardboard boxes at the train station and all over Agra, and comes in many flavors like rosewater, paan (betel), and coconut.
A laborer's staple, the dish called litti chokha is especially common in eastern Uttar Pradesh and in the neighboring state of Bihar. Similar to Rajasthan's batti (and sometimes referred to by that name), the litti is a tough ball of baked dough made of sattu, a roasted flour particular to the region that’s made from chickpeas. Around Varanasi and farther afield, you may see stalls serving litti with chokha—a vegetable accompaniment of eggplant, potato, or tomato.
One of the more fussy foods you may find in Varanasi is a yellow dairy dessert called mallaiyo. Like the version of the dish found in Delhi (where it's called daulat ki chaat), mallaiyo is an airy, saffron-scented concoction that magically melts away on your tongue. Traditionally, this is a winter morning sweet: to prepare it, milk has to be thickened and allowed to foam, then set overnight. The foam is then skimmed off and sold as mallaiyo.
Tender, melting morsels of meat called kakori kebabs are a common menu item in Uttar Pradesh. You can try these kebabs at the better restaurants in Agra, especially those that serve Awadhi food. Minced twice and tenderized with papain (from raw papaya), this delicately spiced dish is typically eaten with a large, very thin and soft roomali roti ("handkerchief" bread). Various theories as to the origin of the kebab include its provenance as a dish for a toothless Nawab and as a dish cooked to impress a British officer.
An elaborate dish that originated in the royal Awadhi court, dumpukht biryani consists of rice and meat suffused with aromatic spices. The spices are tied up in a muslin cloth, so as not to disintegrate in the dish. Half-cooked lamb (or other meat) and rice are layered in a clay pot, which is then sealed with dough and slow-cooked over low heat. Although you won't find dumpukht biryani in vegetarian Varanasi, it's well worth sampling at one of Agra's better restaurants.