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The secrets of India's royal kitchens

The culinary stories and secrets of royal kitchens, once guarded closely, are finding new audiences as erstwhile royal families open up to the world

Kumud Kumari, the former maharani of Gondal, in Gujarat’s Rajkot district (Pankaj Anand )

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"I am 81 and I have written a book… can you believe it?” Kumud Kumari, the former maharani of Gondal, in Gujarat’s Rajkot district, is an excited first-time author. “I had to give a name to my love affair with Kathiawar food,” she says, explaining the motivation for her 136-page, self-published cookbook, Recipes Of A Maharani: Secrets From The Gondal Palace. The maharani saheb—as she insists on being addressed—has put down 50 of her family’s countless recipes of Kathiawar food perfected in the palace kitchens. “I wanted to make the world aware of the food culture of the former princely state”, ruled by the Jadeja Rajputs from the 16th century, she says. “Every Indian kitchen, no matter the size, has a story to tell. Those stories are part of the story of India.”

For centuries, the culinary stories and secrets of royal kitchens were closely guarded. Over the past few years, though, the younger generation of these former royal families has been riding the wave of culinary experimentation and opening up the recipe books, taking their secrets to the world through cookbooks, Instagram and YouTube channels, and curated dining experiences. The erstwhile Rajasthani royals were perhaps among the first to do so. Others are following suit. The past year alone has seen books showcasing the royal cuisines of Gondal, Awadh and Patiala.

Also read: Bringing the past luxury of royal India to the present

Apart from sharing tips and tricks to recreate meals fit for a king, they have also simplified recipes so that these can be made without an army of cooks. The aim is to preserve their culture and legacy—and create a new revenue stream. For foodies and food historians, it’s a crucial link, since royal recipes reflect the connections between statecraft, migration, politics, culture and society.

In this one instance, the pandemic proved there could be an upside. As Raghu Deora, the executive chef at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace (owned by Taj Hotels), points out, everyone became interested in cooking, experimenting with food as well as trying new cuisines—and royal cuisines found new customers. The Rambagh Palace had been offering a “royal dining experience” in 2003, serving cuisines made for former royal families. Since 2021, though, its Suvarna Mahal restaurant (housed in the former dining hall of the erstwhile royal family) has been serving more guests. It’s something “other Taj restaurants across India that offer royal cuisines have noticed” too, he says, without giving numbers.

The Suvarna Mahal restaurant at Rambagh Palace is the former dining hall of the erstwhile royal family. It serves royal cuisines from Awadh, Hyderabad and Rajasthan.
The Suvarna Mahal restaurant at Rambagh Palace is the former dining hall of the erstwhile royal family. It serves royal cuisines from Awadh, Hyderabad and Rajasthan. (Courtesy Taj Hotels)

The Oberoi Group’s corporate chef, Satbir Bakshi, has observed a similar rise in interest for Rivaayat, an initiative started in 2014 to focus on regional cuisines, including those of former royal families. “People want to try the cuisines made in the royal kitchens in their own kitchens now,” he says, explaining the rise in interest in Rivaayat pop-ups, and cookbooks, especially after the pandemic.

Also read: A new cookbook documents lesser-known heirloom recipes

This desire to glimpse the lifestyle of former royals is among the reasons Vikram Singh, the current head of the Sailana family that once ruled the Malwa region of present-day Madhya Pradesh, and his daughter Shailaja Katoch have been hosting food festivals in collaboration with luxury hotels for the past year. “We have recently renovated and reopened the Sailana Palace for visitors too,” says his daughter-in-law, Jayathmika Lakshmi, 26. “We hope to make it a culinary destination where tourists can come experience our food.”

Sailana’s cuisine is meat-heavy, prepared only in ghee, with tomatoes used sparingly because many of the dishes were created before tomatoes became easily available in India. Lakshmi says her great-grandfather-in-law, Raja Dilip Singh, was a true gourmand. During his rule (early 20th century), Sailana was known for its rich hospitality and culinary culture. “He began the celebrated cooking culture of Sailana and since then, all the men in the family have been amazing chefs. I don’t think the women have enjoyed it as much!” she says with a laugh.

