It was while leafing through catalogues in various libraries that Persian scholar Salma Husain decided to look into the records from the Mughal period to see if she could find details about their eating habits, food and cooking styles. It led to The Emperor’s Table – The Art of Mughal Cuisine, her first book based on ‘Nuskha-i-Shahjahani’. Subsequently, she has written or co-authored books titled ‘Sharbats’, ‘Pull of the Pulses’, Flavours of Avadh’, ‘Islamic Food With Healing’, etc. Husain talks about her experience as a food historian, the challenges of translating old cookbooks which require a deep knowledge of both language and food, etc.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself—especially how you became a food historian.
I am a postgraduate in Persian language. My first job in the National Archives of India gave me knowledge to read handwritten Persian documents. As my job was research oriented, I went through various catalogues of different libraries. During my research, it occurred to me that Mughal emperors who were good in preserving accounts of their achievements must have also left behind some documents on their cuisine. This was a turning point in my life and my search began on the subject.
Your first book was a ‘transcreation’ of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. What is it about? How did you narrow down on this subject?
My first book on Mughal cuisine was The Emperor’s Table–The Art of Mughal Cuisine, which traces the achievements and food habits of seven Mughal emperors who ruled from 1526 onward. It took me five years to complete the book as its research involved lots of travel outside the country. I traced the root from where Mughals came to India. My travel extended to Central Asia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. It was an interesting experience and enlightened me on the subject.
The success of this book inspired me to explore further and go deep into my findings. While I was working on Emperor's Table, publishers Rupa & Co. commissioned me to translate a selection of ‘pulao’ from the Persian manuscript called Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. Later, Pramod Kapoor, [founder] of Roli Books, obtained the complete manuscript from the British Library and gave it to me to translate.
Researching into cuisines of bygone eras is difficult. What has been your experience while researching into Mughal cuisine?
It is a challenging job to translate a food document of another language which requires knowledge of food as well as the language. Sometimes deciphering the words is difficult, at times the script is broken, paper faded. Names of the dishes some of the ingredients are absolutely new but as one progresses into research of Mughal cuisine, it is fascinating to note how early the emperors had adopted to Indian flavours, fruits and Indian dishes. While translating, I was doubtful whether the book would be accepted by the present generation. But the doubts disappeared when I tried a few dishes and was satisfied with the results.
We have a variety of dishes listed under Mughlai cuisine in restaurants across the country. How genuine are they?
Today what is labelled as Mughal cuisine is a far cry from the original and traditional Mughal food, which was brought to this country and developed in the royal kitchens of the Mughals. Documented details on food, from the Mughal era—like Ain i Akbari written by Abul Fazl, Alwani Nemat from Jahangir era and Nuskha-i-Shahjahani—bear witness to the fact that their food was not masked with sauces and spices but was balanced and wholesome, prepared with a few spices and aromatic herbs.
What are the basic principles of Mughal cuisine?
Today you will find magazines talking about slow cooking. Back then it was the norm, with the food being cooked on an ‘angeethi’ or wood fire; meat and fish were cooked in their own juices which helped them retain the flavour. Food was made exotic by using nuts, aromatic herbs. Even though the royal feast featured vivid colours, these came from natural sources, such as saffron, beetroot, spinach, fresh fruit juices and essence of flowers.
Cooking was a collaboration between cooks and hakims (medical practitioners) who would scientifically design the menu keeping in mind the health conditions, temperaments, and lifestyle of the royal family. Food was always finished on ‘dum’ to keep the aroma of the dish intact. Smoking a dish was also a popular technique of cooking. In short, it was the cook’s endeavour to keep the aroma and the flavour of the dish intact until served.
Which are some of the most popular dishes that we owe to the Mughal kitchens? What about the ingredients mentioned in The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan?
The book traces the evolution of Mughal food with influences from central Asia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. Then Indian cooks amalgamated the influences with the culinary styles from Kashmir, Punjab, Gujarat and the Deccan. For instance in the royal Mughal kitchen, techniques from central Asia of using pasta and noodles in making of ‘pulaos’ and ‘aash’ (soup) were prevalent; Iranian cooks introduced sweet and sour flavour by adding fresh fruits with meat and vegetable dishes; Turkey brought mincing of meat and grilling of them on open fire with basting. The Persian ‘khorush’ was transformed into ‘qourma’. It is interesting to note that ‘biryani’ is a very traditional dish from Isfahan in Iran even today but is served on Naan’; in India, it was layered with rice, an innovation of Indian cooks.
Yes, most of the ingredients are available.
One of your popular books is on Sharbats. Please tell us about the same.
With the help of Hakims, simple medical droughts were made into fragrant ‘sharbats’. A variety of ‘sharbats’ were introduced to quench the thirst during summer and became a favourite with the royals.
Mughals brought sophistication and style to the simple Indian food. They combined indigenous traditions with their Persian-influenced culture, their hospitality remained legendary. With influences brought by them culinary art reached its peak of sophistication. Mughals have left behind a legacy of food, which remains alive even now after centuries.
Any clue about your upcoming book projects?
Currently I am working on Alwan-i-Nemat, which is a translation of a cookbook from Mughal emperor Jehangir’s time and another book on the pastimes and amusements of Mughal India.