Gluttons & Gourmands: Asaf ud-Dowlah

July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Gluttons & Gourmands is a recurring feature designed to highlight some of the more legendary appetites, roués, and personalities in memory, plus unusual culinary-related stories and arcana that we deem fit for your indulgence and amusement.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the city of Lucknow, located in what is now northern India, carved out a brief, but glorious reign as a cosmopolitan cultural and artistic center of India. Vying with both the Mughal empire centered around Delhi and voracious British colonial forces, the rulers of Lucknow (the nawabs of Awadh) established a dynamic capital that produced legendary tales of refinement as well as excess and debauchery.

The epitome of the extravagance or beneficence, depending on who you listen to, was Nawab Asaf ud-Dowlah, considered the architect of Lucknow for the numerous magnificent monuments and palaces built during his reign (1775-1797). He also drew a generation of the most celebrated artists to his court, including writers, poets, cooks, musicians, painters, craftsmen, and scholars.

He was renowned for his largesse, but history paints a lurid picture of his matchless appetite. According to Maya Jasanoff in Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, ud-Dowlah moved fromwine to hashish to opium; from women to boys and back again (said some; others insisted he was impotent); from chickens fed on musk and saffron to gleaming pilaus where each grain of rice was dyed a different jewel tone.”

Unlike the restrained bearings of the Mughal emperors, Asaf ud-Dowlah  and the nawabs of Awadh were relatively unapologetic gourmands. As a result of his love of food, Asaf ud-Dowlah cut a corpulent figure, which apparently both impressed and disgusted European observers. Although he owned a stable that numbered more than a thousand horses (and 800 elephants), he was too fat to actually ride any of them.

Asaf ud-Dowlah delighted in the creations of his talented kitchen staff, each more luxuriant than the last. Somehow he even managed to keep gaining weight despite losing all of his teeth. To get around this obstacle, the wondrous cooks in Lucknow invented a dish that lives on in the hearts of the toothless and toothsome alike, the shammi kebab. Shammi kebabs are made of pounded, minced meat (keema), which unlike the ground meat that might be used for hamburgers, is made of the choicest cuts of lamb or beef. Combined with onions, cilantro, and spices, shammi kebabs are shaped into cylinders or disks and cooked into fragrant, chewy morsels.

I’m not sure where to find a good shammi kebab in L.A. Perhaps in the greater Armenia disapora or at some marble-adorned temple of Persian cuisine in Westwood? Readers, don’t hesitate to offer suggestions if you’ve got ’em.

To read more about the glories and infamies of Lucknow, the late-19th century writer Abdul Halim Sharar chronicled the nawabs of Awadh in Lucknow: the Last Phase of An Oriental Civilization. In addition to their fascination with food, the nawabs were sportsmen of the most refined caliber and cultivated salons where, in the words of Sharar, lively banter from the refined elites made it seem “as though ‘flowers were dropping from their lips.'”


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