A fabled cuisine

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

Not long ago, a restaurant in one of New Delhis more famous five-star hotels, which claimed to provide authentic Mughlai food, had on its menu this strange dish Raan-e-Mirza. It meant Mirzas thigh. As with Chinese food, less forgivably, not all that passes for Mughali cuisine has its roots in the Mughal era.

Salma Husain claims that her book contains tables of the seven Mughal emperors who ruled India from 1483 to 1858. She has tried to give authenticity to the many recipes she provides, with rich illustrations of Mughal art, by consulting original Persian manuscripts and books of those times. The recipes however, have been modified to an extent to suit the modern times. One wishes the originals had been published as well.

This is not to underestimate the pains taken in the writing of this book. A visit was made to Ferghana, home town of Babur, to collect old recipes of the valley. A careful review of the recipes from the Ain-i-Akbari, a manual of Akbars time, a selection from Alwan-e-Nemat and Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, Persian manuscripts containing royal recipes of Jahangir and Shahjahans kitchens, and study of an Urdu book called Bahadur Shah ka Ahde-Hakoomat has given authenticity to the recipes.

It is unfortunate that recipes of games and birds, which remained favourite of the Mughal emperors, could not be included as present-day restrictions prohibit their availability. Some of the spices not available then have been included to make dishes tastier. Use of dried fruits, saffron and ghee has been reduced considerably.

The Introduction is very informative and tells the reader a lot about the customs and rituals of that magnificent era.

The Mughals did not pay much attention to the adornment of dining place; their food itself was always rich, colourful and decorated with gold and silver leaves. Each cook tried his best to excel and present something unique. Some items of food were made to look like gems and jewels, dried fruits were glazed with Babool gum and added to pulaos, and ghee for cooking was coloured and flavoured.

Yoghurt was set in seven colours but in one bowl, and cottage cheese was set in bamboo baskets. Colouring and garnishing of food reached a new height during Jahangirs reign as Nurjahan was artistic and brought sophistication to the royal table. A great variety of food was prepared every day for the emperor to choose from and some dishes were kept half done, so that they could be served immediately should the emperor ask for them.

There is a brief, well-written biographical note on each Mughal emperor, from Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar, which covers also their distinctive tastes in food, followed by the recipes in vogue in that emperors time. The notes, based on painstaking research, record the passions of each emperor. Aurangazeb was a vegetarian.

The only indulgence of the emperor was love for the pleasures of the table. He once wrote to his son, I remember the savour of your khichdi and biryani during the winter. I wanted to have from you Suleman, who cooked biryani, but you did not allow him to serve me as my cook. If you happen to find a pupil of his skill in the art of cooking, you will send him to me. The desire for eating has not left me entirely.

He was a vegetarian and did not like exotic dishes of meat prepared in the royal kitchen. He loved qubooli and enjoyed this preparation. Like his ancestors, Aurangazeb had a passion for fruits, especially for mangoes, and there are numerous references to mangoes in his letters. He was a simple and religious emperor, hence the practice of serving food in gold and silver dishes was forbidden by him.

Wine was not a taboo in the Mughal society, except during the reign of Aurangzeb who never drank it except once when by irony of fate he succumbed to the temptation at the hands of a beautiful slave girl, Zainabadi, who tried to test his infatuation for her.

This superbly produced book is itself a feast inviting challenging? the reader to try out its tempting recipes.

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