Of all the tours that are offered in India, the best that I can imagine is one through which visitors are allowed to travel through the gastronomic wonders of the Mughal empire. To make things simple, I am referring to the mighty kebab. This wonderful dish comes in many forms, varying in richness, texture and complexity of spices. While it is the source of much debate as to whether the best examples are found in Delhi or Hyderabad, or across the border in Peshawar or Lahore, the kebab remains, mostly, the undisputed king of Mughlai cuisine.
Sticklers for history may argue that the imperial kitchens of the Mughals contributed much more than pieces of delicious meat to the repertoire of Indian cuisine. With creamy curries made from cashew paste, spectacular biryanis, and desserts enriched with dried fruits and nuts, this is an indisputable fact. However, I am a huge fan of the kebab and an unapologetic non-vegetarian, thanks to its existence.
A few weeks before I left Abu Dhabi for a recent holiday to India, a craving for shammi kebabs struck. So I called at least half a dozen of the top Indian restaurants in Abu Dhabi not nestled in the pricey surrounds of a five-star hotel to ask if they offered the dish. None did. To my dismay, I ended up making myself a batch from scratch before boarding a flight that took me to the heartland of kebabs - Old Delhi.
The shammi, also known as the galouti - although easy to replicate at home, using the right mix of minced meat, crushed spices and lentils - offers a legend of its own. It is said that one of the rulers, or nawabs, of Lucknow, who was very fond of kebabs, in his old age was unable to chew succulent hunks of skewered and grilled meats, and ordered his khansamas, or chefs, to come up with a special recipe that would make the meat melt in his mouth. In short, he asked they produce "the toothless nawab's kebab".
So, as legend goes, more than 100 different spices were added to minced lamb meat in order to produce the shammi. A variation of this is still found on the streets of Lucknow, Hyderabad and of course, in dusty shops nestled along the narrow lanes of Old Delhi. After a half-day trip to the Taj Mahal, we thought that it was only fitting to continue our tour of Indian history by following our nostrils right down to Old Delhi. Since such culinary tours are only offered by friends who call the city home, we followed them blindly as they sauntered through streets specially illuminated for the Eid celebrations.
We managed to finally get our hands on the last plate of shammi kebabs that was on offer at a tiny restaurant. That's a taste and a feeling that can only be experienced in the forgotten alleyways of Delhi.