The evening air was deliciously cool and every time a gentle breeze blew, I’d wrap my shawl around my shoulders more tightly. It was a decided pleasure to be able to sit out in the open, in the gardens of the majestic Minto House that wears its 110 years lightly, and not be uncomfortable at a time when Delhi was teeth-chatteringly cold. Even the venue oozed history, for it was built by the fourth and last Begum of Bhopal to felicitate Lord Minto in 1909. The lawn, festooned as it was with tents under which nestled tables adorned with golden tablecloths, was an appropriate setting for a royal banquet.
I must confess that I did have a moment of misgiving in Delhi when I read the invitation addressed to me by Faiz A Kidwai, Managing Director, Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board. ‘Sarkari’ functions are not, typically, carried through to the last mile and there is usually a yawning chasm between intent and deliverance. However, in this case, the scale was kept small enough to be easily manageable and the presence of a number of erstwhile royals, resplendent in their formal wear, added cachet to the occasion. And then, of course, there was the concept.
Madhya Pradesh was composed of nearly 150 royal houses and thikanas according to some estimates, before the bifurcation of the state into Chattisgarh. However, the interesting point is how diverse the cuisines of these princely states are. Some are breakaway offspring from Rajput families of Rajasthan like Sarwaniya and Jhabua; others like Bhopal and Kurwai are kingdoms that were ruled by Afghans, while still others like the royal house of Holkar in Maheshwar, are Maratha kingdoms, where strong influences of Maratha food and language linger stubbornly to this day. The Maharaja of the erstwhile state of Rewa is a descendant of the Solanki Rajputs who arrived in the north-eastern tip of Madhya Pradesh all the way from Patan, Gujarat in the 14th century and their cuisine is yet another facet of the other royals at this unique banquet. Perhaps the best-known royal house in Madhya Pradesh for its cuisine is that of Sailana, where the Late Maharaja Digvijay Singh compiled a book of his recipes, possibly one of the earliest royals to do so. The Sailana recipes are famously a compendium of the dishes that His Highness sampled in various royal houses across the country. He asked his hosts for their recipes and tried it out in a verandah of the palace in Sailana, surrounded by all the members of his family, before adding them to his famous cookbook.
I was electrified when I heard the story, but meeting the present Maharaja, Digvijay Singh, the family passion for cooking fell into place, for he is a passionate hobby cook, with a specially created long-handled spoon to stir the cooking pot while seated majestically on an easy chair, in the manner of his father. Indeed, in Bhopal, at The Royal Spread, I saw the sheer passion with which all the royals watched over their kitchens with a care that I had not expected. No reliance on minions to do their bidding, though there was no shortage of helpers. Ravi Pratap Singh Ranawat of Sarwaniya told me about the store-room of heavy utensils he had in his palace. “Most of them are too heavy and too large to use,” he rued. “They were made for state banquets of another age.”
What struck me at this veritable feast was the flair with which royals themselves – mostly men, it must be said – had put together menus where the meat component was given as much thought as the plant-based dishes. In this, some royal houses were more equal than others. While Bhopal had an array of filfora, rezala and delicate yet intensely flavourful gosht ke pasanda, Rewa’s indrahar – quenelles of mixed lentils hand-ground and fried before being added to a yogurt gravy – was deceptively simple. As Pushpraj Singh explained, the cachet lay in having staff to grind the dals so that they remained coarse rather than ground to a paste as a machine would provide. The Garha royal family’s Kesariya Maas had the delicacy of saffron in its gold-stained gravy and the Dal Baafla of Narsingarh proved that as much care was taken over vegetarian preparations as for meat.
This is an unique initiative for which the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board deserves plaudits. Now, it remains for the success of The Royal Spread to spur other royal families of the state to join up and for the Tourism Board to promote this as a part of its culinary heritage, capable of being showcased in venues across the country and, indeed, the globe.