Vikram Singh supervises as his cooks make Sailana food.
Vikram Singh supervises as his cooks make Sailana food. (Courtesy Royal Fables)

As with many royals, there is a myth—and a hunt—associated with Dilip Singh and his legendary cooking skills: While on shikar, Dilip Singh got separated from his staff. He had had a good day of shooting, so he had meat and ingredients for a feast—but didn’t know how to cook. (How a king was lugging around ingredients and utensils without the help of his staff is a bit of a mystery but we will suspend our disbelief for a while.) “That’s when he realised that he needed to learn this basic skill. He began learning to cook and it slowly became a passion,” says Lakshmi. He not only went on to collect recipes from other princely states but also invented his own.

The Sailana food archive—created by Dilip Singh and maintained by his heirs—holds recipes from the royal families of Bhopal, the nizams of Hyderabad and the nawabs of Rampur, among others. Dilip Singh’s appetite for new dishes was not limited to royalty. Lakshmi relates the story of the raja meeting a band of gypsies. “He saw this group of banjaras cooking, so he got down and learnt how to make their dal. Today, in our collection of recipes, we have a dish called Banjari Dal.”

This zest for food was passed on to his son and Lakshmi’s grandfather-in-law, Digvijay Singh. “I think between the two of them, they would have invented 1,000 recipes and collected tons of other regional recipes. My grandfather-in-law wrote the seminal book, Cooking Delights Of The Maharajas, in the 1990s,” Lakshmi says. Considered a bible by seasoned chefs and gourmands, the book contains 164 recipes from Sailana’s kitchens.

While the rajas were diligent chroniclers of royal cuisines, they weren’t generous sharers of these. “My great-grandfather-in-law would not even share the recipes with his daughters because he felt they would pass them to the families they married into.” Until Digvijay Singh published his book, the collection was handed down only to the direct heir. The current head, Vikram Singh, is believed to have around 2,000 recipes. “My father-in-law has all the recipes but only shares some with my husband,” says Lakshmi.

It’s this kind of secrecy and suspicion that has kept regional royal cuisines largely out of the limelight. While the food of the nizams, nawabs or Rajasthani royals can be ordered off food delivery apps, the food of many smaller princely states—which focused on seasonal local ingredients—is lesser known. “The royal cuisines were sort of lost because these dishes were cooked only for royalty and they used local produce and local ways of cooking,” explains Deora. “They were the custodians.”

Kumud Kumari’s Kathiawar food is an example of this. Heavy on meat and spices, Kathiawar food is one of India’s “hardy” cuisines. “Hardy because of the dry Kathiawar region, where leafy vegetables are few and local spices abundant,” Kumari explains. In her book, she describes Meve Ka Murgh, a dry chicken dish made with three masalas and almonds, pistachio and raisins, Mutton Ke Gulab Jamun, a meat dessert, and a piping hot Gunda Curry made with Indian cherries, to convey how easy it is to make royal dishes.

Her book is also a window to the food of Bhavnagar, where Kumari grew up. She was 11 when she started observing her mother, Manhar Kunverba of Bhavnagar, instructing the cooks in a kitchen as big as a yesteryear theatre hall. She would marvel at how just the timing and movement of a ladle could change the taste of something as simple as a Coriander Ball Curry. She was introduced to Kathiawar cuisine when she married into the Gondal family, where the accent was on the “use of cooling ingredients like curd and besan (gram flour) because the region is so dry”. So, okra was made with curd, so was mung dal, something that initially surprised her. As she travelled with her husband Jyotendra Sinhji Vikramsinhji Jadeja, her food acquired the influence of what she tasted abroad—but she says she limits experimentation. “Our food is so rich and full of flavours already, you don’t feel like messing with it. Look at Junglee Maas; it’s just three ingredients (ghee, whole chillies and salt) and it’s like magic inside the mouth.”

One dish, many iterations

Randhir Singh, 76, a member of the former royal family of Patiala in Punjab, and his clan are working on a coffee-table book of about 100 recipes from their family’s kitchen. The erstwhile maharajas of Patiala are best known for their diamond necklaces, the Patiala peg, and their larger-than-life personalities. Less known is the fact that their culinary traditions run deep. “The Patiala cuisine is rich. We have over 1,100 recipes in our family archives. There are recipes for at least 120 types of pulao, some 40 potato dishes, kormas, salans,” says Randhir Singh, who makes a strong case for the “oft-misunderstood and underrated” pulao. “Everyone thinks there’s just a vegetable pulao but that’s such a misconception. There’s the Shahjahani pulao, the Narangi pulao, the Mutanjan pulao, we make pulaos with keema and kebabs as well. Each pulao is slightly different from the other. It’s a lot like the way each musician sings the same raga but brings in distinction with the style of singing,” Singh explains. “It’s one of the most difficult things to make a good pulao.”

