There are not just many layers to an onion, but also many different ways to cut it, as Harsh Krishna Prasad gathered from a 108-year-old master chopper of onions in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh.

Food impresario: Prasad’s book of historical recipes records around 40 types of biryani. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

During his almost 20-year stint as a senior manager at a distillery in Rampur, Prasad fed his epicurean curiosity by inviting retired royal chefs of erstwhile Rampuri nawabs over for dinner every evening. The khansamas were not very cooperative at first. Understandably, they were protective about their art. But Prasad’s persistence paid off. And among delicacies such as the doodhiya biryani and adrak ka halwa, he learnt that the way an onion is cut leads to dramatic changes in the pungency it imparts to a dish. Every dish of Rampuri Mughal cuisine calls for a specific cut. And there is a science to it.

Few gourmets would speak in such exalted terms of Rampuri cuisine—a place relatively obscure in India’s modern geographical layout. And this is precisely why Prasad has taken up its cause, along with that of other little-known branches of Mughal food. Tribal cuisine, with its sparse use of spices and dependence on local ingredients, is another interest of his.

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With its distinctive aroma, Rampuri cuisine is an amalgamation of the best of Mughal food from Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad. The nawabs of Rampur sided with the British during India’s First War of Independence in 1857, and hence retained their cultural importance. And so, after the decline of other seats of power, many subjects migrated to Rampur—bringing with them new flavours and techniques.

Like a student of music, Prasad alludes to gharanas. Rampuri food with its unique aroma is a gharana. Hot spices characterize Old Delhi; sourness, Hyderabad; sweetness, Awadh. Muslim food from Murshidabad uses predominantly four spices—cinnamon, cardamom, javitri (mace) and jaiphal (nutmeg)—while the food from Jaunpur, which neighbours Rampur, uses exotic ingredients such as sandalwood and khus roots. Prasad was surprised by how identical recipes can yield different results across the country. “European food works with strict measures. In India, it’s about a sleight of hand," says Prasad, explaining how his challenge as a food researcher lies in studying proportions.

His dilettante curiosity in mapping these different flavours went the professional way over a business lunch in 1999 at Le Meridien hotel’s Pakwan restaurant in Delhi. Prasad was telling his colleague that the fact that the do pyaaza (literally translating to “something with two onions") gets its name from a double quantity of onions is a misnomer. It owed its name to the fact that two kinds of onion—regular and caramelized—go into it, Prasad insisted.

A chef overheard the discussion and intervened, and told Prasad he was wrong. The debate took such a heated turn that the chef offered to go and fetch a book to buttress his point. His boss, chef Davinder Kumar, vice-president of food and beverages at the hotel, was curious to meet the man who had set his sous chef running. And so impressed by Prasad’s knowledge of Mughal food was he that he persuaded him to host a Rampuri food festival at the hotel.

This was in 2000. After this Prasad quit his job at the distillery and moved to Delhi for his new life as a food impresario. He has since then conducted festivals in several other hotels, such as Crowne Plaza in Delhi and Mascot hotel in Chennai.

When we reach Prasad’s residence in suburban Delhi, he is layering rice with a chicken qorma that has been cooking for over 5 hours. The meat has been marinated in curd because “the Mughals never used tomatoes".

His notebook of recipes has around 40 types of biryanis, 100 types of qormas and several varieties of kebabs and shorbas. And their organization evokes a stunning scholasticism. Next in line after this biryani that he is making for us is a dish whose very name evokes poetry: Pulao Marmareed, a rice dish made with garlic cloves that are rendered shiny and almost sweet in the process of cooking, giving the dish its name—a pulao with pearls.

None of Prasad’s three children—a lawyer, an engineer and a media producer—are particularly interested in that bulging notebook. Perhaps he’ll publish, he says, but what he knows for sure is that he’ll cook.