There’s a certain scholastic leaning to it and a great degree of shoe-leather reporting. But most importantly, it is about a heightened love for food.

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Food historians are a curious lot—neither chefs nor armchair scholars. They often come from disparate backgrounds driven by an all-consuming passion for gastronomy. And much like linguists who travel far and wide in search of the last living speaker of an endangered language, they document the grammar and syntax of complicated cuisines that face extinction.

Mughal innovation: The biryani was invented as a variation to the yakhni pulao. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

Take restaurateur and food researcher Jacob Aruni, for instance (see box). His repeated cajoling of a septuagenarian woman, Sigappi, in a small coastal town of Tamil Nadu, led her to share rare recipes with him—such as rice cooked with betel leaves. A few months later, she died, taking with her several other recipes that may well be lost forever.

Pushpesh Pant, a professor of diplomacy at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that food, like monuments, performing arts, language and costume, is an integral part of any civilization, which is why it should be conserved for future generations.

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Pant is a food scholar himself. His book, Hindu Soul Recipes (Roli Books-Lustre Press, 2007), takes up the humble khichdi, among other dishes. The Ayurvedic kshirika, he writes, has mutated in several different directions. In the Mughal emperor Akbar’s time, in the 16th century, it was slow-cooked with aromatic spices and lamb, and befittingly came to be called laziza, which means tasty. In Bengal, it transformed into a spicy delicacy known as khichudi—strictly vegetarian—cooked during religious feasts. And centuries later, in its avatar as the Anglo-Indian kedgeree in the mid-18th century, it reintegrated its meat element as a breakfast dish that couldn’t do without fish.

Ladling history: Husain garnishes bowls of nahari, a Mughal-era dish created to ward off flu. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

This history is interesting, both from an intellectual and cultural point of view, to understand how our cuisines reflect changes. India had a rich heritage of food prepared in accordance with Ayurvedic principles. And with the coming of the Mughals in the 15th century, it was infused with culinary influences that are now an inextricable part of our food culture. Subsequently, the Dutch, French, Portuguese and British, who came as traders and colonizers, also left their legacies either in the form of ingredients or recipes.

The etymology

When we meet food historian Salma Husain in her row house in Gurgaon, she is attending to a kofta and turnip shab tek (translating literally from Urdu to “night vessel") that has been cooking on embers all night. She regales us with lore: The mutton koftas in the shab tek are meant to be sized the same as the turnips, so that one can’t differentiate between the two. As we polish off the shab tek with sheermal, or sweetened naan, we realize that both the koftas and the turnips taste so heavenly that it hardly matters what we pick. The trick, says Husain, lies in cooking for long hours on a low flame. “The Mughals knew that good food demands time. Something we’re hard-pressed for today," she says.

Old gold: Ghose found recipe books at Calcutta Club and Fort William.Madhu Kapparath / Mint

A Persian-language scholar, Husain translates recipes from battered manuscripts to recreate dishes from the Mughal banquets. After two books that listed recipes of ancient sherbets and pulaos, her most recent book, The Emperor’s Table: The Art of Mughal Cuisine—which won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award (Paris, 2008)—spans the changing food culture of the Mughal dynasty, from Babar to Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Her venture into food scholarship was born out of happenstance. When she graduated with a master’s degree in Persian from Mumbai University in 1964, she didn’t want to become an academician like her other classmates. She joined the National Archives of India as a researcher and it was during the process of translating old manuscripts of political correspondence that she stumbled upon rare Mughal recipes dating back to the 16th century. Despite her youthful reluctance about the tag of an academic, no other word can describe her better. As she garnishes a legendary Old Delhi dish, nahari—that has also been cooking for our express benefit all night—with finely chopped ginger, green chillies and strands of saffron, she offers deep chronological insights: Humayun’s Iranian wife introduced sophistication into the Mughal kitchen with saffron and dry fruits in the first half of the 16th century, and his son Akbar’s Rajput wife brought in an emphasis on vegetarian fare in the latter half of the century.

After Akbar, Jehangir’s era (1569-1627) witnessed European influences. “The reins of the empire lay with his wife Noor Jehan and knowing this, the visiting French and Dutch traders came with gifts that would please the empress," says Husain. Apparently, the aesthete Noor Jehan had curd set in seven moulds with rainbow-coloured fruit juices and garnished her dishes with floral patterns made with powdered and glazed rice paste.

“India had black pepper, cinnamon, cumin and cardamom in abundance but we owe most of our other spices to the ingenuity of the empresses and shahi khansamas (royal chefs) of the Mughal period," says Husain.

