A history of Mughal cuisine through ancient cookbooks
On any given weekend, I am usually occupied with the thoughts of food. The taste buds have been working over time for a year now – ever since I started following the amazing food stories of the Mughals. Turns out that Kings and Royalty had a thing for food too! The cookbooks of Akbar, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb give us an idea of the history of Mughal cuisine. Apart from royal food, you also get to look into their kitchen! For instance, the Ain-i-Akbari mentions that during the reign of Akbar, there was a Minister for Kitchen! He had his own budget, an independent accounts department and ran an army of cooks, tasters, attendants, bearers and other sundry designations. It is true – there was a time when people really lived to eat!
In fact, as per Mughal traditions, food formed a part of the gift-giving culture and laid the rules for diplomatic etiquette. The gifting and sharing of food could at various times convey messages of friendship and goodwill, status and power. The location, occasion, mode of presentation and the nature of food item – all had a bearing on the messages conveyed. The importance of food in political intercourse is illustrated by way of a “farman” issued by the Shah of Iran to the Governor highlighting the arrangements that were to be made to welcome Humayun.
The farman read : “Every day have ḥalwā and delicious beverages with white bread (nān- hā-i safed) kneaded with oil and milk and containing caraway seeds, poppy seeds and nuts – the addition of which makes bread fine and wholesome (lat̤īf o nāfiʿ) – prepared and delivered to the emperor, to the members of his retinue and to the servants of the court…when they arrive have served rose sherbet prepared with lemon syrup and chilled with ice and snow. After the sherbet have served marmalades of Mashhad apples, watermelon, plums etc. with white-flour breads (nān-hā-i safed maida) made in accordance with prior instructions, and try to have all beverages passed before the emperor’s sight, and have them mixed with rose-water and ambergris so that they will taste and smell good. Serve five hundred dishes of various foods everyday”
During my research, I learnt about decoding the past seeing art-work from ancient recipe-books. It’s another thing that I really did feel like going back into the past to eat! The earliest evidence of India’s culinary history dates back to a 12th century book from the Chalukya dynasty, though for this post, I will stick to Mughal cuisine and its roots. This, because it was the Mughal kitchen that changed the very way and average Indian thought about food. Under their patronage, culinary arts were illustrated beautifully and found place in the calligraphed royal memoirs.
Mughal cuisine, however, finds its roots in the Delhi Sultanate, which takes us back to the 15th century manuscript, Ni’matnama (The Book of Delights). The most famous cook-book till date, it contains the recipes of the eccentric Sultan of Mandu (Madhya Pradesh), Ghiyath Shahi, collected and added to by his son and successor, Nasir Shah. The recipes include a variety of delicacies and epicurean delights, as well as providing remedies and aphrodisiacs for the Sultan and his court. It also includes important sections on the preparation of betel leaves as well as advice on the logistics of hunting expeditions and warfare.The origin of many delicacies such as the khichṛī (a dish of rice and lentils), palīv (pulāʾo, or a dish with rice, meat and other ingredients), sīḵẖ (skewered meat or fish), yaḵẖnī (spiced meat broth) and kabāb (skewered or roast meat), kaṛhī (a yoghurt or sour milk based dish combined with chickpea flour), pīccha (a dish prepared by adding ingredients to the surplus water that is left in the pot after cooking rice or other grains) and khaṇḍawī (swollen parched grain) are attributed to Indo-Persian diet which is outlined in the Ni’matnama.
The uniqueness of the Ni’matnama lies in its form as well as its subject matter. The manuscript, preserved in the India Office Library in London, has fifty miniature paintings, and many of the faces in the paintings are painted in profile, as opposed to the Persian practice of painting in half-profile. These paintings represent some of the earliest paintings from Muslim courts of the Deccan and hence are early predecessors of numerous paintings of the Dakhni style from later periods. The text is written in bold naskh script, characteristic of Mandu calligraphy.
As far as content is concerned, the book lies outside the usual gamut of medieval Persian literature, which mostly comprises of political chronicles and pure fiction. As for the field pertaining to the history of cuisine is concerned, the Nimatnama is an invaluable source for obvious reasons. While other Persian sources mention feasts and banquets, and even food, in passing, this is the only text from the medieval period dedicated entirely to the subject.
In 1498, the first Europeans arrived off the Malabar coast, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama opened up the sea route to the Indies (India). Twenty-eight years later Babur, the first great Mughal, invaded India from the north. These two events were to have a lasting impact on India’s culinary culture.
Mughal cuisine was shaped by all kinds of influences: Iranian, Afghani, and Persian, (because of the dynasty’s Central Asian roots) mixed in with Kashmiri, Punjabi and a touch of the Deccan. Each Emperor also had his favourites. Babur did not like Indian food when he arrived, preferring the fresh meat and fruits of his native Samarkand and created lots of kitchen-gardens. But he loved fish, which he did not get back home.
Humayun’s Iranian wife introduced sophistication into the Mughal kitchen with saffron and dry fruits in the first half of the 16th century, while Akbar — thanks to his many alliances — introduced the Indian flavours. In fact, Akbar was vegetarian three times a week, and had his own kitchen garden which he nourished with rosewater, so that the vegetables would smell fragrant when cooked. Shah Jahan is credited with adding new spices to the cuisine. Shortly after he shifted his capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad, he was informed that the drinking water in the new city was making his subjects sick. That’s when the king ordered that food be cooked with more haldi, red chillies, cumin and coriander, for their medicinal properties. European influences also made an appearance: apparently,
Noor Jahan 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! Aurangzeb, said to be the most devout of the emperors, was a vegetarian for most of his life. The Rukat-e-Alamgiri, a book with letters from Aurangzeb to his son, show that the ruler loved Qubooli, a type of mega-biryani with rice, Bengal gram, died apricot, basil, almond and curd.
Despite the contributions of all Mughal Emperors and their love for food, it is only in Ain-i-Akbari (written by the court historian Abdul Fazl) that gives us a peek into 30 different recipes and royal-appetite. To appreciate and understand the Mughal recipes, here’s a cheat-sheet to the measures: 1 s (ser) is roughly 900g, 1 m (misqal) is 6g and 1 Dam = 20g
I hope you enjoyed the blog as much I did researching it. As I dig deeper to our ancient and rich culinary past, I will be soon posting a few royal recipes from the Ni’matnama. Watch my blog for some authentic royal Mughlai recipes. The next time you are asked “What do you want for dinner?”, you can totally whip out a recipe from Mughal times!