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Emperor Shah Jahan and his vaunted monument may not have anything to do with a cup of tea, but the ‘Wah, Taj!’ exclamation is certainly due at the emperor’s court for transforming Indian cuisine, at least in the northern plains, to something that eventually evolved into Indian restaurant cuisine around the world. The familiar-now, new-to-them staples of potatoes, tomatoes and chillies, the aphrodisiac silver warq, the mango everywhere, Kashmiri spice vadi, sandalwood, suhaga, and humble white gourd owe their influence to the imperial cooks and royal physician, whose job included menu planning with healthy ingredients—thus notes The Mughal Feast, by Salma Yusuf Husain. This is a transcreation of the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, an anonymous Persian tome. The ‘richness’ of ‘Indian’ cuisine the world knows mostly comes from this tradition, where spices were exotic or native novelties, and the original Mughal preference for dried fruits and nuts as well as fresh fruits of a more temperate climate held greater sway—cherries, apricots, grapes and melons. Essentially a cookbook, the book’s slim historical scaffolding is as crucial as the intricately inscribed borders of a Mughal miniature—and the artwork decorating the pages is the non-gustatory garnish.
Necessarily there is greater wealth of choice in the imperial banquet than most restaurants aspire to—the variety of naan alone would put any contemporary tandoor to sooty shame. Witness the white millet naan, yet to be discovered by ‘native health food’ neophytes, or its opposite number, the fried pistachio naan.
The ‘Indian’ soup course has Central and West Asian roots, but the book reveals a far wider menu than the attenuated modern shorbas—strangely familiar yet foreign,the hearty aash-e-keshtaleh with wheat noodles sounds more like thukpa, but for the turnips, beets, chickpeas…and saffron! Its sweet cousin, the aash lang barah chashnidar, tastes like tautology in our times. The shorbe nakhud aab (and the sheep’s head in another chapter, a stuffed goat-stomach khichri in a third) reveals the dainty emperor did not show disdain towards offal, unlike the fastidious fashion of mere mortals today.
The qaliyahs and do-piyazahs answer expectations of Mughlai aficionados with a smirk. There is a curry that adds a cup and a half of sugar to a kilo of meat. Another dumps root veg and whole moong into a qaliyah that is also a do-piyazah! The Nargisi is no scotch-eggy kofta (cf. Qaliya Kundan) but has a Benedictish fried eggs and spinach on top. There’s battered meat in gravy that seems closer cousin to Chinjabi than the Mughlai of popular perception. There’s a qaliyah amba with raw mangoes that sounds more eastern or southern to modern gastropundits. A curry with samosa involves steaming the meat in betel leaf pockets. Another has fried melons. And the naan is sometimes in the yakhni, not alongside it. There’s a supposedly Rajput-inspired eggplant do-piyazah, one tangy yam version with amla and imli, a third with bitter gourd. The more typical Do-piyazah Mughli is almost pedestrian by comparison. There’s kebabs too, my favourite starring ridge gourd, and intriguing eggs with sweet apples.
For all the biryani baiters, it is noted that the pulao first emerges in Tamil literature of the 3rd and 6th century. However, the Nuskha and thus the Feast certainly vanquish the claim of pulao as intrinsically vegetarian—witness the Kirmani, the Nargisi or the stuffed dumpukht murgh versions, or several korma pulaos and the curiouser mahi pulao which combines fish and lamb together. Indeed, there are more meaty pulaos than biryanis, even some with vegetables with not a potato in sight—but an eggplant, say, or a plantain or sundry colourful root veg. What is a true biryani then? Possibly any successor of the zeer biryan, a rice dish cooked by indirect heat alone, a matter of technique and not ingredients. So, oh yes, there is absolutely a Zeer Biryan Paneer, with fresh green Bengal gram!
This book could be a dinner-party blogger’s and armchair cook’s delight, making for many a surprising table full of conversation pieces, calling up debates around history, authenticity, cultural transmission and melting pots. All with a leavening of wit, such as the Qaliyah Naranj, purportedly deep-fried tangerines in spicy lamb gravy but really mince, nuts, raisins, besan and egg, masquerading in syrup!
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