Her research shows that the Western concept of pre-plated dishes, too, already had currency in the Mughal era. Husain shares a particularly tantalizing one: Three orange shells boiled to eliminate bitterness, and one filled with saffron-infused rice, one with almond halwa, and the third with pistachio halwa.

Translating old recipes is the relatively easy part, despite the reluctance of shy village women and descendants of classical chefs. More challenging is navigating the terrain of apocryphal anecdotes. Was the melt-in-your-mouth kakori kebab indeed created for the toothless nawab of Kakori? And what about the many legends that explain the genesis of the nahari she is serving us? The popular story goes thus: In the 17th century, soon after Mughal emperor Shah Jahan established his capital, a flu swept through the city. The royal physician devised a spicy meat stew to keep the body warm. But Husain insists that the inclusion of red chillies—which the Portuguese had already brought to India—was to ward off evil spirits. She concedes that the stories are manifold: “They’ll change with every kucha (alley) that you’ll travel to in Old Delhi, but the constituents remain the same: bad water, flu, remedial hot spice."

Field work

Husain is a food consultant to ITC’s Dum Pukht restaurant, which specializes in Hyderabadi and Awadhi cuisine. As part of the vision of Habib Rehman, the gourmet who recently retired as chairman of ITC Hotels, the hotel group harnesses the research skills of several other culinary scholars to buttress its menu and conduct specialized food festivals. When the group was setting up its Kolkata wing, ITC Sonar Bangla (now ITC Sonar) in 2002, it asked Chitra Ghose, a Kolkata-born ad professional-turned-caterer, to research the cuisine of the Metiabruz area of the city. In her 50s then, Ghose, who had lived in Kolkata for a large part of her life, had never heard of Metiabruz cuisine. And this was precisely what prompted her to take up the project.

In 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, the 10th and last nawab of Awadh, was exiled by the British to Metiaburz, then on the southern fringe of Kolkata. Separated from his beloved homeland, the nawab tried to replicate his palace in an area of Metiaburz which came to be known as Second Lucknow.

Almost 150 years later, Ghose travelled from New Delhi to Kolkata to discover the culinary secrets of Shah’s Second Lucknow. With the few leads she had, she found people who had grown up with the cuisine and convinced them to part with their recipes. “At first they didn’t want to talk about it, but I explained to them that we wanted to show their recipes to the rest of India," says Ghose. The food of Metiabruz is like no other Mughlai cuisine, Ghose claims. Many local influences were blended with the Lucknavi food brought by Wajid Ali Shah, which resulted in the creation of a whole new cuisine. This food is much more subtle. Mutton rezala, the most popular dish, consists of a creamy gravy made with almond paste.

Ghose also specializes in a cuisine that she has grown up eating—Bengali Anglo-Indian food. “Growing up in Kolkata I’ve eaten it at my convent school teachers’ houses and at the railway hotels, which used to serve very good Anglo-Indian food," she says. She left her first career—advertising—and took up catering on the urging of her daughter. When she started her catering service, she looked for old recipe books at the Calcutta Club, in the Fort William archives and the railway archives. She also visited ageing Anglo-Indians and Europeans who had lived in India for over 70 years. She discovered gems such as the East India Mutton Curry, Company Bahadur Ka Steak and Lamb Roast Masala. Painstakingly converting the old measures of seer and chatak to modern weights, Ghose recreated the recipes. “It didn’t really work out in the beginning," she admits, but they began to catch on and are now popular with her clients. Ghose is also working on a cookbook, using her grandmother’s and aunts’ recipes as well as her own notes, that she hopes to publish soon.

But this process of knowledge transfer is not always an easy one. Husain recalls travelling to the decrepit home of the erstwhile royal family of Murshidabad in West Bengal. “The women there were in purdah and refused to step out. The possibility of having them conduct a food festival at Dum Pukht was ruled out." However, Husain’s persistence paid off and the women of the household did part with several of their unique recipes. Her visit to the Kolkata home of the sixth generation of Tipu Sultan’s descendants was a similar experience. While this might seem like an exploitation of intellectual resource, it is somewhat mitigated by a monetary exchange, which can often be a boon for families battling a severe financial crisis.

Husain has had better luck elsewhere though. A recent trip to visit the Babi Nawabs of Gujarat will soon result in a food festival. “Sharbanoo Begum is very forthcoming and travels with her own cooks to conduct festivals in hotels such as ITC, Chola Sheraton and the Park Hotel," says Husain. Of the three brothers of the nawab family, says Husain, one migrated to Pakistan, and one to the US. Sharbanoo Begum’s strain is the only one that remains. “It’s important to get the recipes (from them) while they’re still around. Who knows? There might not be anyone left to share this knowledge," says Husain, summing up her raison d’etre—and that of her ilk.