Winters have always held great sway in Taiyaba Ali’s vivid imagination, especially since the 29-year-old consultant chef and food writer grew up in a place as culturally diverse as Lucknow.
“(I have memories of) crisp cold mornings spent dunking equally crisp bits of naan into fragrant gravies like nihari and aloo gosht while sipping on demitasses of gulabi chai,” Ali says.
The chai she remembers is a special Lucknowi milk tea that gets its blushing pink hue from the alchemy that takes place when green tea leaves are boiled in water along with baking soda and a virtual treasure trove of spices such as cinnamon, saffron, cardamom, cloves and bay leaf.
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“Winter in Lucknow is also about ambling along the ramparts of the French-inspired La Martinière College,” she adds, setting the stage for her latest project. Ali sees herself as a chronicler of Lucknow’s food ways. She’s been curating travelling menus in her capacity as a consultant chef at several restaurants across India—such as Rooh in New Delhi, Malabar Cafe at The Grand Hyatt in Kochi, and Podi and Spice in Bengaluru—over the last couple of years.
It is these reflections of flavours, textures, sights and nostalgia that find themselves distilled in her unique multi-city series of fused Franco-Lucknowi cuisine pop-up dinners.
Aptly called Butter Fingers, this seven-course menu that Ali has come up with in partnership with chef Aarohi Sanghavi (pastry chef and owner of MÄKI pâtisserie, Bengaluru) reimagines and brings together beloved French and Lucknowi dishes. The shared love of both food cultures for butter shines through.
“This pop-up meal serves as a reminder that even the most distinguished food cultures have a lot in common, if only we care to look,” says Ali.
This takes the form of interesting dishes like a paya consommè (light soup of goat trotters) with cracker and dip and a kulcha nihari puff with goat’s cheese and caper mustard.
“The puff is my idea to have the Lucknowi breakfast staple of nihari drizzled atop a buttery French mille-feuille-like puff. I have discovered several complementary flavours and textures overlapping the two food cultures that are so rich,” she explains.
Ali is quick to bring to the fore an overlooked gendered common ground between French and Lucknowi cuisines—how male-dominated they both are.
“Patriarchy plays an important role in both. The food of the great French chefs and that of the khansamas is notorious for overshadowing the women-fronted home style dishes,” says Ali. “Take the case of Lucknow, where the bazaar food, be it biryanis or tunday kababs, dominate our idea of Lucknowi cuisine. This is to the detriment of the home-style dishes made by the women such as a simple yet scrumptious turnip and meat curry, or the shaami kabab that is as homely as it can get.”
This is something both Ali and Sanghavi have sought to correct by means of their menu. So they have included plenty of home-style dishes like her aloo gosht with kalonji (nigella seeds) sourdough and kachumber, all jazzed up, of course.
Seasonality is another tie-in as far their menu is concerned. “I’m a firm believer that seasonal produce brings out plurality. To that end, we have dishes like a smoked water chestnut and green peppercorn eclair and a winter root vegetable salan with the same kalonji sourdough and kachumber as its aloo gosht meat course counterpart,” says Ali.
After a successful run in Bengaluru and Mysuru with a primarily non-vegetarian menu, Butter Fingers is all set to pop up in Mumbai later this month at the Magazine St. Kitchen with an additional vegetarian menu.
Why so? “It was a combination of several factors. Chief being demand for a vegetarian version. The abundance of seasonal vegetarian produce and the need to do something different for this last pop-up for our winter season is another reason. All these propelled the idea of doing a vegetarian version of the menu in Mumbai,” explains Ali.
To that end, the modified menu now has dishes like a fermented strawberry and white peas tart, a veritable poster child for seasonal produce.
“We’ve also got a rasbhari (cape gooseberry) consommè with cracker and dip that mirrors the paya consommè on the non-vegetarian menu. Our dessert course includes a gulabi chai custard with mille-feuille and fresh strawberries,” says Ali.
And what better ‘side act’ to go with some chai than a takeaway goodie bag of allspice nankhatai sablés that ticks all the boxes, be it Lucknowi spice, French pâtisserie or oodles of butter.
The Butter Fingers seven-course pop-up dinner will be held at Magazine St. Kitchen in Mumbai on 23 and 24 February from 7.30 pm to 10.30 pm on both days. The price per person is ₹4,000 inclusive of taxes and unlimited cocktails.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.
An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that the Mumbai pop-up is an all vegetarian affair. The story has been modified.