As the Uttar Pradesh government cracked down on slaughterhouses after Yogi Adityanath’s ascent to Lucknow, the city’s beloved Tunday kebabs have become contraband.
“Yeh toh mini Pakistan hi samajhiye,” a local contact said, pointing to the minarets which stood proud at Chowk, one of the oldest, most crowded junctions in the city of Lucknow. I had come here looking for the original Tunday kebab, one of the most popular icons of Uttar Pradesh’s “soft power”.
“Yeh Akbari Gate hai, yahin milega aapko,” he said pointing to a lane – the kind where three is indeed a crowd and a motorcycle is a tight fit. As we walked toward the serpentine trail, two policemen posted at the roundabout screamed a warning, “Batua bachake chalna.”
The next 20 minutes were a swirl of humanity, interspersed with the glitter of attar shops and the pastel promises of nooks selling chikan ensembles, pinks and mellow yellows, bearing patterns of white thread, the trademark of the home-grown embroidery, which is still the mainstay of many families in the city.
We reached the nameless little shop, where a giant tawa, sitting over coals, sizzled with the knowledge of its place in the epicurean history of this city of nawabs.
Pratik Gupta/ Arré
And then we reached the nameless little shop, where a giant tawa, sitting over coals, sizzled with the knowledge of its place in the epicurean history of this city of nawabs. This nondescript hovel, wedged between a leather craftsmen’s workshop and a store selling lace trinkets, has for long laid claim to the title of the “original Tunday kebab”.
“Tunday”, a pejorative reference to its handicapped originator, who fashioned the most delectable kebabs using his only hand, is shorthand for the meatball that has now become a national treasure of sorts.
“Tunday” is shorthand for the meatball that has now become a national treasure of sorts.
Pratik Gupta/ Arré
However, the more popular claimant of the delicacy is the Tunday Kababi joint in Aminabad, just a few kilometres away from the colourless “original”. It has become a fixture on the itineraries of all sorts of famous and everyday characters. It is where most people go to get their fix of this creation of minced meat and a reported 100 spices. Catering to a more populist palate, the proprietors added a twist to the tale by presenting a mutton version, which is more popular with tourists, more expensive, and more palatable to those who consider beef “impure”. This year, they’ve added a few vegetarian options to the menu.
While Tunday Kababi is bursting with Iftar activity, the undistinguished shack at Akbari Gate, known among the locals as “puraani dukaan”, which they insist is the pioneer of the legacy, is austere at best and downright grimy on a closer look. But the kebab itself is a lesson in intricate technique. The cook stands over the fire, shaping the meat with a deft twirl of the fingers before slapping it onto the hot surface. There it cooks in its own fat and a dash of clarified butter until it is swiftly but gently scraped off onto a plate, smushed down, and served with the parantha. The taste is worth the trudge. The cliché “melt in the mouth” is indeed the best descriptive of this meatball’s greatness.
You can see the tawa sizzle just a few feet away while a server brings you your plate, laden with the only two items on the menu, kebab and parantha. An image of the kebab’s namesake scowls at the customers from an old portrait hung on the wall. It is just a few hours after Iftar, but the crowd is thin. The cow is the elephant in the soot-laden room where the kebabs are served.
A man, who says that he is a regular, sits quietly chomping on raw onions. He grew up in the lanes surrounding the shop and rues that the place is now mostly patronised by locals like him, who make a meal out of the kebab, which costs ₹20 per piece.
“Bade ka hai na,” he says in a low voice, scraping the last bits of the meat stuck to the worn steel plates, and I can’t help but wonder if the politics of food has got the better of Lucknow’s legacy.
Meat is a good enough motive for murder in modern Uttar Pradesh where gaurakshaks are armed and ready to avenge the death of a cow by lynching humans. UP and its murky communal history hold the distinction of a recent casualty of cow meat. Mohammad Akhlaq was bashed to death by a mob over a rumour that he had eaten beef in Dadri last year. The death was just the latest in a line of events, which have made beef a controversial commodity in the increasingly popular politics of food in the country.
After the Dadri lynching, many pointed to the hysteria, which was engineered in different parts of UP over the issue of cow slaughter. Political speeches, painted the picture of an apocalyptic future, with a Pink Revolution where cows will be slaughtered willy-nilly for meat and leather. Interestingly, both are mainstays of the Muslim community.
“Gau hatya” became one of the rallying points of the saffron brigade after the Ayodhya dispute of 1992, in the state where cow slaughter has been banned since 1955. Buffaloes are legally kosher, but all red meat is viewed as a direct affront to the burgeoning Hindu Rashtra.
That the brutality of the Dadri lynching and the beauty of the Tunday kebab have become synonymous with the same state is a bitter irony. Awadhi cuisine, the heart of the Nawabi culture, was underpinned by sumptuous and sensual beef delicacies. The Kakori seekh kebab was originally prepared from beef mince on skewers and cooked over charcoals, as was the Nihari, which is braised and stewed beef, cooked in mustard oil.
But the landscape of food is changing and the story of Tunday is a disheartening metaphor for that change. However, the owner of the oldest kebab shop in Lucknow takes the controversy in his stride: “Log badal jaate hain, kebab kya cheez hai?”
In Yogi Adityanath’s version of the Ram Rajya the tawa may soon stop sizzling altogether.