Enough attention has never been paid to the heritage of royal cuisine. Now is a good time, before it gets shrouded in the mists of the past. Palaces and havelis still exist; the people who once inhabited them still live on, although in vastly different circumstances. Look hard enough and you’ll even find jewellery and swords of the erstwhile royals. They are all tangible substances and are in no immediate danger of disappearing. The cuisine now, is a completely different ball-game for a number of reasons. The royals themselves never cooked. In many if not most cases, old retainers have gone to their eternal feast and what there is left is in danger of being lost beyond recognition.
One of the only royal families that have documented its cuisine is that of Sailana. And therein lies a fascinating tale. Maharaja Digvijay of Sailana, a small, not very prominent principality in what is now Madhya Pradesh, took a shine to cooking. His father Dalip Singh was famously stuck in a forest during shikar, with all the accoutrements of a feast, but no staff and no idea how to cook. That was when he promised himself to learn cooking. Since then, it has become something of a raison d’etre of his successors. It was an extremely un-royal hobby, and appears to be completely unique in the history of the royals, but not only was Digvijay Singh not daunted, he threw himself so whole-heartedly into the process that he acquired fame that lasts till the present.
The present Maharaja of Sailana, Vikram Singhji, doesn’t even live in Sailana any more, having moved to Pune. His wife Chandra Kumari is from the princely state of Jaisalmer and one of their daughters, Shailja Kumari, is married to Ashwariya Katoch of Kangra. Ashwariya’s own mother Chandresh Kumari is from Jodhpur, and as if four different geographic locations were not enough (five if you count Pune), Ashwariya and Shailja Kumari have purchased a haveli in the Rajasthani district of Shekhavati. It is a strategic location, a three-hour drive from Delhi and it is in a village where there is nothing to do at all, except enjoy the silence and enjoy gastronomic treats from the famous foodie Maharaja.
Over a sunny weekend during Delhi’s winter, the entire family had invited their friends to partake of Sailana’s cuisine. There were drinks around smouldering coals in the front courtyard; there was a mid-morning cooking demonstration with Vikram Singhji taking centre-stage, in the same manner that his late father used to. There was an all vegetarian thali lunch presented by the Katoch temple cook composed of various pulses, each cooked completely differently from the next. And the grand finale was the dinner, in which all the dishes were favourites from the Sailana cookbook.
Shailja Kumari turned out to be a poised young lady, with one foot in the modern world and the other in a more feudal age. The pallu of her sari had a life of its own. It would cover her head when her parents in law were around, and would allow itself to slip to her shoulders when they weren’t. She reminisced about her childhood in Sailana, which was equidistant from Ratlam and Indore. She was a child when her grand-father would do the cooking, but she remembers clearly the sense of occasion. He would cook seated in his chair in the verandah of the palace, with all the family members around him. Maids would scurry to and from the kitchen, fetching and carrying ingredients. Digvijay Singh had several registers full of recipes. He gathered them from other royal families, by the simple expedient of asking his hosts for the recipe of a dish he enjoyed particularly. He was never refused a recipe, and on his part, he never failed to credit the origin of the recipe.
However, Digvijay Singh was not the kind of person to passively accept a recipe. There is every indication that he tried it out on the verandah of his palace. Surrounded by his vegetarian mother, his brothers and their wives and children, he would launch into the recipe. Each ingredient was meticulously weighed on jeweller’s scales that were always by the side of Singh. He would follow instructions to the T, and when the dish was ready, he would ask everyone to taste it and give their comments. Try going to a restaurant or hotel today and tell the chef where he went wrong and you’ll be told off in no uncertain terms. Singh, on the other hand, actively sought what is known in today’s parlance as user feedback. What’s more is that he would record all the feedback on the first draft itself: ‘not crisp enough’, ‘blend of spices not flavourful enough’ and so on. Usually, he re-tried the same dish within a short span of time, while it was fresh in everyone’s mind. Shailja remembers that the second time around, after her grandfather had tweaked the ingredients and method, it usually met with the approval of the family.
Vikram Singhji, on his part, remembers the frisson of relief that ran around the verandah when the Maharaja got a recipe correct and was able to put his seal of approval on it with the letters ‘OK’, with the date.
What this means for posterity is that the tiny principality of Sailana has come to possess a rich cuisine that outrivals any other in depth because it takes inspiration from a wide sweep of regional royal cuisines. And just like the title of Maharaja itself, this one includes no daughters: it has been passed on from Dalip Singh to Digvijay Singh, to Vikram Singhji to his now teenage son Divyaraj Singh with surprisingly sensitive taste buds. Neither does Chandra Kumari cook, nor is she passionate about food, and even if she was, she is a strict vegetarian who eats not even garlic.
The Sailana family are now in the happy position of having enough recipes to publish another book. This time around they are sure that they want to include photographs and trivia about the Royal Recipe Writer who is probably unique in the annals of royal families in India. ends “