This culinary legacy bears the influence of ties with other rulers. “Our family had close relations with the Afghan kings and cooks from Afghanistan worked in our palace kitchens. Similarly, we have had close relations with the Mughals and the nawabs of Rampur and that led to an exchange of recipes, among other things,” he says.

In the past, each cook in the kitchen would be a specialist. “There was one who exclusively made kebabs, another one who solely baked and so on.” He recalls watching his uncle, Yadavindra Singh, the last king, and his father, Bhalindra Singh, cook on angeethis in the evenings. It’s a tradition that continues today when all the cousins, including former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, get together.

“Today, there is greater emphasis on preserving our culture, which in times of globalisation can easily be lost. I have seen other royal families come out with books on their food histories and recipes, which I think is good,” he says.

While the descendants of former royals may want to document and preserve their culinary heritage, there is another, more practical reason they are willing to open up their collections to the wider public, says Kurush F. Dalal, an archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. “After the abolition of privy purses in 1970s (essentially an annual pension given by the Centre to the rulers of princely states and their successors for acceding to India), the royal families started feeling the pinch. They were used to the flamboyant life. So, many got into the hospitality business, especially after they realised that foreigners were interested in the ‘royal vibe’.”

It began in the 1980s, when a group of people in Rajasthan started documenting alcohol recipes (remember Kesar Kasturi?); food came into the picture about a decade ago. “Over time, the royals realised that this access to food made them more real. And it’s good, right? Top secret recipes are now out. People who were not royals never had access to what was happening behind those closed doors, so, in that sense, we are very lucky that you and I can make these Sailana dishes in our barsati. It’s exotic and glamorous, and a piece of history on your plate,” he says. “And more importantly, it’s encouraging other people from former royal families to share their histories as well. The history of India can’t be complete without its food history.”

It’s this cultural history that Meera Ali, 57, is trying to capture in the book she is working on, one that aims to present the traditional Awadhi culture in its entirety, from the food and textiles to the music. She and her film-maker-poet husband Muzaffar Ali, the erstwhile raja of Kotwara, have been hosting “the Maashra experience” in the National Capital Region for the past seven years—this is an elaborate Awadhi meal served in a luxurious tent. It’s inspired by the lavish get-togethers her father-in-law would host in Lucknow, complete with mushairas. “I grew up in a Punjabi household so I knew what eating together was like. But the kind of food appreciation I saw in my in-laws’ house was beyond my imagination,” says Meera Ali, who got married in 1990.

The word she often returns to while describing the popular Awadhi cuisine is nafees, or elegant. Whether it was the planning of the meals (“decided weeks in advance”), the condiments or the cuts of meat, everything was “done as a fine art”, she says. “It’s called maashra (way of life),” says Ali, the co-author of Dining With The Nawabs, which tells the kitchen stories of 10 nawab families.

The most popular dish in their kitchen was Tarai Pasanda. “It’s a kind of pasanda made with meat cut from the leg of lamb in slices and then cooked on dum. Towards the end, it is smoked with coal to get the exceptional flavour. That’s the charm of Awadhi cuisine—it’s a very delicate, subtle cuisine with soft flavours. Masalas pisse hue hote hai, na ki khade hue (ground masalas are used). But the shami kebab made in one household would taste completely different if made in another household with the same ingredients,” explains Meera Ali. “Haatho ka khel hai (the magic is in the hands).”

Stories of migration

Anshu Khanna, who runs Royal Fables, a company that curates “royal experiences”, from holidays to culinary sessions, says the recipes from royal kitchens are particularly interesting because they tell stories of migration and assimilation. “The royal kitchens are a symbol of diversity,” says Khanna. “The Rajput and Maratha rulers, as well as the nawabs and nizams, married women from different regions. A Rana princess of Nepal married into Kashmir. Jaisalmer’s daughter wed the yuvraj of Sailana. Women from Jasdan in Gujarat got married into the princely families of Kapurthala, Sandur and Gwalior. This led to each family widening their kitchen cookbook to incorporate what the bride liked eating and enjoyed cooking. Many of these recipes were handed down to royals who wanted to keep their kitchen fables alive.”

