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A royal feast

  • Salma Yusuf Husain’s new book clears misconceptions about the food cooked in royal Mughal kitchens
  • The roots of The Mughal Feast go back to the 1960s-70s, when Husain used to work at the National Archives of India, Delhi

Salma Yusuf Husain says the technique of slow cooking can be traced back to the Mughal reign. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Salma Yusuf Husain says the technique of slow cooking can be traced back to the Mughal reign. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

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At first glance, The Mughal Feast: Recipes From The Kitchen Of Emperor Shah Jahan looks like a visual treat. The pages are bedecked with Mughal miniatures from the collections of the British Library, London, and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, while the hashiyas, or the margins, are splattered with gold and embellished with floral motifs. These images contain hints of the content within, about the golden period of the Mughal reign, when cooking was considered an art form, on a par with architecture, painting and literature. The book is a “transcreation” of the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, an original handwritten Persian recipe book dating back to Shah Jahan’s reign, translated by food historian and author Salma Yusuf Husain. She has authored several books on various aspects of Mughal food, such as The Emperor’s Table (2008).

The roots of The Mughal Feast go back to the 1960s-70s, when Husain used to work at the National Archives of India, Delhi. “I came across so many books on the Mughals, but not much was written about their food. And yet, today, Mughal food is savoured by one and all. I felt that there must be something out there,” she says, as we sit down for a tête-à-tête at her home in Gurugram. This quest, which took her to the British Library, London, and Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, bore fruit when she found the Alwan-i-Nemat, a collection of recipes written during emperor Jehangir’s reign.

She also came across the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani in the British Library in the early 2000s, but it was only recently that she could access the full manuscript, when the founder-publisher of Roli Books, Pramod Kapoor, went to London and managed to get a copy. “Unfortunately, chapter 10, on pickles and murabbas, is missing from the manuscript,” says Husain. The original, though bearing no trace of the author or date of compilation, is believed to have been written during the early years of Shah Jahan’s reign, when he shifted the capital from Agra to Delhi and named it Shahjahanabad.

The Mughal Feast is divided into seven sections—Naan, Aash, Qaliya And Do-piyazah, Bharta, Zeer Biryani And Pulao, Kabab and Shiriniha. It offers handy tips once followed by mir bakawals (heads of kitchen) and royal cooks, including ways to clean fish, get rid of the smell by rubbing it with mustard oil, chickpea flour and turmeric, soften its bones, and smoke a stuffed chicken by slow-cooking it on a cinnamon bed. It even tells you how to cook a goose perfectly.

The book takes you by surprise. The foremost revelation is just how different the original royal repast is from the “Mughlai food” that we consume today, with its rich, thick, greasy gravies. The recipes contain minimal use of spices—with only garam masala and ginger being used as aromatics.

Even though the royal feast featured vivid colours, these came from natural sources such as saffron, spinach, beetroot and fresh fruit juices. “Today, you will find magazines talking about slow cooking. But back then that was the norm, with the food being slow-cooked on an angeethi or wood fire, and the meat and fish were cooked in their own juices. I wanted to bring these insights about just how healthy Mughal food can be to the present generation,” says Husain.

The Mughal Feast becomes significant in this regard. It offers a rare documentation of recipes from royal Mughal kitchens. It also harks back to a time when cooking was a collaboration between cooks and hakims (royal physicians), who would scientifically design a menu customized to the health concerns, temperaments and lifestyle of the royal family. In the yakhni, for instance, the stock was sieved to drain away the impurities, so that the meat would become more easily digestible.

Though it may seem excessive now, each grain of pulao used to be coated in silver warq as it aided digestion and acted as an aphrodisiac. “People ask me how did they eat so much meat without suffering from a heart attack or arthritis. But look at the lifestyle of the royals—they would gallop, play polo, have animal fights and go to the jungle,” says Husain, who is now working on a book about the recreations of the Mughals and the resultant cooking techniques—like the khad, in which the meat was cooked immediately after the hunt.

Food used to be an experience, filled with a riot of colours and fragrances, with protocols and rules on table manners. The book explains that meals were cooked in rainwater, which was considered pure and was believed to enhance taste, mixed with water from the Ganga.

Interestingly, fresh fruit was used in savoury dishes such as qaliyas—with thin shorba-like consistency—and pulaos, ranging from the qaliya amba, a tangy mango-based gravy, to the naranj pulao, or orange-flavoured lamb curry cooked in rice. There is even an ananaspulao and a mauz pulao, which has bananas soaked in sugar syrup served on lamb pulao.

The book traces the evolution of Mughal food, with influences from Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia becoming amalgamated with those from Kashmir, Punjab and the Deccan. For instance, in the royal Mughal kitchens, techniques from Central Asia (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan) of using pasta and noodles in pulaos and aash, or soups, like the aash-e-keshtaleh, were prevalent. Meanwhile, Iranian cooks introduced sweet with sour flavours, while Turkish ones brought in their own style of mincing meat and grilling kebabs. A lot of indigenous produce was used as well, such as phalsa berries, sandalwood powder and betel leaves.

More than anything else, however, The Mughal Feast is an ode to the creativity and innovation of the royal cooks. One example is the yaquti pulao, where parboiled rice was divided into two portions. One portion was given one boil with fresh pomegranate juice. The two portions would then be mixed and served with warq on top. It would look like a ruby-encrusted jewel.

“This period also marks the end of sophistication and luxury in the culinary arts as Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb, didn’t believe in opulence. That itself makes this compendium of recipes significant,” says Husain.


Slow-cooked tangy yam with Indian gooseberries

Serves 4-6


1kg elephant foot yam, washed, cleaned and cut into medium-sized pieces

5 tbsp tamarind, soaked in water

1 cup ghee

2 tsp turmeric powder

1 cup onions, sliced

10g amla (Indian gooseberry)

4 tsp coriander seeds, pounded

4 tsp ginger, chopped

1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, cloves and green cardamom, ground to a fine powder

1 tsp whole black peppercorn, ground

Salt to taste


Squeeze the tamarind in water to obtain the juice. Heat the ghee in a pan; add turmeric powder to colour the ghee. Add the onions and fry until golden brown. Add the yam, gooseberries, tamarind water, pounded coriander seeds, ginger and salt; cook, on low heat, until the yam is tender and a little water remains. Sprinkle freshly ground spices and put on dum for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and keep the dish on hot ashes, covered for 2 hours to imbibe the smoky flavour. Then uncover and serve.

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