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Durbar Entrees

Foodie Salma Husain's chance discovery of the 16th century Alwan-e-Nemat affords a taste and glimpse of Jehangir's kitchen

Durbar Entrees
Durbar Entrees
It was no cakewalk to be a cook in the Mughal court: to produce a royal meal for the pickiest of palates from a crude kitchen with little more than the staple rice and wheat, a few vegetables and spices. The game the royal masters were fond of hunting demanded endless ingenuity and inventiveness. But the royal chefs were more than equal to the task, borrowing liberally from Irani, Afghani and Indian cuisine to produce an impressive array of kababs, do piazas, qalyas, dum pukhts, pulaos, rogan josh, saag, bhartas, salans, khichdis, samosas, kheers, halwa, laddoos and barfis, as a recently discovered 16th century manuscript of over 374 recipes shows.

This Persian cookbook, meticulously calligraphed on 155 pages of cream-coloured paper with a painted blue margin, is one of three copies of the original manuscript said to be written during Jehangir's rule. One copy of the original, taken down by a calligrapher called Abdul Rahim in 1235 AH (AD 1818), has been lying for several decades at Delhi's National Museum. The Alwan-e-Nemat (Colours of the Riches) is possibly the first book in the world to be devoted entirely to recipes and methods of processing and serving food, according to 56-year-old Salma Husain, caretaker of an academic guest house, Jamia Hamdard's Scholar House, who stumbled upon the over 400-year-old manuscript two years ago.

The 18 months Husain spent translating the Nemat turned her from a foodie whose only interest in Mughlai food was how to cook it better for her husband and friends to a historian intent on discovering the treasure trove of food texts gathering dust in museums across the world. Divided into 40 chapters, some exhaustive while others just a page or so, the Nemat meticulously details every aspect of Mughal cooking and serving, including an introductory chapter on table manners.

It's hard to understand why a royal cookbook needs to instruct its readers on table etiquette ("Don't overeat; wash before sitting down to a meal; thank Allah for His bounty before and after every meal; don't offend your host by refusing to eat, better to pretend illness; invite unexpected guests to share your meal; don't eye your neighbour's plate, eat what's on your own; don't pick your teeth, but if you must, do it covertly; hygiene's as important as taste...") but Husain is convinced the Nemat is meant for the royal kitchen. "Who else could afford such elaborate meals including a vast variety and quantity of dried fruits like almonds and raisins, saffron, cream, butter, ghee and meats, and even crushed pearls stuffed into chicken throats and peacock kababs?" she asks. In fact, adds Husain, so rich is the diet prescribed in this cookbook with sers of almonds, ghee, cream and butter that "we'd be dead if we ate such food now".

Husain is intrigued by the inordinate attention Nemat pays to garnishing, colouring (including a recipe for colouring ghee, four-coloured yoghurts, pulaos and kababs) and serving, as also the minute instructions for ridding shikari meat and fish and even oils of odours that may offend the royal.

What also struck Husain after reading the Nemat is that meat was invariably cooked with whatever vegetables or fruits were available—pumpkin, turnip, oranges, lemons, melons, mangoes, apples and pineapples. Brinjal, big and small, and greens of three or four kinds are the only other vegetables that figure in the Nemat. So scarce indeed were fresh vegetables that an entire chapter in the Nemat is devoted to making badis of everything, from raw mango to apples, plums, phalsa and melons. Another section deals entirely with pickles and preserves. "There were few spices used: just cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, coriander. The chilli was totally absent, and garlic is mentioned only in one or two recipes. It was only later, when the Mughal court shifted to Delhi, that royal food became spicy because the royal physician believed that more spices would counteract the ill-effects of Delhi's water on the emperor," points out Husain.

The royal physician, the hakim, played a crucial role in the Mughal kitchen, according to Husain, because he decided the king's daily menu based on his physical examination of the royal personage. That is why perhaps Nemat includes recipes of several gruels and khichdis. Jehangir, incidentally, was very fond of his khichdi, which had little resemblance to the bland modern-day version. Among the eight to 10 recipes for khichdi in the Nemat, are such unusual ingredients as meat, almonds, cream and the inevitable saffron. The khichdis, moreover, appear to be named after people who either invented these variations or in whose kitchen it was first created: Khichdi Himmat Pasand, Khichdi Mahabat Khani, Khichdi Daud Khani, Khichdi Mukhtar Khani, Khichdi Mahmudi, Khichdi Gujarati, Khichdi Muqashar, and, of course, Khichdi Jahangiri.

On the other hand, neither Noorjehan nor the pasinda, which she supposedly invented, figures in the Nemat. But the Gujarati influence that must have crept in during Jehangir's princely days in Ahmedabad is apparent not just in the khichdi but also a recipe for making the Gujarati khandwi. What fascinated Husain most about the manuscript is the evidence of Afghani, Irani and Indian cuisines that the Mughal kitchen used in inventing India's first fusion food called Mughlai that survives almost intact till today.

The story of Husain's "discovery" of the ancient manuscript by an unknown author is littered with a breathcatching series of coincidences that begins with Husain being taught cooking and Persian as a young girl growing up in Bombay's Zachariah Masjid neighbourhood. Husain's mother, Mariam Bai, insisted that the young Salma learn both Persian and cooking, little dreaming that the improbable combination would one day lead to the discovery of an invaluable manuscript. It was cooking that won Husain's heart right from the start, when her mother ordered her and her bookish elder sister to spend Sundays in the kitchen working under the family's chef, with thumbs wrapped in mulmul bandages to prevent unladylike nicks. Although a master's degree in Persian from Bombay University landed Husain her first job with the National Archives in 1964, where she sometimes moonlighted, translating Persian documents into English for foreign scholars, cooking still remained Salma's only passion, taking up all her leisure hours in serving up memorable meals for her large circle of friends. But if Husain thought very little about her Persian scholarship, others recognised it as an invaluable asset, especially air's P.C. Chatterji who persuaded her to join the radio's Persian service in 1972. The job honed her Persian language skills and turned her into a celebrity in Afghanistan, but what she prizes about that decade in air were the three trips to Afghanistan where she learnt about Afghan food and its connection to Mughlai cuisine.

Marriage, and two subsequent jobs—one in a travel agency owned by her husband and the other as manager of Scholar House in the sprawling 90-acre Delhi-based Hamdard campus—led Husain further from her Persian scholarship until one day two years ago she received a call from the managing director of itc Hotels.Major Habeeb Rehman needed someone to research food history for the hotel group, and would she be interested? Husain accepted the offer with alacrity and, thanks to her stint in the National Archives, knew exactly where to begin her search. The National Archives, she recalled, had handed over countless old manuscripts to the National Museum, and her hunt began with its catalogue of old manuscripts. "How many of these medieval manuscripts are about food?" she asked an old friend, Naseem Akhtar, at the National Museum. Quite a few, it turned out, but Husain picked the Alwan-e-Nemat as her starting point. "I was interested in Jehangir's period, especially because of Noorjehan's legendary cuisine and since this book is believed to belong to that era, I wanted to start out with it," says Husain, who spent 18 months translating the manuscript into English. It sure gave her a taste for history that's only growing.

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