Is Lucknow's ‘roghni roti’ vanishing in the age of sourdough?
Why the ghee-laden Nawabi bread lost its relevance in millennial kitchens
There’s a seminal book on Lucknowi cuisine named Lakhnau Ka Dastarkhwan by Mirza Jafar Hussain. Born in a nawabi family of Lucknow in 1889, he was a journalist who edited and wrote several books in Urdu, from poetry to food. Lakhnau Ka Dastarkhwan, available in Urdu on Rekhta.org, was republished in 2016 in English by the Lucknow-based Sanatkada Publication and translated by Sufia Kidwai. It features many lost and forgotten recipes from the nawabi gharanas of the city, including rich and delicate dishes like qorma, qaliya, kababs, desserts, beverages and breads including roti. One such roti is roghni. The word roghni comes from the Urdu "roghan" which means grease or oil. And, rightly so, for roghni roti is loaded with ghee, cream—some recipes use animal fat too. This exquisitely delicate bread evokes the richness of Lucknow.
Hussain writes that roghni roti was a summer delight and cooked in homes of the rich. It was served with halwa or ande ka khagina (scrambled eggs). In the book, this recipe calls for one part ghee, kneaded with two parts refined flour and half part curd. It's cooked on both sides on a slow flame on a flat tawa (griddle) by gently pressing around the edges to allow for even cooking. I followed the recipe and got a flaky roti that was soft and buttery.
Delhi-based historian and author Rana Safvi spent her childhood in Lucknow. Growing up, she recalls, roghni roti was served for breakfast almost every day. In her home, it was paired with aloo ki qatli (a dry potato dish spiced with cumin and red chilli). Her mother would knead the dough with balai (cream) instead of ghee.
Last month, I was in Lucknow for work-related reasons and made it my mission to find the famous roghni roti. I searched for it in street shops that specialise in rumali, naan, kulcha and sheermal. But none had roghni roti. I visited a lane near chowk (old Lucknow), known as roti wali gully, but roghni roti eluded me. Finally, my quest was fulfilled in a restaurant named Naimat Khana in Qaiser Bagh. The restaurant is run by Askari Naqvi who sources food from home cooks and reheats it in his homestyle kitchen. He shares that roghni roti, being a rich bread, is prepared under his supervision in his kitchen. Perhaps he is the only one in Lucknow selling this bread. Just as Safvi, he fondly recalled memories of relishing it for breakfast.
Looking for roghni roti online can be prove to be futile. One will find many recipes claiming to be roghni, because they use ghee, but they are not the real deal. Even YouTube will reveal no results and your best bet is the book, Lakhnau Ka Dastarkhwan.
But, the book has just one version of this roti. Every home adds its own spin to this recipe. I grew up in Bihar. In my home, roghni roti was made after Eid-ul-Azha (Bakrid). When I was a child, my mother would use animal fat and milk, instead of ghee, curd, or cream, and knead the dough. Technically, this qualifies as roghni, but it wasn’t the Lucknowi version. The practice of kneading bread in animal fat died a slow death. The Bihari roghni roti has disappeared from our dastarkhans.
Roghni roti’s popularity has dimmed in the time of sourdough due to lifestyle changes and health related reasons. It’s impossible to consume bread with so much fat on a daily basis. The elders are left with memories, whereas the young haven’t even heard of it. Noor Khan, documenter of Lucknow's culture and member of Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, is in her 60s. She used to eat this bread on a regular basis. But now it’s reserved for special occasions. She recalls packing roghni roti, shami kabab, and aloo qatli in her nashtedani (lunchbox) when she would go on long trips. It used to be popular as a breakfast bread for it was paired with leftover shami kabab. No one had that luxury to prepare fresh kababs in the morning.
During Partition, roghni roti travelled to Pakistan too. Wajiha Naqvi is a Karachi-based vocalist at Coke Studio who says roghni roti is easily available in Karachi's street-side shops. They don't make this bread at home. Karachiites enjoy this bread with salan (gravy-based dishes) like qorma. It is a special bread and is brought home when guests visit, or if they want to take a break from their daily food.
The significance of food goes beyond the kitchen. Roghni Roti is a symbol of farakh dili (loosely translated as affluence); it is associated with those who have deep pockets and large hearts.
Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan. @hussainsadaf1