The Mughal Feast: A fascinating chronicle of the royal repasts and recipes of Shah Jahan's time

Mughal cuisine was shaped by all kinds of influences: Turkish, Afghani, and Persian, mixed in with Kashmiri, Punjabi, and a touch of Deccan. Each emperor also had his favourites, and Shah Jahan is credited with adding new spices to the cuisine. Meals in the royal household began with the recitation of the Bismillah-e-Rahaman-e-Rahim — in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful.

Salma Yusuf Husain records recipes from the kitchen of the emperor Shah Jahan in a new book — The Mughal Feast (Roli Books, 2019) — a transcreation of the Nuska-e-Shahjahani. The following excerpt from The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan has been republished with permission from the author and Roli Books.

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Shah Jahan, considered one of the greatest Mughals, was the fifth Mughal emperor of India. He ruled over the vast empire left by his grandfather Akbar from 1628 to 1658.

As the third son born to Emperor Jahangir, initially it seemed unlikely that he would be the chosen heir to succeed his father. Even after the death of Akbar, he remained distant from court politics when his brothers were engaged in conflicts over the throne. However, with time he became ambitious, grew closer to his father and was finally named the emperor upon Jahangir’s death in 1627.

In 1638, Shah Jahan moved his capital from Agra to Delhi, perhaps due to the summer heat of Agra, and called it Shahjahanabad. Shah Jahan’s reign was essentially a period of peace in which literature flourished, education made mighty strides, and architecture, painting, poetry and music progressed in leaps and bounds. He made India a rich centre of arts, crafts and architecture, and is rendered memorable in history for the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort of Shahjahanabad.

The silver twilight of Mughal civilisation began with Shah Jahan. Delhi was now a sanctuary of an urbane, sophisticated court which had taste, even elegance. By early 1730 the city had absorbed various elements from neighbouring regions and witnessed a mingling of international as well as national strains and an interchange of ideas, customs and food.

 The Mughal Feast: A fascinating chronicle of the royal repasts and recipes of Shah Jahans time

Cover for The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan. Courtesy Roli Books

The Portuguese relationship with the Mughals had already been established a long time back, along the trade routes. Hence the imperial kitchens, besides Indian ingredients, saw an additional ingredient brought by the Portuguese — the chilli. The chilli was very similar to the long pepper, already in use, and therefore did not look too unfamiliar to royal chefs, but had the hot taste. Other vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes also appeared on the scene and the food of the Red Fort became rich in colour, hot in taste, and varied as compared to the bland food of its ancestors. Qormas and qaliyas, pulaos and kababs, and vegetables in different garb, besides European cakes and puddings, adorned the table.

Cooking and serving food in the royal kitchens was a riot of colours, fragrances, experiments, table manners and protocols. The emperors usually ate with their queens and concubines,
except on festive occasions, when they dined with nobles and courtiers. Daily meals were usually served by eunuchs, but an elaborate chain of command accompanied the food to the table.

The hakim (royal physician) planned the menu, making sure to include medicinally beneficial ingredients. For instance, each grain of rice for the pulao was coated with silver warq, which aided digestion and acted as an aphrodisiac. One account records a Mughal banquet given by Asaf Khan, the emperor’s wazir, during Jahangir’s time to Shah Jahan — though no outsider had ever seen any emperor while dining except once when Friar Sebastian Manriquea, a Portuguese priest, was smuggled by an eunuch inside the harem to watch Shah Jahan eat his food with Asaf Khan.

Once the menu was decided, an elaborate kitchen staff — numbering at least a few hundred — swung into action. Since a large number of dishes were served at each meal, an assembly line of staff undertook the chopping and cleaning, the washing and grinding. Food was cooked in rainwater mixed with water brought in from the Ganges for the best possible taste. Not only the cooking but the way the food was served is interesting to note — food was served in dishes made of gold and silver studded with precious stones, and of jade, as it detected poison.

The food was eaten on the floor; sheets of leather covered with white calico protected the expensive carpets. This was called dastarkhwan. It was customary for the emperor to set aside a portion of food for the poor before eating. The emperor began and ended his meal with prayers; the banquet ran for hours as Shah Jahan liked to enjoy his food, spending long hours at dastarkhwan.

With the passage of time, indigenisation in the cooking style became obvious and certain Indian ingredients, like Kashmiri vadi, sandalwood powder, suhaga, betel leaves, white gourd, and batasha, and fruits like mango, phalsa, banana, etc., were used to give different flavours to dishes.

Like his ancestors, Shah Jahan also enjoyed fresh fruits. The Mughals gave India a variety of fruits like cherries, apricots, grapes and melons, but their love for mangoes was unbeatable. Shah Jahan liked to weigh fruits in front of him and once became angry when one of his sons, instead of sending mangoes from his favourite tree in Deccan, ate them all. Shah Jahan’s love for mangoes made the imperial kitchens prepare imaginative recipes of qaliya and pulao to please the emperor.

