In the December of 1996 while I was still working as an Environmental Engineer I along with a junior were given the responsibility of a feasibility study for an effluent treatment plant proposed for a popular flashlights company for their Lucknow unit.
I was all of 26 and had just about started making my mark in the Environmental field. My then employer, lead by example and cared like a father. He accompanied us as this was our first ever project that called for a long stay away from home.
I still remember it was winter season, our train travel was exciting and he made sure we ate all the specialties in that journey. There was one place where we ate the gulabjamuns that were piping hot and luscious, my memory fails to recollect the name of the station.
It was early morning when the train chugged into Lucknow station. The red uniformed coolies came scuffling forward to offload our luggage. Mr. H.B. Singh had made friends with them in his frequent travels back and forth to Lucknow from Mumbai. The morning was foggy, the station was littered and packed with people, some sleeping on the platform others scampering around as the announcements were made over the loudspeaker to catch the train. I was becoming conscious about the pure Hindi being spoken, unlike the Bambaiya I was used to. As we stepped out both Ritu, my colleague and me chose the horse driven tonga over the auto-rickshaw, wasn't it an obvious choice for two thrilled Mumbaikars finding horse driven tongas. After a very short ride we were at the hotel. He arranged for us to stay at the Yatri Hotel in Charbagh.
Initially our plan was to stay in Lucknow for a week to 10 days and finish our work. Every day we drove to work through foggy mornings, taking in the smells of cow dung cakes being burnt and people wrapped in woolens going about sluggishly in the chaotic streets where tongas and auto-rickshaws raced with each other. There was the "Vikram" or the 10 seater rickshaw that plied from point to point and did not follow any traffic discipline. There were piles and piles of groundnut pods on the streets, vendors selling them and piles of peeled empty pods after eating were littered on the streets. HBS had grown up in Lucknow so it frustrated him and led him to exclaim, "Lucknow ki barbaadi Mungphalli or Vikram ne ki hai!" he meant that the groundnut addiction, littering the streets with pods and the 10 seater autos were a hindrance in the growth of Lucknow.
We girls enjoyed the change from Mumbai. It was my first experience of a north Indian winter as Mumbai never sees the real winter. We were well equipped with warm leggings, sweaters and coats that HBS had instructed us to carry. He had informed the hotel staff to keep a big pot of black tea ready at all times for us in the room to keep us warm. I remember it would be very cold even at 2pm in the afternoon and I would enjoy wearing my coat and thought it looked stylish.
At the E.Flashlights we were introduced to the Engineering team and a young Kashmiri engineer, S. Koul was to escort us at all times in the company premises. He unfailingly would feed us a heavy breakfast. It was a revelation for me that at breakfast people ate Puri bhaaji and samosa and kachori at 8 am in the morning! Me a Mumbaikar requested for bread toast instead on the first day. Ritu stared at me annoyed but because she was my junior did not comment. The next day however she coaxed me into eating all the fried stuff and before I knew Koul sent over a plate of hot jalebis! I was totally overwhelmed with this style of breakfast as I knew only bread, khari, battar could be breakfast for this Irani influenced Mumbaikar
The lunch was always amazing is all I remember, I do not recollect the exact dishes now as it is almost two decades. However I remember the food we ate at a tiny hole in the wall eatery every night in Hazratganj. It was not the cleanest place to eat and to enter this 3-4 table place one had to brush against the hot tandoor or almost. The first time HBS took us there we refused to eat there but he being our stubborn boss he insisted we taste the food so we packed takeaways and ate in our hotel room. The next day on we were eating in the eatery itself, the bonus was a piping hot rather scalding hot tandoori rotis. This recipe of baigan bharta is based on that memory. I fondly recreate it in my kitchen to remind myself of that winter in Lucknow and especially make it when it is the coolest in Mumbai.
However before I share the recipe let me complete this story. Coming back to Lucknow capers, we'd spend the entire day in the lab trying to work on a process to remove hexavalent chromiun effectively from the effluent. I had a published paper on "adsorption behavior of Chromium on flyash" to my credit but that was not something cost effective for this industry. So it was hard work for us all over again. The project stretched for another week, however we were well taken care of. There was an old lab technician who came to work just to complete his tenure until retirement, his only job was to get us sweets and pamper us with them. I recollect how we gorged on the Imartis he had got for us wrapped in a newspaper and aam papads.
HBS had returned to Mumbai and was expected to come back to take us back home. Koul literally ordered him to book flight tickets for us to travel back to Mumbai reasoning out that we had been away from home too long and needed to be with family in a day and not spend another 3 days on the train. We were so thrilled because it meant we would fly for the first time in our lives!
Before we flew back home there was a lunch hosted for us. The entire engineering department came to bid us farewell and Koul had directed the kitchen staff to make a Kashmiri Wazwan for us. The best dishes that day on the menu were Dum aloo and Malai kofta served with long grain basmati rice. It was on this day I learnt that Kashmiris are big rice eaters even though they are from the north. It was strange that we were enjoying a very authentic Kashmiri meal in Uttar Pradesh. My hand smelt of saffron long after it had been washed.
On the final day, HBS was back in Lucknow and so we had breakfast at the hotel and checked out. After loading the bags into the car, we were given a half a day tour of the various monuments, like chota and bada Imambada, the parliament etc. I don't remember much now. Once before we had explored the markets in Lucknow. We had shopped for Chikankari punjabi suits in Gadbadzala. I was told Gadbadzala was the twisted name given to the market because it was chaotic and some Maratha soldier had said "gabadzali" in the narrow streets of the market. Yes yes without fail I was told the story of the Maratha Empire touching Lucknow, I will have to read up history again.
Another thing that left an indelible mark on me is the hospitality and adab of the people I met every where on the streets. We girls were allowed to call our families every night, so instead of paying extra at the hotel we would go to a nearby STD booth, yes it was the pre-mobile era. The STD guy and everywhere we went we were respected. Once I broke my chappal and went looking for a cobbler in the night, it was hardly 8pm but Lucknow shops were almost closing down. The cobbler refused to take money form us because he guessed we were not from Lucknow and we were guests in the city even if we were there for work. I asked him how he knew it? He said girls in Lucknow never went out at that hour without a male family member and we two Mumbai girls were walking the streets enjoying the potato basket chaat in Hazratganj!
The return flight was memorable too as it was a Christmas day and we were gifted Christmas cakes to take home and some other goodies. I remember as I stepped out into the Mumbai heat after chilly Lucknow my body was itching due to the heat, I was back to a warm Mumbai in December.
Lucknow for me stands for wonderful food and even better people, my first flight and my first out posting.
1 large brinjal
2 onions, medium sized
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 green chili
1/2 cup fresh green peas
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoon oil
salt to taste
Roast the brinjal on fire till its smoky and charred on all sides. Refer the first pic in this post. Keep turning to cook through completely. Remove from heat and cover with a vessel. Leave it to sweat a bit and this will loosen the charred skin. Remove the charred skin and collect flesh of the roasted brinjal in a plate. Mash the brinjal a bit.
In a frying pan heat oil. Add the slit green chili, follow in with the sliced onion, fry for 2 mins. Add chopped tomato, green peas, cilantro and cook down on high heat till the masala leaves the oil. At this point add the roasted brinjal and add the garam masala, turmeric, chili powder and cook covered.
Salt to taste and remove from heat. Let the flavors meld well and then serve with rustic roti or bhakri.
The pics are from 2 different times I made the Baigan bharta. We enjoyed the lipsmacking dish thoroughly.
The Lucknow memories came flooding after I met someone who spells Lakhnawi adab!