‘The Mughal Feast’ by Salma Yusuf Husain recreates the Persian recipe book ‘Nuskha-e-Shahjahani’.
Salma Yusuf HusainUpdated
The silver twilight of Mughal civilization began with Shah Jahan. Delhi was now a sanctuary of an urbane, sophisticated court which had taste, even elegance. By early 1730 the city had absorbed various elements from neighbouring regions and witnessed a mingling of international as well as national strains and an interchange of ideas, customs and food.
The Portuguese relationship with the Mughals had already been established a long time back, along the trade routes. Hence the imperial kitchens, besides Indian ingredients, saw an additional ingredient brought by the Portuguese — the chilli. The chilli was very similar to the long pepper, already in use, and therefore did not look too unfamiliar to royal chefs, but had the hot taste. Other vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes also appeared on the scene and the food of the Red Fort became rich in colour, hot in taste, and varied as compared to the bland food of its ancestors. Qormas and qaliyas, pulaos and kababs, and vegetables in different garb, besides European cakes and puddings, adorned the table.
Cooking and serving food in the royal kitchens was a riot of colours, fragrances, experiments, table manners and protocols. The emperors usually ate with their queens and concubines, except on festive occasions, when they dined with nobles and courtiers. Daily meals were usually served by eunuchs, but an elaborate chain of command accompanied the food to the table. The hakim (royal physician) planned the menu, making sure to include medicinally beneficial ingredients. For instance, each grain of rice for the pulao was coated with silver warq, which aided digestion and acted as an aphrodisiac. One account records a Mughal banquet given by Asaf Khan, the emperor’s wazir, during Jahangir’s time to Shah Jahan — though no outsider had ever seen any emperor while dining except once when Friar Sebastian Manriquea, a Portuguese priest, was smuggled by an eunuch inside the harem to watch Shah Jahan eat his food with Asaf Khan.
Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan, a transcreation of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani by Salma Yusuf Husain, Roli Books. Available at Liberty Books and Saeed Books in Pakistan.
Once the menu was decided, an elaborate kitchen staff — numbering at least a few hundred — swung into action. Since a large number of dishes were served at each meal, an assembly line of staff undertook the chopping and cleaning, the washing and grinding. Food was cooked in rainwater mixed with water brought in from the Ganges for the best possible taste. Not only the cooking but the way the food was served is interesting to note — food was served in dishes made of gold and silver studded with precious stones, and of jade, as it detected poison. The food was eaten on the floor; sheets of leather covered with white calico protected the expensive carpets. This was called dastarkhwan. It was customary for the emperor to set aside a portion of food for the poor before eating. The emperor began and ended his meal with prayers; the banquet ran for hours as Shah Jahan liked to enjoy his food, spending long hours at dastarkhwan.
With the passage of time, indigenization in the cooking style became obvious and certain Indian ingredients, like Kashmiri vadi, sandalwood powder, suhaga, betel leaves, white gourd, and batasha, and fruits like mango, phalsa, banana, etc., were used to give different flavours to dishes.
The arrival of every dish was a ceremony and history will never forget the pomp of those times, along with the flavours which remain only in the pages of handwritten manuscripts of those days, such as Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. Not only the imperial kitchens of the emperor, but also the bazaars of the city were charged with the smoke of different kababs, and the environment was filled with the fragrance of nahari, haleem, qormas and qaliyas. The array of breads was dazzling. Festive occasions were never complete without baqarkhani, kulchas and sheermals. Sharbat ke katore and kulfi ke matke added colour to the scenario. The city of Shah Jahan was a paradise of food with the creations of local and foreign chefs.
This luxurious way of serving and preparing food continued only till the time Shah Jahan ruled, as his son Aurangzeb did not believe in luxury, pomp and show. Unfortunately, the last years of this great emperor were unhappy. Deposed by his son Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agra Fort and remained there for eight years until his death in 1666. Legend has it that Aurangzeb ordered that his father be allowed only one ingredient of his choice, and Shah Jahan chose chickpeas. He chose them because they can be cooked in many different ways. Even today, one of the signature dishes of North Indian cuisine is Shahjahani dal, chickpeas cooked in a rich gravy of cream.