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Recreating a lost Rampuri recipe with a new ingredient

Reviving a lost Rampuri recipe in Bhopal becomes a lesson in understanding that food has to evolve and adapt to local tastes

Image used for representational purpose only. (Istockphoto)

By Tarana Husain Khan

LAST PUBLISHED 01.03.2024  |  09:11 AM IST

I first came across a recipe for Rampuri shabdeg while flipping through the cookbook Shahi Dastarkhwan written by Latafat Ali Khan Rampuri, a Rampur khansama, in the 1940s. “Rampur style of shabdeg is very popular and famous. In my opinion there is no shabdeg as delicious and elegant in all of Hindustan," the book said. I turned to members of the former Rampur royal family who had tasted the now forgotten dishes of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. They remembered the Rampuri shabdeg, a meat and turnip stew with origins in Persian cuisine. It had dropped off menus sometime in the 1960s because of its elaborate and complex cooking method—a fate shared by many other royal dishes.

Shabdeg became one of the 40 lost dishes of royal Rampur cuisine that my team of Rampur khansamas and I planned to revive under the Forgotten Foods project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a UK organisation that funds cultural research across the globe.

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Shabdeg had not found mention in the three 19th-century Persian manuscripts written by Rampur gourmands, which are preserved in the Rampur Raza Library and formed the core of my research. Aslam, a Rampur khansama with whom I was working on the revival project, remembered cooking shabdeg with his ustad, Munna Bhai, when he was a young apprentice in the 1970s. He assured me that it could be done. Aslam is unlettered but has a tremendous memory and can immediately imagine a dish. According to him, the real recipes are not found in books but are passed on “seena dar seena", an oral repertoire.

For shabdeg, crushed goat trotters and bones have to be cooked through the night till they are nearly disintegrating to create a broth that forms the base of the Rampuri shabdeg. Aslam turned up at my place one day bearing a pan filled with thick white bone broth and we set to work. The turnips were peeled, forked, boiled in turmeric and salt water to reduce their pungent taste, and then deep fried. They had to be soft enough to absorb the flavours and yet stay firm. Then we made the meatballs—the mutton mince was flavoured with aromatics like cardamom, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, garlic, fried onions, and fashioned into meatballs and fried. The traditional shabdeg recipe calls for colouring the turnips in a way that the person eating it can’t distinguish between the meatballs and the turnips––the USP of Rampuri shabdeg. Alongside, mutton pieces were cooked separately in a spice and turmeric masala with milk added as tenderiser; fried and crushed onions, almond paste and cream were added after the meat was done.

The dish was finally put together by adding the meatballs, the turnips and the all-important broth to the meat curry. The pot was then sealed and left to slow cook for over an hour on coals. The shabdeg curry is rich, has a thick consistency and a deep redolence. The recipe Aslam and I tried out from Shahi Dastarkhwan in my Rampur kitchen turned out to be superlative.

I had been under the impression that shabdeg was a Lucknowi dish because I recalled eating it on a wintry night at a Lucknowi aunt’s place. (The shabdeg we ate that night was a runny, fragrant curry with lemon-sized meatballs and turnips.) But my research revealed that at least the Indian version of the Persian dish was from Kashmir. Food historian Pushpesh Pant, author of The Indian Cookbook, has included a recipe of the Kashmiri shabdeg, which is very similar to the Rampuri shabdeg except that the broth in his recipe was mixed into the mince for the meatballs.

The most important ingredient in the Kashmiri shabdeg is ver, a Kashmiri masala mix which is added at the end. In Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, author and food historian Lizzie Collingham writes that shabdeg migrated to Awadh with the Kashmiri labourers in 1784 when Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah was building the Bada Imambara in Lucknow—the first food for work programme. While the large meat cauldrons bubbled all night supervised by the local cooks to feed the workers in the morning, the shabdeg edged in and became quite popular in Lucknow.

Shabdeg also migrated to Delhi, a version described in Sadia Dehlvi’s book Jasmine And Jinns. There, it is a kofta curry with whole carrots and/or turnips. Dehlvi explained that the dish used to be cooked overnight but an abbreviated version is prepared nowadays.

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Soon Aslam and I were ready to take our favourite dish among all the ones we had revived to the world. The Rampuri shabdeg was the showstopper at the grand finale of the four-day Rivaayat Rampur Food Festival at the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel in Bhopal last year. The hotel’s chefs and I, along with my team, were showcasing reimagined and recreated dishes of royal Rampur cuisine. Apart from shabdeg, we made dishes like kundan qaliya, do gosht pulao, Taj kababs and adrak halwa.

But we came across an unexpected hitch. I was going over the dinner menu with Aslam in the hotel kitchen when head chef Jeevan came in. He had just seen the description of the dish—a meat and turnip stew. “Bhopalis don’t like turnips," he said, and suggested potatoes as a replacement. I reasoned with him. The turnips, soft and soaked in the curry, were a counterbalance to the meatballs. The texture of potatoes was completely different; shabdeg was not a variation of alu-gosht.

I pressed on with my case of turnips in shabdeg through the morning of the grand finale but to no avail. “Maybe we can consider substituting turnips with carrots or beetroot," said the head chef. True, beets had a similar texture, but the curry would turn pink.

The pink Shabdeg Chuqandari. (Photo by Tarana Husain Khan)

“I think it would look amazing," he said. He had always insisted on yellow, green, red and brown colours in the dinner spread. A dark pink would be brilliant. So, we cooked shabdeg with beets that night and named it “Shabdeg Chuqandari" (chuqandar is the Hindi word for beetroot). When we had finished cooking, I closed my eyes and took a bite. The earthy taste of beets had intruded into the flavours of the curry in a way turnips would not have. The beets were soft and had absorbed the flavours of the curry; in fact, Aslam had to add some tomatoes to balance the sweetness of the beets. It was a disorienting pink mush.

The diners found the new shade on their platter an intriguing innovation. I had a culinary epiphany—recipes move through time and borders, transforming to become our own. The revival of shabdeg had created a reimagined version.

Tarana Husain Khan is a writer and a food historian. She is currently working on a research fellowship with the University of Sheffield, UK.