Emperor Shahjahan’s cookbook

A rare handwritten cookbook dating back to the time of Shahjahan gets a second life

Firstpost print Edition

In a tragic twist of fate, Shahjahan, the emperor whose wealth was once the envy of the world, spent the last eight years of his life eating dishes made with just one basic ingredient — chickpeas — as decreed by his son, Aurangzeb, who had him imprisoned at the Agra Fort. One of those dishes attained immortality and continues to be cooked and served as the Shahjahani Dal, a creamy indulgence made with mashed chickpeas and a procession of spices.

When his writ ran across Hindustan, Shahjahan (1628-58), as was befitting of the Great Mughal, didn’t keep quite a frugal table, and his cooks kept titillating his taste buds. Their recipes, which have survived in a handwritten manuscript prosaically titled Naan o Namak (Bread and Salt), now re-named Nuskha-e-Shahajahani, do not use red chillies, potatoes and tomatoes — food staples today across India — because they hadn’t reached our shores. They made up with peppercorns for pungency, tamarind for tartness and dollops of ghee, and the generous use of saffron, fruit and nuts —the Persian gift from Nur Jahan, Emperor Jehangir’s queen, to Mughal cuisine — as well as gold and silver foil, and with inventive combinations designed to ensure that each preparation took the diner by surprise.

For a busy period of Indian history that saw long years of peace and efflorescence of prose and poetry, art and architecture, the Age of the Mughals (or Timurids) suffered from an abject poverty of gastronomic literature. Much of Mughal culinary history is based almost entirely on conjectures spurred by accounts of contemporary foreign travellers and rare historical references, such as the description of Emperor Akbar’s kitchen and the many types of birinj (rice cooked with meats) in Ain-i-Akbari, than on surviving manuscripts, of which just two have been brought to our notice.

One, of course, is Naan o Namak, whose two extant copies are at the British Library, London, and the Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Chennai; the latter was critically edited by Syed Muhammad Fazullah and published in 1956 — the book is now out of print. The other is Alwan-e-Nemat, which dates back to the time of Jehangir, and its only copy is in the National Library, New Delhi. Salma Yusuf Hussain, the present translator of Naan o Namak (Nuskha-e-Shahjahani), who is also a Persian scholar and food consultant with a long innings at ITC Hotels behind her, has brought Alwan-e-Nemat (Bounties of the Table) back to life and the manuscript is ready for publication.

Add these two to Manasollasa (written in the early 12th century by King Someshwara III, it has 1,820 shlokas dedicated to food), Paka Darpanam (attributed to the legendary King Nala, of Nala-Damayanti fame, this cookbook in — Sanskrit, as is Manasollasa— is believed to have been published some time between the 12th and 17th centuries), and Nimat Nama (the richly illustrated Persian cookbook written mostly by Ghyias-ud-din Khilji, the ruler of Mandu, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, between 1469 and 1500 and completed before 1510 by his son and successor, Nasir-ud-din Shah), and you have the entire corpus of extant culinary literature dating back to the first 800 years of the last millennium.

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani opens with a chapter on naan and it is evident already that the Mughal table was way ahead of its predecessors. Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), Sufi poet and scholar to whom we owe the first references to samosas in India, mentioned only two types of naan, but the Nuskha lists nine, including one filled with dates and another layered with pistachios. Soups (aash) that follow the breads are made of lamb with different combinations of vegetable (the Mughal favourites were turnips, carrots and beetroot) and some are sweetened with generous quantities of sugar.

A long chapter is the one devoted to qaliyas and do-piyazahs, which include one with sheep’s head, another with goat’s liver, and still others with bitter gourd (karela), spinach and egg, dry fruits and egg yolks, raw mango, deep-fried tangerines, betel leaves and even fried musk melon (kharbooza). For the vegetarians (we must not forget Shahjahan had a Hindu mother, Jagat Gosain, from the House of Marwar), we have slow-cooked eggplant stuffed with onions, tangy yam (zameenkand) with Indian gooseberries (amla), and sweet potato cooked with carom seeds (ajwain).

Shahjahan also had bhartas, but whereas Bharta Gujarati had roasted and mashed brinjals and fried onions, Bharta Baingan was smoked at the end and was cooked with raisins, Bharta Shirazi came with boiled eggs, Bharta Gosht was minced lamb cooked in sugar syrup, and Bharta Mahi was fish wrapped in banana leaf and smoked.

The most number of recipes, though, are in the chapter dedicated to zeer biryan (saffron rice) and pulao. The first is a zeer biryan with paneer and green gram (chholia), but the dishes get more exciting as we progress into the section dedicated to pulao. There’s one pulao whose centrepiece is a stuffed chicken (a mince lamb-stuffed eggplant occupies the same place in the Badenjan Pulao, and a lamb mince samosa, or luqmi, makes an appearance in another).

To cater to the sweet tooth, there’s a recipe for Zard Pulao (sweetened cinnamon-flavoured rice garnished with raisins), one for Muzaffar Pulao (where two cups of sugar is added to stock to cook four cups of rice!), and another for the Mutanjan Pulao (lamb and rice slow-cooked in sugar syrup). Sweetened bananas, steamed pineapple, fried raisins, and sweet and tangy raw mango add sweetness to lamb rice. There even a masala omelette (khagina) dipped in sugar syrup.

In the penultimate section, kababs, we have some that have been lost to history — egg kababs, for instance; or chicken stuffed with minced meat slow-cooked on cinnamon bed, and grilled ribbed gourd stuffed with minced lamb. We also get recipes for shishrangas — minced lamb topped with eggs and slow-cooked stands out and so do mashed apples with eggs, also slow-cooked.

Sadly, the chapter on desserts is missing in the manuscripts that have survived, but the book does have recipes created by Hussain digging into her gold mine of information on Mughal Cuisine. At the end of it, one is left drooling — and one can’t help but wonder how Shahjahan lived out the last eight years of his life as his son’s captive, fed exclusively on chickpeas.

(Sourish Bhattacharyya is a blogger and founder director of the Tasting India Symposium)

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