Though the cooking of pulao finds its mention in early Tamil literature of the 3rd and 6th centuries, its refinement was brought by the Mughals, for whom the cooking of rice was indeed an art. It required a certain finesse to cook it to perfection. In the hands of the culinary masters of the royal kitchens, cooking became yet another medium of expression and pulaos became a sophisticated dish of royal cuisine. A variety of exotic pulaos, like moti pulao, narangi pulao, mutanjan pulao and muresseh pulao were created and presented on the royal dastarkhwan to suit the royal palate.

Detail from Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels in Submission to Shah Jahan, signed Bichitr, c. 1630, Chester Beatty Library. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Detail from Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels in Submission to Shah Jahan, signed Bichitr, c. 1630, Chester Beatty Library. Image via Wikimedia Commons

A lover of aesthetics, Shah Jahan’s kitchen was an exhibition ground of boundless creative energy and finesse. There are two manuscripts, Alwan-e-Nemat (‘Bounties of the Table’) — written during Jahangir’s time — now in the collection of the National Museum in New Delhi, and Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, in the British Library in London, that talk about Shah Jahan’s kitchen. A copy of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani is also available in the Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Chennai, critically edited by Syed Muhammed Fazlulla Sahib, and published in 1956. [My book is a translation of the Persian text of the manuscript, with no changes made with regard to the measures mentioned in the original text.]

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani recaptures the nostalgia of the Mughal era, presenting the recipes and unveiling the mystique of the royal kitchens. Until now, no efforts were made to bring to light the treasure of recipes revealing the art of cooking in the time of the Mughals.

The original manuscript begins without any trace of the author or date of its compilation. The chapters describe the preparations of different dishes of those days in detail, and include recipes for making and preparing breads, soups, pulaos, kababs, do-piyazahs, fish, samosas and sweets. It takes you inside the imperial kitchens, where food was cooked with the right amount of spices to enhance the base flavours of the dishes. Specific combinations of herbs and flavouring agents characterised these foods, the blend of which was developed by expert cooks in keeping with the advice of the royal hakims.

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani reveals that few spices were used in cooking; cartloads of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, apricots, plums, raisins and saffron were imported along the new roads that were constructed to facilitate trade. The sweet and salty tastes relished by the Mughals are quite apparent from the selection of recipes in the manuscript. The extensive use of nuts, gold and silver leaves, saffron and aromatic herbs made food exotic and flavourful.

Most of the dishes mentioned in the manuscript were prepared in bulk, as there were many guests and family members to cater to, so the quantity of ingredients was huge. However, today recipes are mostly prepared for much smaller groups. Thus, one may reduce the quantities of the ingredients mentioned in the manuscript as per one’s liking. Furthermore, some recipes, such as Yakhni Talavi, may appear to be incongruous with their chapter descriptions, but since they are placed this way in the original manuscript, we have decided to leave them as they are. Also important to note is the old use of shangarf or cinnabar for food colouring [as my book is a translation, it has been left in, but it is not to be used due to certain health risks].

The manuscript also provides helpful tips for cooking. Methods to clean fish, soften bones, make artificial bone marrow and colour food using juices of vegetables and essence of flowers throw light on the creativity of the cooks of the royal kitchens. It mentions the method of cooking zeer biryan through indirect cooking by placing bamboo sticks at the bottom of the pan and placing the main ingredient of the dish like meat, fish or paneer over it. The dish was then cooked on dum. It was common to cook food on low heat and finish on dum, a technique adopted extensively in India under the name dum pukht.

The arrival of every dish was a ceremony and history will never forget the pomp of those times, along with the flavours which remain only in the pages of handwritten manuscripts of those days, such as Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. Not only the imperial kitchens of the emperor, but also the bazaars of the city were charged with the smoke of different kababs, and the environment was filled with the fragrance of nahari, haleem, qormas and qaliyas.

The array of breads was dazzling. Festive occasions were never complete without baqarkhani, kulchas and sheermals. Sharbat ke katore and kulfi ke matke added colour to the scenario. The city of Shah Jahan was a paradise of food, with the creations of local and foreign chefs.

This luxurious way of serving and preparing food continued only till the time Shah Jahan ruled, as his son Aurangzeb did not believe in luxury, pomp and show. Unfortunately, the last years of this great emperor were unhappy. Deposed by his son Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in Agra Fort and remained there for eight years until his death in 1666. Legend has it that Aurangzeb ordered that his father be allowed only one ingredient of his choice, and Shah Jahan chose chickpeas. He chose them because they can be cooked in many different ways. Even today, one of the signature dishes of North Indian cuisine is Shahjahani dal, chickpeas cooked in a rich gravy of cream.

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Updated Date: May 23, 2019 12:05:41 IST