Rampur was a teardrop of a princely state established by Rohilla Pathans in 1774 under the British colonial rule,” writes Tarana Husain Khan in her new book, Degh To Dastarkhwan: Qissas And Recipes From Rampur. Yet its cuisine has continued to fascinate historians and gourmands alike. Fine-dining restaurants across the north have hosted pop-ups focused on the royal fare of Rampur, while historians have held forth on the unique culture of this erstwhile princely state in present-day Uttar Pradesh. It became the centre of north Indian Muslim culture with the destruction of Delhi and Lucknow after the rebellion of 1857 and came to be known for its patronage of poets, musicians, and, of course, fine cooks.
Until recently, though, the discourse on the cuisine of Rampur was limited to the royal kitchens. What about the food cooked in the homes of common folk, the everyday interactions between khansamas and family members, the tales of forgotten grains and spices? The book holds some of the answers. Khan, whose mother is from Rampur, delves into oral histories, the family memories of her nani amma and aunts, and cookbook manuscripts dating back to the 19th century at the Raza Library in Rampur, to use food as a lens to look at evolving sociocultural practices in the former princely state. There are chapters on the various occasions—funerals and celebrations—linked to the pulao and chapters on khichdi daawats.
Sheffield, UK-based Khan was never a foodie, “or maybe I was in denial”, she says in an email interview. “But my most intense memories of growing up were around food.” She recalls non-cooking gourmands in her family passing verdict on dishes, telling the cook what was missing or what worked well. “I think with each satisfying, delicious as well as disastrous meal, my taste buds informed a culinary memory. So when I sat down to describe a dish, these memories, oral history, family stories just came up and made my writing more about sociocultural practices and around Rampur foodways,” says Khan.
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When she came to live in Rampur in 2010, she was an insider-outsider researching the region’s culinary arc. Never a keen cook, she began attempting to recreate 19th century recipes while researching and translating the cookbook manuscripts at the Rampur Raza Library, taking the help of the local khansamas, who were the repositories of Rampur’s culinary art. So the book is also her personal journey of rediscovering the forgotten aspects of its cuisine and her efforts to place it back on the culinary map. It has also led to another project to try and revive forgotten grains, such as the tilak chandan rice, which were once an inextricable part of Rampuri fare, lending an unmatched texture and aroma to pulaos, khichdi and kheer.
There are variations of qaliyas and qormas across Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, and Rampur has its own unique takes on these. This is perhaps because cooks from Awadh and Delhi interacted with their Rampur counterparts to produce a cuisine which had the finesse of Mughal cuisine but retained its hardy Pathan flavours. “The Rampur cuisine is a meat-heavy cuisine with a unique melding of spices (such as the yellow chilli). The flavours are never overly aromatic but are rustic, distinctive and forthright like the people,” says Khan.
The narrative, which takes the form of personal storytelling, is extremely appealing. Khan has linked the intricacies of food with emotions like grief and joy. When she was structuring the book, she realised that often a particular emotion would dominate culinary memories of a particular dish. “I guess that is how multi-sensory memories are stored, at least for me,” says Khan. The smell of the pulao would often interlay itself with the smell of incense, memories of Thursday pulao lunches and special fatiha prayers for ancestors. “In Rampur, pulao is served after the burial to comfort the mourners. This pulao would be as opulent as the one made for a waleema, or the wedding dinner. The only difference was that there would be no sweet dish served at a funeral. The guests would also eat with restraint—there would be no demands for a piping hot replenishment of the served pulao,” she adds.
No matter what the occasion, though, there would be no compromise on the quality and presentation of food. It would be inconceivable for a Rampuri to serve cold pulao at a funeral or a less than perfect taar roti on remembrance day as it would be an insult to the memory of the departed. “Food is not just an ingestion of calories for sustenance but it has a cultural perspective which mirrors the ethos of the people,” says Khan.
There’s a fascinating chapter about urad dal and rice khichdi. During winter, a unique social life revolves around this humble dish, which becomes an indicator of kinship. Khan writes about how close friends often invite themselves for a khichdi daawat, or a newly-wed groom finally becomes a part of the family when he is invited to one such meal at his in-laws’ home .“So, khichdi it is throughout winters within the loving, informal ambit of ‘Rampuriyat’, with fingers dipping into mounds of khichdi and glistening with ghee,” she writes. In most Muslim households, this would be served with chutney, mooli achar and gobhi gosht.
During her grandparents’ time, the social bonhomie was even more apparent in the eating, as three-four people ate from one large dish. Khichdi would be piled up on a dish as the co-diners mixed ghee, achar and other condiments. “It’s almost mythical now, given the era of pandemic. But even today, khichdi daawats are very informal,” says Khan. “It is a unique experience, the informality, bonding and love.”
In the book, she also mentions forgotten grains such as the tilak chandan rice—a small-grained aromatic variety used in khichdi and kheer—which were once an inextricable part of Rampuri fare. “In a similar vein, Hans Raj was a local basmati, which was highly aromatic and had high longevity. It was used in pulaos, zardas and biryanis. Slowly and steadily these varieties were replaced by hybrids. The texture and aroma of pulaos, khichdi and kheer underwent a change—a cultural loss. Old-timers yearned for the fragrance of tilak chandan which would waft through the mohalla (neighbourhood) announcing that khichdi was on the boil. It was only when I came back to live in Rampur that I realised that these rice varieties were no longer available,” she explains.
Her writing on the tilak chandan and Rampur cuisine evoked the interest of historian Prof. Siobhan Lambert-Hurley from the University of Sheffield. Together, the two teamed up with plant scientist Prof. Duncan Cameron and started a project, “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage And Lost Agricultural Varieties of India”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The core objective is to revive historic recipes and resurrect heirloom rice varieties.
“In collaboration with plant scientist Prof. Duncan Cameron and Birendra Sandhu of Benazir farms, we have been sowing tilak chandan for the past three years, and Hans Raj this year in Rampur,” says Khan. The problem is the low productivity of heritage rice and high chances of crop failure. “We hope we can take forward this resurrection of rice—what Prof. Duncan Cameron calls the ‘democratisation of rice’—through crafting hybrids and possible genetically modified interventions,” she adds. The project recently hosted Jashn-e-Rampur at the India International Centre, Delhi, to highlight rediscovered aspects of Rampuri culinary culture and showcased 17 dishes, reimagined from historical texts, such as kundan qaliya, pineapple pulao and adrak halwa. More such events are on the anvil.
Khan is now working on a coffee table book based on the Forgotten Foods project that will feature several dishes which are no longer cooked in Rampur. She has translated the recipes from Persian and Urdu manuscripts and has been reimagining them with the help of Chef Suroor and Aslam khansama. “I am also working on simple Unani recipes from Rampur cookbooks, which were used to fix common ailments,” she adds.