Forget about the too-greasy-to-be-true offerings that commonly go under the name of Mughlai food at restaurants. Real Mughlai food is not even a homogeneous entity. It has, if researcher Salma Husain is to be believed, transformed itself from completely Central Asian from the time of Babur, who came from Ferghana, to overwhelmingly Indian by the time of Aurangzeb.
Husain is a repository of stories about the Mughal emperors and their families (“The best account we have of a Mughal breakfast is given to us by Gulbadan Begum”; “Western visitors to the Mughal court used to present empress Noorjehan with the latest kitchen accessories of those times”) because of her knowledge of the Persian language. Her latest book, The Emperor’s Table—The Art of Mughal Cuisine (Roli Books), has a wealth of details about India’s First Family of a few centuries ago.
While a student of Persian at Mumbai’s Ismail College, Husain was fortunate to have an Iranian neighbour who spoke not a word of any other language but Farsi, and so she developed a greater fluency in the language than her peers. Four decades later, it is clear that Husain has found—and excelled—in her métier: reading Persian manuscripts for descriptions of the food of the Mughals.
Fragrant: Saffron and spices are the star ingredients of this dish. JupiterImages, India
The actual process of reading, it would appear, is not so much of a challenge as putting together the pieces is. Husain observes that Babur was so busy establishing what was to become an empire that food was the last of his priorities. But he was frequently homesick and would weep at the memory of the melons and pomegranates of his native Ferghana. His actual food was meat grilled very simply. This started to change as the Mughal court began to flourish and Persians were appointed in various capacities—with them came the refinement of their cuisine.
By Akbar’s time, a person of the level of prime minister was in charge of the royal kitchen. It was at this time that meat began to be combined with lentils, as in haleem. It seems that the humble dal was the favourite of all the later emperors. With Jehangir on the throne, the accounts of cuisine suddenly become far more sophisticated. Garnishing as a concept was used at this time, rice dishes were unmoulded, which leads Husain to speculate that visitors from the Western world brought kitchen moulds as gifts for the empress.
After Shah Jehan had moved his capital from Agra to Shahjehanabad (now old Delhi), there was an outbreak of gastro-infections. The royal hakims (physicians) advised the populace to use plenty of spices and rather more ghee than they were used to, to neutralize the ill effects of the water. That, according to Husain, is the hallmark of the original Dilli ka khana (Delhi cuisine).
The last of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb, was very austere in matters of food: only vegetarian food for him. “Aurangzeb ate the simplest food, but it was entirely Indian whereas Babur’s diet, also austere, was entirely Central Asian,” says Husain.
250g Basmati rice
2 cups rose water
2 tbsp almond (blanched, finely sliced)
2 tbsp raisins (soaked in water)
1 inch stick of cinnamon
5 green cardamoms
¼ tsp saffron dissolved in milk
½ juice of lemon
1 tbsp pistachio slivers
1 tbsp cream
2 silver leaves
Wash and soak the rice in rose water for 10 minutes and drain it. Heat the ghee in a pan, lightly fry the almonds and raisins. Remove and keep aside. Reheat the ghee, fry the cinnamon stick and cardamoms till the cardamoms start to sputter. Add rice and double the quantity of water. Add saffron and cook on medium heat till the rice is two-thirds done. Add the fried almonds, raisins, sugar and lemon juice; cover and dum cook. Decorate with pistachio slivers, silver leaves and a dot of cream, and serve.
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