Food

Excerpt | From Kababs to Pulao, the Art of Cooking in the Time of Mughals

An excerpt from 'The Mughal Feast' focuses on 'Nuskha-e-Shahjahani,' a manuscript of recipes from the royal kitchens.

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani recaptures the nostalgia of the Mughal era, presenting the recipes and unveiling the mystique of the royal kitchens. Till now, no efforts were made to bring to light the treasure of recipes revealing the art of cooking in the time of the Mughals.

The original manuscript begins without any trace of the author or date of its compilation. The chapters describe the preparations of different dishes of those days in detail, and include recipes for making and preparing breads, soups, pulaos, kababs, do-piyazahs, fish, samosas and sweets. It takes you inside the imperial kitchens, where food was cooked with the right amount of spices to enhance the base flavours of the dishes. Specific combinations of herbs and flavouring agents characterised these foods, the blend of which was developed by expert cooks in keeping with the advice of the royal hakims.

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani reveals that few spices were used in cooking; cartloads of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, apricots, plums, raisins and saffron were imported along the new roads that were constructed to facilitate trade. The sweet and salty tastes relished by the Mughals are quite apparent from the selection of recipes in the manuscript. The extensive use of nuts, gold and silver leaves, saffron and aromatic herbs made food exotic and flavourful.

Salma Yusuf Husain
The Mughal Feast: Recipes From The Kitchen Of Emperor Shah Jahan
Roli Books, 2019

Most of the dishes mentioned in the manuscript were prepared in bulk, as there were many guests and family members to cater to, so the quantity of ingredients was huge. However, today recipes are mostly prepared for much smaller groups. Thus, one may reduce the quantities of the ingredients mentioned in the manuscript as per one’s liking. Furthermore, some recipes, such as Yakhni Talavi, may appear to be incongruous with their chapter descriptions, but since they are placed this way in the original manuscript, we have decided to leave them as they are. Also important to note is the old use of shangarf or cinnabar for food colouring; as this book is a translation, it has been left in, but it is not to be used due to certain health risks.

The manuscript also provides helpful tips for cooking. Methods to clean fish, soften bones, make artificial bone marrow and colour food using juices of vegetables and essence of flowers throw light on the creativity of the cooks of the royal kitchens. It mentions the method of cooking zeer biryan through indirect cooking by placing bamboo sticks at the bottom of the pan and placing the main ingredient of the dish like meat, fish or paneer over it. The dish was then cooked on dum. It was common to cook food on low heat and finish on dum, a technique adopted extensively in India under the name dum pukht.

The arrival of every dish was a ceremony and history will never forget the pomp of those times, along with the flavours which remain only in the pages of handwritten manuscripts of those days, such as Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. Not only the imperial kitchens of the emperor, but also the bazaars of the city were charged with the smoke of different kababs, and the environment was filled with the fragrance of nahari, haleem, qormas and qaliyas. The array of breads was dazzling. Festive occasions were never complete without baqarkhani, kulchas and sheermals. Sharbat ke katore and kulfi ke matke added colour to the scenario. The city of Shah Jahan was a paradise of food with the creations of local and foreign chefs.

Also read: Partition Changed India’s Food Cultures Forever

This luxurious way of serving and preparing food continued only till the time Shah Jahan ruled, as his son Aurangzeb did not believe in luxury, pomp and show. Unfortunately, the last years of this great emperor were unhappy. Deposed by his son Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agra Fort and remained there for eight years until his death in 1666. Legend has it that Aurangzeb ordered that his father be allowed only one ingredient of his choice, and Shah Jahan chose chickpeas. He chose them because they can be cooked in many different ways. Even today, one of the signature dishes of North Indian cuisine is Shahjahani dal, chickpeas cooked in a rich gravy of cream.

