Once upon a time there lived a king and his prime minister. Each had a slew of palaces in the city where they lived, one more fairytale than the other. Cars, retinues of helpers, suitcases of fabulous gems – they had them all. Even when the privy purses were abolished, they lived happily ever after. There was only one problem. Because they were completely self-contained, no mere mortal could penetrate the bubble that enclosed them. This was a pity because the king, his prime minister and their descendants had a cuisine that was worthy of being preserved for posterity; the jewels, the ivories, the clothes having all found their way into museums.
That’s where Begum Kulsum comes into the picture. As the grand-daughter of Salar Jung, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, she entered the kitchens of the ITC Welcomgroup by a stroke of good fortune. Eight years later, she has obviously found her métier and her employers, a treasure of the approximate value of the Golconda diamond. Kulsum cooks only the food of her family. While the foundation is undoubtedly Hyderabadi, the refinements are purely aristocratic. Imagine making a gajar ka halwa by steaming whole carrots slit lengthwise so that the central yellow fibrous stem can be detached from the rest of the carrot so as to obtain a glowing red halwa.
Listening to Kulsum talk about her childhood is to enter a magical world of princesses and domestic helpers who lived in vast mansions surrounded by enormous gardens. The dinner table was never set with fewer than five dishes, for a strictly homely, family-only meal. While there was an army of cooks, it was Kulsum’s grand-mother who doled out spice mixes. Secrecy was of the essence then, as it is now: grandma had her spices whose grinding was outsourced to a member of the Bhoi community. One cook was responsible for the biryani, another for the kebabs, a third for the rotis and so on.
Saffri khana was an important branch of cookery for a family whose male members had to travel to all parts of their enormous land-holdings. This was essentially composed of food that would not spoil for a week or so. Today, it sounds like the fantasies of a gourmet, but Kulsum’s family considered it hardship food: roghni roti, tomato chutney, tala boti. Each of these had to have minimal moisture, which means that they were cooked on barely warm embers for hours and hours together.
Kulsum remembers that though the base of many gravy dishes was onions, they had to be completely invisible, by a mixture of painstaking grating and slow cooking. Babool was the warm embers on which ingredients would be placed, to be cooked in six hours or more. The world of fast food and pressure cookers was on another planet altogether. Kulsum, the only known member of her extended family who has ventured into commercial cooking, says that one day it will become economically unviable, even if there are any takers.
Recipe for Roghni Roti
1 kg atta
250 gram pure ghee
Milk 1 cup
Half tsp finely powdered green cardamom seeds
Salt to taste
Mix the ghee with the atta, into which salt and powdered cardamom seeds have been added. This should form fine breadcrumbs. Now, carefully add the milk, a tablespoon at a time to form a firm dough. You may require only half the milk. Roll out the dough into quarter plate-sized rotis (with the same thickness as a plate) and cook gently in a tawa on low heat. Expect one roti to be ready in about an hour. Eat as a tea-time snack; keeps for a week un-refrigerated.