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The ‘nawab’ rises

Roli's new book on a disappeared way of life details the many culinary legacies of the subcontinent's Muslim rulers

The idea stayed with Kapoor, even as she considered the historical circumstances that led to the marginalization of the Muslim nobility in independent India.
The idea stayed with Kapoor, even as she considered the historical circumstances that led to the marginalization of the Muslim nobility in independent India.

Dining With The Nawabs comes just under five years after Roli Books published Dining With The Maharajas but, in a way, the books are twins, not siblings. “While researching the first book, which focused on Udaipur, Patiala and other royal households, we realized that their culinary foundations were laid by khansamas who came from Rampur or Lucknow or what is now Afghanistan," says Priya Kapoor, editorial director, Roli Books. “While regional variations crept into the food over generations, these chefs continued to be very highly prized."

The idea stayed with Kapoor, even as she considered the historical circumstances that led to the marginalization of the Muslim nobility in independent India. Unlike the maharajas, who reinvented themselves in politics or hospitality or business, the nawabs—with the exception, say, of major erstwhile states like Hyderabad or Bhopal—largely withdrew from the public gaze. But this very insularity also served to protect their inheritance: Besides the remnants of material ancestral wealth, families held on to their culinary heritage, passed on by a matriarch to her daughter-in-law or son, or through successive generations of retainers.

This was the network that Meera Ali sought to tap when she took up the project more than two years ago but she is the first to admit that the book is the result of a healthy three-way collaboration with Kapoor and art photographer Karam Puri. Encased in turquoise velvet paper and a friendly coffee-table size, with hundreds of archival images, purpose-shot family portraits and pages and pages of food photographs, the book is a feast for the eyes.

But it is, at least as much, a feast for the mind. Ali, married to film-maker Muzaffar, scion of the Kotwara house (also featured in the book), possibly had special access to some of the 10 houses featured in the Nawabs but there’s no discounting the serious research into each of their histories—stretching from a couple of hundred years to a thousand—the effort to contextualize the cuisine in the culture or, perhaps most importantly, the intimacy and trust she established with their most private selves.

“The crucial thing for us was to find that one custodian of the family legacy, the stories, the archives, someone who was also interested in the food," says Ali. “For instance, I really wanted to include Murshidabad from West Bengal to represent the east, but we couldn’t find a home to visit or even anyone to talk to. Jaora (in Madhya Pradesh) and Tonk (in Rajasthan) didn’t make the cut for similar reasons, despite strong culinary traditions."

Ali’s account of the 10 nawabi families—Arcot, Bhopal, Chhatari, Hyderabad (Asman Jahi Paigah), Kamadhia-Surat, Kotwara, Rampur, Zainabad in India and Bahawalpur and Khairpur in present-day Pakistan—is circumlocutory, almost in the style of an oral narrative, and it’s difficult to keep track of exactly who’s who and who wedded whom (especially when cousins marry, or one man takes multiple wives); the many literals, too, are jarring in a book of this sort. But with the instinct of a born storyteller, she ferrets out details that make the past come alive: the Kamadhia-Surat birthday book dating back to 1817 (the last entry was squeezed in in 2006); the Chhatari family, one branch of which converted to Islam; the Bahawalpur stamp collection with a microfocus on the Japanese occupation of South-East Asia.

And then there are the food memories: The single varqi paratha cooked with 5kg of ghee for a nawab who shall remain nameless; the jild gosht (mutton cooked in goatskin) of Zainabad; the dal bhaat khatta epitomizing Mughal influence on a Kathiawadi dish; Khairpur’s badam roti, made only of almonds, caster sugar and ghee; the raw mango navratan ki chutney that’s a Chhatari speciality; Arcot’s kund, a rice-milk-almond halwa dessert that needs five pairs of hands; the cream-centred marghoba mango of Hyderabad and so much more, all somehow tied up with the whiff of rose-scented ittar and the rhythm of ghungroos.

Indulgent? Certainly, and in more senses than one (though there’s a thoughtful kitchen copy of all the recipes in the book should you want to try them out). But in a country obsessed with its place in the world and the future, Nawabs carries a peculiar, bittersweet resonance. As a class, they are irrelevant, as a power, they’re negligible, and yet their all-pervasive influence persists in the way large sections of India eat and drink. If food is political, they would still get all the votes.

Dining With The Nawabs, text by Meera Ali, photographs by Karam Puri, conceptualized and edited by Priya Kapoor; Roli Books, 272 pages, Rs4,995.

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