Bhopal—once a princely state—is known for many things: its nawabi culture, its lakes, and its many heritage monuments. Food, though, doesn’t always figure high on this list. That’s surprising, given that its royal dishes range from the popular rezala to melt-in-the-mouth kebabs, delicately spiced kormas and rice preparations in numerous varieties.
“Bhopal’s food in general isn’t high on the spice quotient and not overly rich either, despite being something of an offshoot of Mughal cuisine,” says Sadaf Hussain, the author of Daastan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories And Recipes From Muslim Kitchens, a podcaster and MasterChef India 2016 finalist. “The gravies and kormas are lighter, the spices are milder and there is plenty of grilling involved, hence the popularity of kebabs.”
Shubhra Chatterji, a Bhopal native and culinary documentarian, believes that though Bhopali cuisine may lack some of the finesse of Awadhi fare or the richness and sourness of Hyderabadi cuisine, it has its own rustic and wholesome charm. “It’s worth noting that shikaari food, or game meats, were quite popular back then and influenced the cuisine of Bhopal, since the city is surrounded by dense jungles.”
Unlike Lucknow and Hyderabad, which have given us dishes such as kebabs, haleem and nihari, Bhopal’s royal food has remained relatively under the radar. So, what really is Bhopal’s royal cuisine? There’s filfora, a mildly-spiced hand-pounded meat cooked with fresh coriander. Back in the day, cooks who would accompany the nawab on hunts would quickly prepare this dish with a handful of spices, letting the game meat (nowadays it’s typically made with mutton) take pride of place. Then you have rezala (which would earlier feature hare, mutton or fish but is now mostly cooked with chicken), which has made its way to restaurant menus outside Bhopal. Unlike its Kolkata and Lucknow counterparts, the Bhopali rezala is green in colour owing to the use of fresh coriander, grown across the region. Bhopal has its own style of biryani, known as biryan, which borders more on a pulao, with the rice cooked in meat broth.
Sweets like shahi tukda too are different. Bhopal’s version calls for a day-old bread that is fried, soaked in saffron-hued reduced milk and popped in the oven for a final flourish. Similarly, gulabi kheer is a fragrant take on the popular dish as we know it, with the addition of rose petals.
Saleem Quraishi, who is part of Bhopal’s royal family, which runs the Jehan Numa Palace hotel in Shyamla Hills, says that Bhopal’s food draws inspiration from several quarters. One, the princely state was founded by people of Afghan descent, so meat-heavy dishes were the norm. Two, the influence of neighbouring places such as Rampur, Shahjahanpur and Saharanpur in present-day Uttar Pradesh, as women from the nobility in these regions married into nobility in Bhopal. For instance, many more vegetables started appearing (almost a hundred years ago) in meat-based dishes, leading to fare like aloo gosht, chukandar gosht, tamatar gosht, etc.
Reviving a legacy
Today, finding these dishes, closely guarded by royal households, in Bhopal is difficult. One theory is that these dishes never really reached the people.
The Jehan Numa Palace Hotel is trying to change that. Last year, it launched a bespoke dining concept, “The General’s Table”, featuring a set menu of age-old royal recipes. The family-owned property, now helmed by one of the direct descendants of General Obaidullah Khan (commander-in-chief of the Bhopal State Force), Faiz Rashid, has recreated several of these over 100-year-old recipes (handwritten and carefully preserved in the family kothi) that would be served during a royal daawat or weddings. Khan was the second son of the last begum of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan, who was fond of throwing lavish parties.
The menu typically lists over 20 such dishes, such as palak dahi ka shorba, galouti kebab, dahi ke kebab, adraki chaap, filfora, baingan ki burani, Bhopali machali korma, Rampuri chawal, Bhopali yakhni pulao, and sweet dishes like chana dal halwa and shahi tukda. Even today, chefs from the hotel are regularly sent to the family kothi to take refresher courses from the khansama.
Quraishi says that one meal often favoured by the wife of General Obaidullah Khan was parindey me parinda, which was essentially seven birds stuffed into one another. The extravagant dish started with a peacock, which was then stuffed with a goose, followed by jungle fowl and partridge, moving towards smaller birds like quail. It could be served as a broth or filled with fragrant rice for a lavish feast.
Yet, Bhopali cuisine is yet to get its due in popular culture, though interest in Indian cuisine has been growing globally. Kurush Dalal, archaeologist and culinary anthropologist, notes, “The fact that Bhopal has been a centre of influence over centuries and all of these nuances have translated into the cuisine of the region, says a lot about what it has to offer.” All that’s needed, he believes, is a good push to put the cuisine firmly on the map.
Also read | The secrets of India's royal kitchens
Arzoo Dina is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.