Forget about the too-greasy-to-be-true offerings that commonly go under the name of Mughlai food in restaurants. The real Mughlai food is not even a homogenous entity. It has, if researcher Salma Husain is to be believed, transformed itself from completely Central Asian from the time of Babur who came from Ferghana, to overwhelmingly Indian by the time of Aurangzeb. Husain is a repository of stories about the Mughal emperors and their families (“The best account we have of a Mughal breakfast is given to us by Gulbadan Begum”, “Western visitors to the Mughal court used to present Empress Noor Jehan with the latest kitchen accessories of those times” and much more) because of her knowledge of Persian. Her latest book, The Emperor’s Table – The Art of Mughal Cuisine (Roli) is a wealth of details about India’s First Family of a few centuries ago.
While she was a student of Persian in Mumbai’s Ismail College, she was fortunate to have an Iranian neighbour who spoke not a word of any other language besides Farsee, and so, her fluency was far better than that of her peers. Four decades later, it is clear that Husain has found – and excelled – in her métier: reading Persian manuscripts for descriptions of the food of the Mughals.
The actual process of reading, it would appear, is not so much of a challenge as putting together the pieces is. Husain observes that during Babur’s reign he was so busy establishing what was to become an empire, that food was the last thing on his radar. He was home-sick frequently and would weep at the memory of melons and pomegranates of his native Ferghana. His actual food was meat grilled very simply. All this started to change as the Mughal court began to be established in India, and as Persians began to be attracted in various capacities: with them came the refinement of their cuisine.
By Akbar’s time, a person of the level of Prime Minister was in charge of the royal kitchen. It was at this time that meat began to be combined with lentils as in haleem. It seems that the humble dal was the favourite of all the later emperors. With Jehangir on the throne, the accounts of cuisine suddenly become far more sophisticated. Garnish as a concept was used at this time, rice dishes were unmoulded, which leads Husain to speculate that visitors from the western world brought kitchen moulds as gifts for the empress.
After Shah Jehan had moved his capital from Agra to Shahjehanabad (now Old Delhi) there was a virtual outbreak of gastro-infections. The royal hakims advised the populace to counter the ill-effects of the water with plenty of spices and rather more ghee than they were used to: and that, according to Husain, is the hallmark of the original Dilli ka khana.
The last of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb, was completely austere in matters of food: only vegetarian food for him. “Aurangzeb ate the simplest food, but it was entirely Indian whereas Babur’s diet, also austere, was entirely Central Asian” says Salma Husain.
Basmati Rice 250 gm
Rose water 2 cups
Almond (blanched, finely sliced) 2 tbsp.
Raisins (soaked in water) 2 tbsp.
cinnamon 1″ stick 1
Green cardamom 5
saffron dissolved in milk 1/4 tsp.
sugar 250 gm.
juice of lemon 1/2
pistachio slivers 1 tbsp.
silver leaves 2
cream 1 tbsp.
-wash and soak the rice in rose water for 10 minutes. drain.
-heat the ghee in a pan, fry the almonds and raisins lightly. remove and keep aside.
-reheat the ghee, fry cinnamon stick and cardamom till the cardamom starts spluttering.
-Add rice and double the amount of water( if rice is 1 cup add 2 cups of water). add saffron and cook on medium heat till the rice is two third done.
-add fried almonds and raisins, sugar, and lemon juice; cook covered on dum.
-serve decorated with pistachio slivers, silver leaves and a dot of cream.