My imagination is often a wild thing, running a hundred steps ahead of me at any given time. So, when words like royal, cuisine, and festival were spoken together, my mind went to centuries past, in the times of maharajas and nawabs. Where bright canopies would part like curtains to set the most dramatic stage: a spectacular feast decked on long tables. Bards and minstrels would tune in and out, and people like you and me would probably be absent.
But this is the 21st century, and while lavish feasts are still a norm amid royal households, the Royale Cuisines Festival of Madhya Pradesh was a comparatively humble event and open to the public. It still checked all my boxes though. Under the canopy of stars, the royals, dressed in sensible suits and elegant sarees, mingled with the people who
had managed to grab the limited passes. Folk and qawwali singers provided the perfect backdrop to the sumptuous food cooked by the royalty and their personal chefs. Perhaps, my imagination was not that off the mark.
A bite of the zameen ke kabab had me digging a bit deeper. Over the next three days, my time was divided between sampling the food and talking about it.
Much of what is considered royal food comes from the tradition of hunting. Improvised then, for feasts and get- togethers, it was slow or leisure cooking; rich in meat, flavour and the type of ingredients used.
As such, geography played a keen role in what set the cuisines from the erstwhile kingdoms apart. While we know much about the royal kitchens of Rajasthan and Hyderabad, the food from central India is rarely ever the focus of an average tourist. Fresh meat (it was game meat when hunting was legal), leafy vegetables, and spices and herbs were picked directly from the jungles. Pulses, poppy and wheat were grown in abundance. Ingredients like saffron, dry fruits and milk were the luxurious varients and used generously.
Maharaja Pushpraj Singh of Rewa drew my attention to Indrahar, a mix of five pulses, which was ground and soaked overnight. It was fermented and steamed until it formed a light protein-rich cake, which was then roasted and cooked in a thick besan kadhi. In Rewa, Indrahar is an all-occasion dish, even offered to Jagannath as prasad. When made without the kadhi, this protein cake can be enjoyed as a cocktail snack.
In many cases, marriages were a great way to introduce new flavours and recipes into the royal cuisine. Often, a princess would move with her retinue of khansamas, who would improvise, adapt and merge the two styles of cooking. Ande
ka halwa, for example, had a strong Awadhi influence but was a delicacy from Jaora. Jhabua’s masu kurma was another such concoction. The recipe came from Jai Singh’s Nepalese grandmother and was made with timur (a variety of Sichuan pepper from Nepal).
For Sarwaniya’s Ravi Pratap Singh Ranawat, cooking has been a passion for decades. He routinely whips up decadent curries from a centuries-old, handwritten family recipe book. Rarely does he ever alter the recipes. Even now, meat and gravy are seldom cooked together and once set on the stove, the quantity cannot be changed at all.
Though no royal meal was complete without an array of succulent meats, vegetarians were hardly disadvantaged. From the Bhopal gharana, the rajma galauti was an instant favourite of mine at the festival. The dhok masala from Rewa was a similar addition and had me squinting in suspicion. This pathani dish was made with pulses, besan and gooseberry and was simmered for over two hours. One of the best substitutes for a mutton gravy.
But some dishes were just a product of love; take, for instance, the palak ka halwa. Created by Ravi Pratap Singh Ranawat’s grandmother, it was made with spinach, suji and mawa. A simple way to make children eat the iron-rich green. If there was ever a way to make royalty relatable and stand apart at the same time, this was it.
The Royale Cuisines Festival was hosted in Minto House, Bhopal from December 26 to 29, 2019. It brought together 10 royal families from Madhya Pradesh who presented food from their personal kitchens. For more information, see mptourism.com