A decade ago, a publisher had contacted me. He wanted to do a book of recipes from a sprinkling of royal households. I raided my address book and those of my friends, to come up with names of princely states and small heritage homes who would part with a few recipes. Or, at the very least, talk to me about the food that the palace cooks turned out for festive occasions. Or even for daily fare. The more than generous period that the publisher gave me to start researching – or at least drawing up a list of royal families willing to participate – was spent in trying to persuade them to tell the story about what constituted ‘daily bread’ to them: what their forefathers had dined on; whether TV dinners featured in their impossibly glamorous lives; whether they breakfasted on quails and wild boar every single day of their lives and so on. That book never got written, much to my everlasting disappointment. There were a number of reasons, but chief among them was that the time was not ripe. The largest princely states – the 21 gun salute states of Kashmir, Hyderabad, Indore, Mysore, Sikkim and Travancore are not known to have uniformly excellent cuisines. And the smaller principalities – who quite often could boast of outstanding food – would, in true royal fashion, not want to appear overly eager to upstage their larger neighbours, there being a strict, if unwritten, protocol in matters of what constitutes propriety.
Plenty has changed in one decade. Many more principalities, some so tiny as to defy being identified on a map, have turned their crumbling ramparts into hotels – individually run or under the umbrella of a group. Perforce, ancient recipe books, faded and torn, have been rescued from the mothballs and pressed into service. A few royal recipe books have been published: some belonging exclusively to a single royal family; others grouped into themes, the most common being a shared geography. Royal food trails have started making their way into the spotlight: Sahibzada Raashid Ali of Bhopal organized a royal Madhya Pradesh trail for a group of guests, showcasing the cuisines of Dhar, Limdi, Bhopal and Bhainsrorgarh.
So, while royal cuisine seems to be slowly coming into its own, ITC Hotels beat everyone else to the finishing line by having a festival of seven royal cuisines at ITC Maurya. Kangra may be more renowned for its school of miniature painting, but the food is not only sensational, it is markedly different from the meat-heavy meals of most of royal India. Tikaraj Aishwarya Katoch and Tikarani Shailja Katoch explain that ‘Dham’ food refers to celebratory meals, and because they are usually cooked in Kangra villages by Brahmins, in the only spacious premises of the village, which is the temple, dham food has had, perforce, to be vegetarian. You’d think that a few types of dal would be boring in a single meal, but such is the difference in preparation that the only almost vegetarian meal (with just one mutton preparation) was a highlight.
The royal family of Jammu and Kashmir are Dogras of Jammu, whose cuisine is not dissimilar to Kangra’s. I noticed that those principalities whose cuisine sparkled, did so because of the personal interest of the Raja or Maharaja, rather than the size or even the location of the principality. Maharaja Vikram Singh of Sailana has a huge inheritance to keep up – that of his grandfather and father. The late HH Dalip Singh and his son Maharaja Digvijay Singh put Sailana on the map by compiling a recipe book, culled from his peers – a hitherto unheard of concept. Whether to jolly him along or to pay cognizance to his obvious zeal for the culinary arts, the maharajas of the states that he used to visit: Hyderabad, Kashmir et al, would give him written recipes, which he would then painstakingly reproduce in the kitchens of Sailana. A retinue of cooks and helpers would be sent scurrying to assemble ingredients, prepare and chop them, and weigh each spice. Maharaja Digvijay Singh would be seated on his chair in the verandah with a succession of aunts and cousins around him, each giving him their opinion on the dish being prepared. Maharaja Vikram Singh may not live in Sailana for much of the year any more, yet he would not dream of leaving the cooking to anyone else. Implements like very long spoons have been commissioned to allow him to be seated on a chair and stir the cooking pot without bending: a royal touch, that!
Bhainsrorgarh is in Mewar – it is the third largest fort in Mewar and overlooks the River Chambal. Naturally, the cuisine is a far cry from the desert cuisine of neighbouring Marwar, though the present Rawat’s wife is from Gurha Malani in Barmer, the driest part of Rajasthan. Son Hemendra Singh is a passionate cook who has taken the legacy of Bhainsrorgarh’s culinary heritage forward several notches, by knowing what to keep sacrosanct and what to add an individual touch to. Accordingly, the in the Hari Mirchi ka Maas, chopped green chillies that impart a pleasant sharpness to the almost sweet, milky gravy. And the mutton yakhni pulao is fragrant with rose petals.
The Nawab of Rampur, Begum Kulsum from the Salar Jung family of Hyderabad, Kangra and Kashmir in the extreme north; Akheraj Deolia and Bhainsrorgarh in Rajasthan and Sailana in the dead centre of India: it was a fascinating mix of personalities and cuisines; of histories and geographies; of marriage alliances that brought two contrasting cuisines under the same roof. The momentum of this venture should continue into the future, to bring the spotlight on India’s unique living heritage: the royal families.