Neemat, or Naimat Khana, was certainly a state-of-the-art system to preserve left-over food in the pre-refrigeration days. Used across the Awadh region—the north-eastern portion of Uttar Pradesh—it was a wooden kitchen cabinet with steel nets on all sides and a latch.
Since preparing Awadhi style food was a long and tedious process, the women would usually make dried dishes like halwa, barian (meat), pickles, etc, in bulk and store them in the cabinets. Each dish would be kept on top of a clay bowl to keep ants away and the nets allowed for proper ventilation.
This would prevent food wastage and also ensure there was always food in case the guests arrived, thus making mehman nawazi (hospitality) a priority.
It might be hard to find a neemat (meaning: blessings) today but if you visit Qaiser Bagh in Lucknow, you will spot a blue and white board inscribed with the words ‘Naimat Khana’ on a 70-year-old bungalow.
This is now a unique restaurant that serves authentic Awadhi food made from rare and heirloom recipes by original settlers of Lucknow.
Askari Naqvi, the owner, believes the concept of sourcing food in different places and storing them is similar and thus the name. This was his tiny effort in taking a leaf out of the region’s history and infusing it in the contemporary world.
Having been an integral part of the annual Awadhi Home Cooked Food Festival under the Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, Askari already knew of trustworthy and talented home chefs.
Speaking of the festival, he says, “The home-made segment of the festival is very popular and the idea of 35-40 families coming together was already there.”
Askari, who has his roots in Pratapgarh, was a lawyer who became a vocalist. In 2018, he opened a restaurant inside his bungalow with an aim to serve authentic Awadhi food to locals and tourists.
The food served is a 60:40 ratio combination of his own recipes and dishes that he sources from families.
“I have grown up on the soul and essence of Awadhi food. My mother’s recipes are ancient and she uses the same technique and utensils my ancestors did. I know the distinctive ingredients and zaika (flavours) and I wanted others to experience the same blissful experience. I wanted people to get the home-made vibe. Through word of mouth, we have been able to make Naimat Khana a go-to place for real Awadhi food,” Askari tells The Better India.
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With a seating arrangement of not more than 25, people from across the country have satiated their Awadhi cravings here, including celebrities like Tapsee Pannu, Imtiaz Ali and Mira Nair.
A Gastronomical Delight
A culinary experience in Lucknow is much more than just kebabs and biryanis. Every piece of food that goes into your body is painstakingly prepared with love and precision. The journey kick starts with picking the ingredients. A lot of thought is put into the preparation and the way it is served.
Askari has continued this tradition by giving an Awadhi-home touch to the decor, utensils, tablecloth and the antique furniture that includes old Mughal-style rugs, plain white walls, a bibliotheque, charpai (cot), etc.
The old-world charm is also reflected inside the kitchen where a small but dedicated team of chefs can be seen working their magic. They are extremely particular about adopting just the right techniques to make subtle, flavourful and aromatic dishes.
“Awadhi food is tricky. Unlike the Mughalai food, Awadhi food does not use a lot of masalas, milk or nuts. Our closely guarded recipes have a harmonious blend of spices. We have retained the base of ginger, garlic, onions, cardamom, elaichi, nutmeg, etc. There is also a very thin line between bland and subtle food. If spices are added disproportionately, the food loses its perfection,” Askari cautions.
He uses traditional utensils like bhagona for sauteing or bhuna to make mouthwatering dishes like salan, korma and yakhni. There is also kadai for frying, lagan for meat preparation and of course the mahi tawa for cooking kebabs.
The families that he has collaborated with have origins in Awadhi areas like Bahraich, Balrampur, Barabanki, Faizabad, Gonda, Lakhimpur Kheri.
“Chefs like Sufiya Kidwai, Shiba Iqbal, Noor Khan, Anjum Hasan and Madhu Wadhwa have recipes that have been passed down since 1857. In a world of processed and fast foods, these chefs have stuck to slow simmering nawabi ambience. The menu is prepared every week, according to the availability of the chefs.
Food That Touches The Soul
With so much attention paid to ambience and preparation, it would be safe to assume the final product would be scrumptious and lavish.
The menu mostly comprises dishes that were once served in the nawabi gharanas like
Mutton bhindi gosht, shorbe ka qorma, patile ke kabab, sunhere baingan, roghni roti, etc.
Cooking mutton with seasonal vegetables like okra, cabbage and ridge gourd is ubiquitous in Lucknow homes. He offers okra gosht cooked with mutton in aromatic qaliya spices, which happens to be the best selling item on the menu.
Another favourite item is patle shorbe ka qorma, “In other places the curry is thick but we prepare it very thin, which is the right way to eat it. It is a dish that is generally consumed daily, so if the gravy is thick and infused with a lot of masalas, it can be very heavy. Our mild flavoured dish will leave you craving for more,” says Anjum, the head chef at Naimat Khana.
Patili ke kebab is also an unmissable dish. Unlike other kebabs, this one is cooked in patili (or brass utensil) in ghee and served with roti (flat bread). This requires minimum chewing and melts in the mouth.
Alongside the meat-based dishes, Askari has included vegetarian dishes as well and sunhere baingan (beautiful brinjal) deserves a special mention as it is Askari’s family recipe. It is cooked in tamarind and sesame seeds.
Then there is balange ka sharbat, which is a mix of lemonade, roohafza and chia seeds — perfect for summers. For desserts they serve shahi ka tukda, firni, among other dishes.
With all these scrumptious dishes, it is obvious that his house is often packed with ravenous customers, hungry for more.
The celeb trend at Naimat Khana started with Mira Nair’s shoot for A Suitable Boy in 2019. Since the place gives a homely and private vibe, people from the movie industry often visit the place.
Compliments to the chefs, Askari says, are one of the biggest validations he looks forward to.
He recalls an incident when one of the customers confessed that his mother did not like eating outside, except at Naimat Khana. That, he says, was one of the best compliments he has received so far.
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Another customer said the food didn’t just engage his taste buds but also ‘touched his soul’.
One can only hope that they’re fortunate enough to taste such life-changing food — the kind that is served at Naimat Khana’s.
Edited by Yoshita Rao