Awadh: Reminising About Lucknow and Environs
by Allen Kornmesser, September 13, 2018
The food of Lucknow, and Awadh generally, is close to my heart. I lived in Lucknow in the late 1980s when I was doing research for my dissertation. I traveled throughout rural Awadh, doing fieldwork in Mankapur (Gonda district), and in Deoria and Gorakhpur at the eastern edge of Awadh.
Lucknow has grown a lot since then, but I remember it as a small city with a rich history. Palatial buildings, tombs, mosques, and imambaras dot the urban landscape, fringed by parks and lush gardens, winding narrow lanes, and wide boulevards flanked by shops and government buildings.
The heat was oppressive from May to September, but the city would come alive after sunset, the markets thronged with shoppers, people milling about in the evening air, eating kulfi, or kababs and paranthas, at any of the hundreds of roadside eateries throughout the city. Parties, banquets, concerts, and wedding processions, all waited for sunset. Many of my memories of Lucknow are of the city after dark.
Lucknow is the center of Shia Muslims in India, and flowery and formal Urdu still influences the Awadhi dialect in the city. Poetry lives in Lucknow, and readings attract hundreds and thousands of vocal enthusiasts. Classical music and dance, especially Khatak, are taught and preserved in this culturally rich place.
So, it is fun for me to try and capture some of the spirit of this place I called home for over a year. Our ‘Awadhi Thali’ is a creation inspired by that happy time in my life.
I have been fascinated by the ‘nine-night’ festival of Navratri since my first visit to India. I was aware that Durga was worshipped fervently in Bengal, along with Kali and other goddesses, but it wasn’t until I moved to India for study – I lived in Delhi first, later Lucknow - that I got to see how the festival was celebrated throughout the north of India in cities and villages.
There are two Navratris on the lunar festival calendar, one in the Spring, another in the Fall (technically there is one every lunar month, but only two are widely observed). The dates vary year to year, but they occur near to the equinoxes, as the new moon waxes through the first quarter. The Autumn Navratri is the more widely celebrated of the two, perhaps because it marks the start of the festival season that runs through Diwali and culminates with the full moon of Kartika. The hot weather is ending, and people feel more like celebrating. It also marks a harvest time in the north that gives peasants and farmers leisure time and money to spend on festival activities.
The festival is given an added boost by its coincidence with the Ram-Lila festival which historically has been even more significant in much of the central Gangetic plain, where Lord Ram ruled his kingdom from his capital, Ayodhya, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Both involve establishing temporary pavilions, or ‘pandals’, where altars are erected to the great goddess to be worshipped in her various forms for nine nights, or where the Ramayana is read and sometimes acted-out over a similar span of time. Both culminate in blow-out festivals on their respective tenth day, Dussahera, or Ram Dashami, with pageantry, fireworks, demons being slain, and virtue triumphing over evil.
Some time in the mid-twentieth century the celebration of Navratri and Durga puja began to spread from Bengal in the east, and Gujarat in the west, to include much more of central north India. In the 1970s I noticed a proliferation of Bengali social clubs in northern cities where Bengalis had large enough populations to warrant them. The clubs would put up the pandals, buy elaborate decorations, including temporary images of Durga and other goddesses and gods, hire a priest, etc., so that Bengalis could enjoy their traditional celebrations wherever they lived. Soon these were drawing many non-Bengalis, and more and more community groups and wealthy individuals began sponsoring pandals in their neighborhoods. Nowadays there seems to be a pan-Indian competition between sponsoring groups to build more and more elaborate and expensive pandals, with more and more exotic themes.
Particularly in the Himalayan region, and probably elsewhere, the public ceremonies also reflect certain social realities and familial relationships. The goddess is treated as a daughter of the community returning to her family home for nine nights. She is a beloved and celebrated guest, and every indulgence is paid her, but at the end of her visit she must leave to return to her husband’s family home. In many places the image of the Goddess is created specifically for the festival, and at its conclusion, after a celebratory send-off, the image is removed to a river and immersed there to float away and be consumed by the elements.
Although it is a time of public celebration and revelry, it is also a very holy time for many devotees, and a time for personal religious activities, worship at home, and fasting. Austerities such as fasting help build a stronger connection to the deity, while also making the body a more suitable vessel for spiritual activities. ‘Tamasik’ foods, particularly meat, but also onions, garlic, and various other foods, are considered antithetical to spiritual practices (they fuel less ’spiritually appropriate’ impulses and behaviors). More ‘sattvik’ foods purify the body, are digestible, such that the body does not pull one away from spiritual practice, and generally elevates one’s state of being appropriate to the ritual activities required of the devotee.