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AMBA PULAO

Serves: 6-8

sweet and tangy mango lamb rice

Ingredients

Lamb, cut into pieces 1 kg
Rice 4 cups / 1 kg
Ghee 1 cup / 250 gm
Onions, sliced 1 cup / 250 gm
Ginger (adrak), chopped 4 tsp / 20 gm
Coriander (dhaniya) seeds, crushed 4 tsp / 20 gm
Salt 4 tsp / 20 gm
Cloves (laung) 1 tsp / 5 gm
Raw mangoes (kairi) 1 kg
Sugar 3 cups / 750 gm
Cumin (jeera) seeds 2 gm
Black peppercorns (sabut kali mirch) 1 tsp / 5 gm
Cinnamon (dalchini), 2 sticks 1˝ each
Pistachios (pista), fried ½ cup / 125 gm
Almonds (badam), fried ½ cup / 125 gm
Raisins (kishmish), fried ½ cup / 125 gm

Method

  1. Make yakhni with the lamb pieces (see pg. 218), ghee, onions, ginger, crushed coriander seeds and salt. Strain the stock and separate the lamb pieces.
  2. Add half the mangoes to the stock, and cook until tender. Remove from heat and keep aside to cool. Squeeze the mangoes with hands to extract thick pulp. Strain and keep the mango stock aside.
  3. Make a sugar syrup of one-string consistency (see pg. 219).
  4. Cut the remaining mangoes into pieces, boil in water and then float in this sugar syrup and cook until tender. Remove from the syrup and keep aside.
  5. Add the syrup to the mango stock and parboil the rice in it.
  6. In a separate pan, spread the cumin seeds, followed by the lamb pieces. Add the whole spices and 2 tbsp sweet stock; cook on low heat until syrup is absorbed.
  7. Spread the rice over the lamb, pour some ghee and cook on dum (see pg. 218).
  8. While serving, arrange the mango pieces on the pulao and garnish with fried dry fruits.

GURAK KABAB

Serves: 4

chicken stuffed with meat and slow-cooked on cinnamon bed

Ingredients

Chicken, cleaned, washed, skinned 2 (700-800 gm each)
Onion juice ½ cup / 125 ml
Ginger (adrak) juice ¼ cup / 60 ml
Salt to taste
Vegetable oil 3 tbsp / 45 ml
Lamb, minced 400 gm
Onion, medium-sized, sliced 1
Coriander (dhaniya) seeds, crushed 1 tbsp / 15 gm
Ginger (adrak), chopped 1 tbsp / 15 gm
Saffron (kesar), dissolved in milk 1.5 gm
Yoghurt (dahi), whisked ¼ cup / 60 gm
Cinnamon (dalchini) sticks to cover
the bottom of the pan 8-10
Ghee ½ cup / 125 gm
Black gram (urad dal) flour ½ cup / 125 gm
Freshly ground to a fine powder:
Cloves (laung) 1 tsp / 5 gm
Cardamom (elaichi) 1 tsp / 5 gm
Black peppercorns (sabut kali mirch) 1 tsp / 5 gm

Method

    1. Prick the chicken all over with a fork.
    2. Marinate the chicken with onion juice, ginger juice and salt; rub well inside and outside the chicken and keep aside for 30 minutes.
    3. Heat the oil in a pan; add the minced meat, onion, crushed coriander seeds, chopped ginger and salt. Stir and cook until the meat is tender.
    4. Smoke (see pg. 218) the cooked mixture.
    5. Fill the chicken with the minced lamb and tie both legs with twine to keep the shape of the chicken intact.
    6. Mix the saffron and ground spices with the yoghurt.
    7. Apply the yoghurt and saffron mixture all over the chickens evenly.
    8. Spread the cinnamon sticks on the bottom of the pan. Place the chicken on the cinnamon bed and pour the ghee around.
    9. Make a semi-hard dough of black gram flour. Cover the pan and seal with this dough.
    10. Place the pan on low charcoal heat and cook on dum (see pg. 218) for 4 hours.
    11. Remove the cover, take the chicken out, cut into four pieces and serve over the mince.

Excerpted from The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan by Salma Husain, published by Roli Books.