Culinary knowledge distinguishes man from beast. Not my words! The thought was explicated in a 16th century Mughal text when detailing the workings of Emperor Akbar's kitchen. With such a philosophy towards food, it follows that the royal chefs during the Mughal era had crafted grand dishes and brilliant recipes.
Today, these delicacies form a rich part of the Mughal legacy in the Sub-Continent.
But when we celebrate an occasion with the exquisite 'kachchi biriyani' for example, or perhaps relish that 'jorda' afterwards, little do we ponder about the efforts of those imperial cooks who had long ago mastered them, or the keenness of the patrons who first introduced or promoted them.
Ah! The things we take for granted. Let's not, for a little while at least, to get a better understanding of what we fondly call Mughlai cuisine.
THE PERSIAN CONNECTION
As you dig up on the makings of this cuisine, the Persian connection becomes very easily apparent.
Persian influence is written all over Mughal heritages, and food is not an exception. This connection should be a good starting point in understanding Mughal heritage, including food. Keep in mind too that a large number of Mughal officials had Persian roots.
Shawkat Osman, chef, researcher, and author, attributes this influence in food to Humayun, the second Mughal emperor.
“Humayun's most lasting achievement was the introduction of Persian cuisine into the royal kitchens of Delhi,” he wrote in his book, Recipes from the Rasoi. “The Persian cook came skilled in the technique of preparing famous Persian delights...”
Lizzie Collingham too, in the book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors, agrees, explaining that this phenomenon most likely occurred after he came back from exile —
“On his return, Humayun brought with him a strong preference for Persian culture and a large number of Persian cooks. These cooks imported into India a Persian cuisine...”
In fact, many delicacies such as faluda and jorda are Persian. The latter is even mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari, as 'zard birinj.'
The Mughals created a happy marriage between Persian food and the local ingredients of the Indian subcontinent.
“Given the availability of spices in this region, the Persian delicacies in the hands of the Mughals became more flavourful,” Shawkat Osman later explained in an interview.
And of course there were other delicacies too.
“Use of tandoor, naan, keema, and kebab were already introduced by Delhi sultans before the Mughal emperors, which nevertheless at a later date became a major part of Mughalai cuisine,” he further informs in the book. The technique of cooking food in pressurised steam, known as 'dum-pukht,' was also used by the Mughals.
A LOOK INTO EMPEROR AKBAR'S KITCHEN
The great emperor remains celebrated and legendary. I shall not dwell upon his political or military acumen, no sir, but what he did for my palate!
Abu'l Fazl had penned down, in the 16th century manuscript, Ain-i-Akbari, many details about the imperial kitchen and even the emperor's dietary habits.
“His Majesty even extends his attention to this department (i.e. imperial kitchen), and has given many wise regulations for it...,” Fazl began the elaborate description of gastronomy. After all, according to him this 'knowledge distinguishes man from beasts.'
There was a 'Master of the Kitchen' in the staff, and 'treasurers for the cash and the stores, several tasters, and a clever writer.'
And there were chefs.
“Cooks from all countries prepare a great variety of dishes of all kinds of grains, greens, meats; also oily, sweet, and spicy dishes,” Fazl tells us. The team was always ever so ready that upon the order, a hundred dishes could be served in a matter of one hour.
Fazl broke down food into three categories: 'such in which no meat is used'; 'such in which meat and rice, etc., are used', and 'meats with spices.'
He then continued to give brief recipes from each category, from Saag, to Qima Pulau, to Kebab.
“The Persian and central Asian influence on Mughalai cuisine is evident in the Ain-i-Akbari recipes,” Collingham wrote. “They called for large quantities of saffron and asafoetida, favourite Persian flavourings, and the Mughals cultivated these plants in India to provide their cooks with a ready supply.”
Interestingly, Emperor Akbar avoided meat to some extent; Fazl actually frowned upon the act of killing and eating creatures.
We may tend to associate Mughal cuisine more with meat based delicacies, but Ain-i-Akbari mentions vegetarian food as well.
“A place is also told of as a kitchen garden, that there may be a continual supply of fresh greens,” Fazl wrote. Among the culinary delights mentioned, he commented that Saag was 'one of the most pleasant dishes.'
The document also talks of breads and various fruits, and gives us a long list of prices of numerous ingredients. The writer spared no detail in describing culinary activities, from managing supplies to security issues to serving the emperor.
Read, if you are really into history, the voluminous Ain-i-Akbari, which is actually a part of the even more dauntingly voluminous Akbarnama.
But to narrow it down to gastronomy, Osman aptly summarised the glory of culinary pursuits in his book: “During Akbar's period, the royal kitchen became a laboratory for Mughal culinary experimentation.”
AND IT THRIVED...
Akbar's future generations continued his legacy. In a state of great fortune and magnificence, they carried the Mughal glory forward.
“In this atmosphere of opulence and conspicuous consumption, huge sums were spent on the imperial kitchens,” Collingham wrote.
Collingham further mentions that Emperor Jahangir's Persian wife Nur Jahan is credited for the invention of some amazing dishes. The last of the 'great' Mughal emperors, Aurangzeb too had an indulgence for food, spending 1000 rupees a day on the royal kitchens and seeking out good chefs.
MUGHAL CUISINE IN BANGLADESH
From rezala (perhaps derived from the name of a chef or his patron who went by the name Reza) to nihari to jilapi, there are various Persian or Mughal foods we have grown accustomed to. Even the concept of 'dopiaza' has Mughal hints.
But one may argue that there is no Mughal treat greater than kachchi biriyani, which has reached such a revered and celebrated status. This biriyani is the stuff of legends!
A stand-alone dish made with basmati rice, khashi (castrated goat), and potatoes, kachchi is made using the aforementioned 'dum-pukht' method. The meat is cooked together with rice. Its juices pour out and mix with the rice, producing a delicious treat for the consumer, and, before that, marking an enormous feat for the experienced chef.
The history of kachchi spans across Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, and Dhaka. “It was in Kolkata where potatoes were most likely incorporated in this dish,” Osman informed. “But nowhere else is kachchi as delicious as we find in Bangladesh,” he opined. “With potatoes and the Bengal Goat, our kachchi is fabulous.”
The delicacy mainly came along with the chefs who migrated in and around 1947, he added. In fact, before that, Osman says that most Mughal food in Dhaka was relatively limited to the nobility. And today, we take them for granted.
A wedding invite comes, to the food aficionados, with the hope that kachchi will be served; and that wish often comes true! Meanwhile, the narrow alleys of Old Dhaka host numerous eateries which have Mughal delicacies on their menu.
Today, when we think of Mughal food, I reckon that a sense of grandeur somehow comes into our mind. After all, many of the delicacies were perfected by royal chefs. What Emperor Humayun started with the introduction of Persian cuisine, the boost his son Emperor Akbar provided, and the continued pursuits and patronisations of the latter emperors and aristocrats created the Mughlai cuisine we are today so fond of.
From their imperial kitchens came out food fit for the royalty. And from the royalty it trickled down – through the passage of time – to us today.
Photo: LS Archive/Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Special thanks to Shawkat Osman for the interview which provided valuable insight for the write-up. Other sources are Recipes from the Rasoi by Shawkat Osman, Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, and Ain-i-Akbari by Abu'l Fazl (translated by H Blochmann)