Umadevi Raje Jadhav, a member of the Sardar Jadhav family of the former Aaron-Myana jagirdari in Gwalior, agrees. Her family has lived in central India since the 16th century and their food is a blend of different cuisines even though it is based on traditional Maratha food. “Our cuisine is very much Maratha (from the Marathwada region) but there are differences from what is made there. That’s because Maratha soldiers who came marching up north during the Afghan-Maratha wars didn’t find the ingredients and had to use substitutes,” explains Jadhav, 62, who splits her time between India and Jordan, where her husband works. So, her family’s recipes use coriander seeds and dry coconut instead of fresh coriander leaves or fresh coconut.

The table at the family home, Deo Bagh, always served a mix of regional cuisines, she recalls. “My father-in-law was very particular about Maratha food. My mother-in-law was half-Nepali and half-pahadi and she had maids who would make Nepali food for her. We had a Hindustani kitchen run by Maratha chefs, and an angrezi kitchen run by Goan chefs who stayed with us. Our lunches would be Hindustani while dinners would usually be Continental,” she says. That multi-cuisine tradition continues today. “At present, in the Jadhav household, it is a mix of traditional Maratha cuisine and my mother-in-law’s Nepali and pahadi food. We make Nepali dishes like Aloo Tareko, Anda Ko Achar and Bhutuwa Maasu. Of course, on the days we go Maratha, we go the whole way by making the Maratha thali,” Jadhav says.

As in the case of many royal cuisines, this thali is rich and meat-heavy. “On a typical thali, we would have mutton, chicken, fish (during season), dal and varan (a dal unique to Maharashtra), along with plain rice, khara baath, bhajiyas, two-three chutneys, koshambir, and desserts, including jalebis and puran polis. It’s a huge thali and it is very, very rich,” Jadhav says. Deo Bagh is now a Neemrana hotel but the family’s chefs do cook and serve this special thali to groups of 15 on request.

Adapting or simplifying these recipes is not a route Jadhav wants to go down, thought she is aware of the challenges of keeping her family’s cooking traditions alive while staying true to the original recipes. “We cannot afford to eat this kind of food every day based on the lifestyles we lead. We are not doing the kind of physical activities warranted for this food. So, the challenge for royal families today lies in keeping this culinary art alive,” she says.

For Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barma, son of the last maharaja of Tripura, food is an equaliser. A unique thing about Tripura cuisine is that “the people outside the palace also eat the same as people inside it”. Nevertheless, he’s trying to popularise Tripura royal cuisine by hosting food festivals, talks and workshops. To him, food is a “soft power” that brings together people.

“Our local produce was used and elevated by royal food. The sad news is, these recipes were all oral traditions and they weren’t being documented for a long time. So, this deluge of cookbooks, pop-ups, events and talks is helping us complete our social history,” says Neha Prasada, a writer on food history and author of Dining With The Maharajas. “We cannot understand our roots completely till we get the full picture of society, and for that we need to learn about the people, the clothes they wore and the food they ate,” she says. “Gaining the knowledge of royal cuisines is not just about learning the way of cooking a dish. I think it’s like breaking the barrier between communities and putting everyone on the same level,” she adds. “Anyone can make a meat pasanda now.”

Also read: On a journey to find where the wild things grow

Recipe

Mutton Ke Gulab Jamun

(Makes 8-10 dumplings)

Mutton Ke Gulab Jamun from ‘Recipes Of A Maharani: Secrets From The Gondal Palace’ 
Mutton Ke Gulab Jamun from ‘Recipes Of A Maharani: Secrets From The Gondal Palace’ 

Ingredients

200g mutton or lamb mince

30g cashew, ground

50g yogurt

50ml cream

Half tsp baking soda

100g ghee

200g sugar

Method

Grind the mutton or lamb mince to a fine paste in a food processor. Add the cashew, yogurt, cream and baking soda and mix together until well combined. Divide the mince mixture into equal portions and roll into small balls between your palms.

Heat the ghee in a heavy-based wok on medium-high heat. Carefully add the mince dumplings in batches and fry them until they are cooled and golden on all sides. Set aside. Add the sugar to a pan on low heat. Add an equal amount of water and stir until the sugar dissolves and is at a one-string consistency. Once the sugar syrup begins to thicken, take off the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Add in the fried dumplings. Allow the dumplings to soak in the syrup for at least one hour before serving warm.

From ‘Recipes Of A Maharani: Secrets From The Gondal Palace.’

 

 

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