Suspended in time, the essence of a bygone era still lingers in the northern Indian city of Lucknow. The state capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow is an emotion for locals, evoking visions of grandeur and opulence. Its future blossomed after Emperor Jahangir bestowed an estate elsewhere in the region to one of his governors, known as a nawab. A succeeding nawab shifted the seat of governance to Lucknow in 1775, lending his patronage to local arts, culture, and cookery. Under the nawabs emerged a cuisine designed to delight the gentry and gain political favors.
This was an age of elegance, creating the delicately nuanced Awadhi cuisine—which also represents a tradition, called Ganga-Jamuni, that grew out of the meeting of Hindu and Mughal culinary influences. The nawabs infused the local dialect with Urdu, a poetic language, extending words like lazzat (pleasure) and ittr (perfume) into culinary descriptions. A delicately prepared dish is described as one cooked with nazakat—grace. An elusive spice blend called lazzat-e-taam contains dozens of ingredients. Many dishes use floral fragrances.
Today, Lucknow’s streets retain their historic arched entrances bearing auspicious fish motifs. The skyline is dotted with domes and minarets, and evenings reverberate with calls to prayer. Street vendors offer a plethora of culinary delights, such as tangy chaats; sheermal, a yeasty flatbread made with cream and saffron; Tunday kebabs, made with the meat of water buffaloes and named for the one-armed chef who invented them; and a decadent lassi topped with heavy cream.
This chai rabdi lassi pays homage to these rich historical and culinary traditions. It embraces the regional love of cream, and the spiced black chai is a nod to its struggle for freedom against colonial rule. The flavors of a chai masala—layered with fennel, jaggery, and rose—evoke ittr and lazzat-e-taam, coming together in a dish that celebrates the nazakat-laden Lucknowi cuisine, filled with decadence and pleasure.
Nandita Godbole is an Atlanta-based chef and writer (as well as a ceramicist who created the vessels pictured here). This recipe is excerpted from her cookbook Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends, forthcoming from Turmeric Press.
Chai Rabdi Lassi
Makes 2 servings
Time: 10 minutes plus prep
For the chai
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon chai masala
2 tablespoon jaggery
1 teaspoon Earl Grey
For the lassi
2/3 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon sugar, or as needed, optional
1 teaspoon rose water
1 teaspoon grated jaggery
1 teaspoon unroasted Lucknowi fennel, coarsely crushed
5-6 unsalted almonds, slivered
3-4 dried roses or 1 teaspoon dried rose petals, optional
Gold leaf, optional
Start a cup of water in a saucepan on medium-high heat. Add the chai masala and jaggery and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for 1 minute. Add the tea leaves and increase the heat to high. Bring this to a boil and immediately remove from the heat. Set aside for 2 minutes. Strain and refrigerate the tea for a few hours until ready to use. This tea can be made up to one day in advance.
To make the lassi, whisk the yogurt until smooth. Slowly add the reserved chilled tea into the mixture, whisking lightly until the yogurt and tea are combined. Add the whipping cream and whisk again until combined. Adjust sweetness to taste with sugar. Stir in the rose water and refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve, stir the prepared lassi to incorporate the whipping cream throughout the lassi. Pour into a chilled glass and rest for 5 minutes. Dress with a sprinkling of grated jaggery, Lucknowi fennel, and almond slivers. Finish with dried roses, or dried rose petals, and a piece of gold leaf if using. Serve immediately.
Masaleydaar includes a recipe for chai masala, and store-bought versions are available—just be sure not to purchase one that includes tea leaves or added sugars. (Spicewalla and Diaspora Co. both offer good versions.) Finer than regular fennel, Lucknowi fennel seeds are bright olive-green in color and sweeter to the taste, and hold their flavor better through the cooking process. For this recipe, do not substitute with regular fennel. Jaggery—unrefined cane sugar—adds a nice caramel flavor to the tea that can’t be replicated with honey, but it’s fine to use sugar for the lassi. Indian grocers will carry all these ingredients. Gold leaf can be purchased via retailers offering specialty baking supplies.
This article appears in our May 2023 issue.