From a culinary perspective, creating a ‘feast’ for a ‘fast’ presents a number of challenges, not least the seeming contradiction in terms. Fasting in Hindu tradition does not necessarily require the elimination of all food, but more often the elimination of certain, often crucial ingredients. Austerities of this sort are thought to produce spiritual merit. For some, only one meal is eaten daily for the duration of Navratri. The rules, like everything in India, vary by region, community, even household, but there are some general rules that are widely observed.
Besides onions and garlic, the fast also proscribes eating grains and lentils – which means no bread, rice, or dal. Beyond that, the restrictions outnumber the allowances. Spices allowed usually include cumin, red chili, black pepper, and cardamom. Fresh ginger and green chilies are okay, and some fresh herbs (cilantro and curry leaf). Salt is okay, but sea salt is discouraged as it is considered more tamasic than ‘purer’ - and ayurvedically more cooling – salt mined from the earth. Salt from certain regions is considered preferable. I am using sendha salt, named for Sindh where it was historically mined.
Otherwise ‘fruits and roots’ are the main foods allowed, although gourds are acceptable as well (pumpkin and bottle gourd/opo/lauki, in particular). Coconut and other tree nuts, and dairy products are okay. None of these ingredients are required. There are also some curiosities that are traditionally eaten during the festival, such as lotus puffs (fox nut), tapioca, water chestnut flour, etc. It’s fun to try to incorporate these into the festival menu. Overall, the thali is tasty, with simple, ‘pure’ flavors, unexpected textures (tapioca and lotus puffs), and a few unusual ingredients. For some Indians it will be a trip down memory lane, for others an opportunity to experience a meal unlike any they have eaten. You don’t have to be fasting to experience it. In fact we will continue to serve out “phalahari” thali beyond the end of Navratri, through the weekend.
Navratri: The Festival and the Fast
by Alleb Kornmesser, October, 2018
OCTOBER - Sattvik for Navratri
Everything must come to an end, and it is clear to us that after seven years on Beacon Hill, it is time for Travelers Thali House to call it a day. May will be our last full month. We will do our best to keep regular hours during this time. We’re sorry to abandon those of you who have been, and continue to be, regular customers (the ones who have never missed a thali, those who come every week). You’ve become like family, and we’ll miss you terribly. And to those of you who could come rarely, but who loved the experience, and chose us as a place to bring your closest friends and family, we are sorry we won’t be there for you. We know some of you won’t be able to find home-style Indian vegetarian food like we’ve specialized in. We tried to fill a void in the market, and we did! We were successful in that, but not as a business.
We built our restaurant around ‘thali’, and we are proud of what we achieved. When we started serving thali on weekends, cooking in the back of our spice shop and import store on Capitol Hill, nobody else in Seattle was doing it. One or two Indian restaurants beyond the city limits were making combo meals they dubbed ‘thali’, but that was it. Allen fell in love with the full-meal thali restaurants when he first went to India in the 1970s. They were plain, wholesome, working-class lunch spots, that were also often ridiculously cheap. Later, when he was living there, he came to love the meals he shared in people’s homes; nurturing meals, and the real roots of ‘regional’ and ‘local’ cuisines, made from recipes often unwritten and passed down through generations. We decided to combine the two, offering full meals featuring home-style dishes from different regions.
While we were innovating in bringing thali to Seattle, and by raising it from the pedestrian workers’ lunch, to an ever-changing array of regional dishes, we hardly noticed that a similar thali revolution was going on in India. New restaurants offering pricier thali meals, fancier service, and elegant presentation, were opening in many of the bigger cities. In Seattle we heard that a second thali restaurant was opening in our own neighborhood. It turned out to be Poppy, with its fusion of Indian with local styles and ingredients. Now there are thali restaurants in Seattle, and on the eastside, featuring southern, northern, Gujarati and Rajasthani thalis. A lot has changed since we began. Perhaps our work is done.
Creating these dishes, even from simple and relatively inexpensive ingredients, is not cheap. We became increasingly aware that most moderately priced restaurants do not spend a lot of time chopping vegetables, or even cooking from scratch. We did most of it ourselves, producing our own spice blends and condiments, avoiding canned and frozen ingredients, even as the cost of labor and ingredients (and everything else) were going up. We were forced to raise our prices several times, but that reduces demand as well. We went from a slow growth trajectory to a slow decline. And we had bigger problems.
Those of you who have followed our journey know that we were forced from our Capitol Hill location by a collapsing economy (right after we invested everything we had to expand the business), and a notoriously unscrupulous real estate developer who purchased the building we were in and proceeded to try to drive us out. (It’s a long story.) We sought refuge on Beacon Hill, opening the Thali House in this beautiful little restaurant space in a charming old house with a lovely patio. For a while we were operating at both locations. Shortly after that we went bankrupt.
The unscrupulous landlord at our first location tricked us out of our lease extension and demanded a tripling of our rent, at a time that most people, like us, were still suffering from the recession. We were evicted and our location rented out from under us (for a lower rate than he asked from us!). The cost to close the business, lose the income, and move out, meant we were broke. We filed for bankruptcy, and eventually got through that, thanks to the support of our new Beacon Hill neighbors (our landlords and lawyer, in particular). We kept the restaurant going and began the process of recovering economically, but within a year, chef-owner Allen Kornmesser was diagnosed with stage four cancer and we faced a whole new battle.
While Allen went through two major surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy trying to survive, friends and family worked tirelessly to keep the restaurant alive. So many people donated their time, including Allen’s godson Merlin who, at 18 years old, stepped into the chef’s role for a year, with Allen pulling puppet strings and directing menu changes from the side. Meanwhile, Leon was taking care of his elderly mother, and Allen, and trying to manage the restaurant while barely making any money for himself. We paid employees when we could, but we over-extended ourselves trying to keep the restaurant running, and we never fully recovered.
Allen got better and went back to work part-time at first. We incorporated and tried to make a fresh start for the business. But there were tax debts from the old business to pay off, and medical bills from Allen’s cancer (it never really ends). Ultimately, unable to reestablish credit, we ended up running the business strictly on the cash coming in the door. We have done this for the last three years without making any progress.
We realize now that the model we built doesn’t work. It requires a staff of six people to serve, work the kitchen, and wash the dishes. Weeknights we tend to be busy, if at all, from about 8 pm until closing at 9 pm. We tried staying open later, but people didn’t come. We tried cutting back on staff, but employees got overwhelmed by the brief crush of demanding, sometimes surly customers. We even tried happy hour. Not happy. The only day we could count on to make a profit was Saturday when our Indian customers poured in from the hinterlands and filled up the restaurant. The rest of the time we were lucky to break even.
The restaurant was hurting us, and we felt we had no escape. Without credit or capital, we just kept running into trouble. Taxes paid late meant penalties and interest. Bounced checks at the bank led to more fees and penalties. We were falling behind on the business rent, and had trouble paying our own living expenses. As the debt accumulated again, we started thinking how we could reinvent the business. We were on the verge of announcing major changes in April when we were approached by a party interested in opening a restaurant at our location.
Our first reaction to the inquiry was “no!” As bad as it had been, the restaurant was our only means to make what we needed to pay off our debts. But then they made an offer that we had to take seriously. They offered us enough to pay off much of our debt, in exchange for our location, the equipment, etc. But what we saw in their offer was hope, which we had lost, that we could ever escape from what had become an increasingly bad situation.
I will leave it to the other party to reveal more when they choose, but it was important to us that we would be replaced by such a worthy endeavor. They have a concept that is strong and good, and frankly better suited to the neighborhood than ours. We wish them huge success! And we will be there cheering them on.
As for the business, we will still exist (as Travelers India Inc., and Travelers Tea Co.), and will continue brewing and distributing our Masala Chai. We are looking for a brewing and bottling location, and we will be making our teas and spices to sell wholesale and online. Some time in the future we may be available for catering, or special events. We will not have a storefront or retail outlet for you to visit, but we will be looking for someone to carry our bottled chai and kits so our established customers can get it easily. We haven’t forgotten you! Keep track of us on our website - www.travelersthalihouse.com - and on facebook.
If you are holding any Gift Certificates for the restaurant, we encourage you to use them asap. You can use them to purchase served food and beverages, or other merchandise, but we cannot offer you cash for them at this time. We will continue to honor them after the restaurant closes for online or other purchases, or we will exchange them for cash in future at our discretion.
A big thanks to our South Asian customers. It’s because of you we’ve lasted this long. You understand what we’re trying to do, and your support and appreciation have carried us through. You have provided many our fondest memories that will last for years to come.
Also thank-you to the ‘generations’ of employees who have worked for us. It’s quite a history. Some lasted days, some decades (at both locations). Our gratitude especially goes to those who stuck it out and became more than employees to us. Thanks for your support and your friendship. We will never forget you.
With great affection,
Allen Kornmesser and Leon Reed, owners
Travelers Thali House
TRAVELERS THALI HOUSE TO CLOSE IN JUNE