Fit For Rulers Of The World: Mughal Cuisine Is Alive And Well Today
“Mughal” is a word synonymous with grandeur and magnificence. A dynasty that ruled for more than three centuries, known for their architectural paragons like Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Buland Darwaza; literary gems like Ain-i-Akbari, Padishahnama, Ras-Gangadhar and Ganga Lahiri; and musical legends like Mian Tansen, Lal Kalawant, Ram Das and Sur Das. While much is known about the Mughals’ love for art, poetry, music and architecture, not many know of their love for great food. This treatise explores exactly that. It primarily looks at general attributes of the Mughals’ cuisines, addresses some misconceptions regarding it and discusses recipes from imperial kitchens of the 6 early Mughal emperors.
Evolution of Mughal Cuisine
The food in the kitchens of Mughal emperors was a fusion of different cultures i.e. Persian, Afghan and Turkish – and as it merged with Indian traditions, the process took it to another level. Mughal cuisine evolved over time. From nomadic central Asian food that chiefly consisted of large chunks of meat to highly sophisticated Turko-Persian delicacies like Beriani Esfahan, Sher Berinj and Baklava – Mughal cuisine was refined over time. It varied according to seasons, geographical conditions and local produce. Each emperor added his own flavour to it and the dastarkhwan kept on variegating.
The Mughals were pioneers of “community eating” in India. Before that, the food platter was served and everyone ate individually. Mughals introduced the practice of the dastarkhwan. And Mughal dining was an organized drill in itself. It required following proper discipline and order. It was a display of prodigious refinement and sophistication of behaviour. In many primary sources such as Alwan-e-Nemat, there are distinct chapters dedicated solely to dining manners and decorum. Some of these are described as follows:
At every meal, the dastarkhwan was laid down with distinct positions of each member of the imperial family. The queen, prince and princess had their distinct seats. A servant then carried a silafchi to wash the diners’ hands with gram flour and hot water. A loud call was then made for Bismillah and everyone waited till the Badshah took the first bite. During meal, if Badshah disliked any item, then everyone was supposed to refrain from eating it. Lastly, a silfachi was again used to wash hands and a second call was made of Alhamdulilah to mark the end of the sitting. It is also mentioned that before every meal, it was customary to distribute a considerable portion of the food as a nazar or niyaz (charity).
The concept of kitchen administration that we observe now in many five-star hotels dates back to the Mughal era. Many primary sources like Ain-i-Akbari have a couple of chapters dedicated to a kitchen’s proper management. The imperial kitchen was divided into various sections or departments and each portion housed specialists of their fields, supervised by an executive chef. For example during Akbar’s reign, Mir Bakawal was the chief chef who led a specialized team of cooks.
There were expert chefs for curries, pulao and kababs. Another team was comprised of chashni-gir who prepared desserts. Bread makers had a distinct and separate section while waiters and tasters had a special cadre. So the management of a kitchen and its division into various specialized departments came to us from the Mughals’ time.
Food in the imperial kitchen was an epitome of refinement and sophistication. It required the best grade of culinary skills along with substantial creativity and a lot of patience to prepare Mughal feasts. Royal cooks used to work very hard to put up their best show in order to please the Badshah and subsequently get rewarded. Every minute detail was addressed suitably. For instance, cleaning of fish before cooking involved multiple steps. Firstly, it was rinsed with water. Then it was marinated in gram flour and rinsed. After that it was soused with oil and washed once again. Finally it was cleaned with cumin and fennel water before eventually cooking it. Similarly, the cleaning of a wild goose prior to cooking followed a series of steps. After removing the feathers and skin, a layer of Multani mitti or Fuller’s earth was applied on it, before it was buried in hot sand for several hours. After cleaning, it was marinated with sandalwood paste for afew hours before finally rinsing it with water and cooking it. So the preparation of Mughal feasts was not a facile job. It required men of adequate skills and immense patience to serve in the imperial kitchen.
Hakeems and the Imperial Kitchen
The Shahi Hakeems or emperor’s physicians held a very prestigious position in the court. They were very actively involved in the activities of imperial kitchen as well. Every menu was finalized with a prior permission of the hakeem and only those dishes were served to the Badshah that were approved by them. Since the hakeems were very close to the emperors, they knew about the sovereign’s physique and health. So they would only recommend dishes prepared by ingredients that the emperor was not allergic to. Food was prepared in a way that it was sufficiently palatable, provided enough nutrition and energy, and was easily digestible. So a lot went into the making of a court meal.
According to legends, some very famous delicacies that are enjoyed today were in fact the creation of court physicians and were initially used as medicine. For example, Nihari: a rich meat stew that is prepared with a variety of spices and cooked for hours on slow heat. It is probably one of the most popular breakfast items in the Indian Subcontinent, fancied by people of all ages. Its history dates back to Delhi during the Mughal era. According to legend, a canal was being dug through the city and there were regular complaints of labouring people catching flu, cold and related diseases. So Muhammad Shah Rangeela ordered his Shahi Hakeem to prepare an antidote to these ilnesses.
Upon getting the instructions, the court physicians started experimenting with various spiced stews. They finally formulated a mix of spices including saffron, cinnamon, fennel and cumin. They selected boneless meat particularly from the shank, so that the spices are absorbed by the meat. When the Badshah inquired of them the right time for its consumption, the physicians replied, “Waqt-e-nihar,” meaning on an empty stomach in the morning. Thus Nihari was invented and is consumed as breakfast delicacy since then.
Mughal emperors are generally considered to be great meat eaters. Such an impression comes from the sheer range of dishes prepared from various types of meat that were part of the imperial meal spread. Although this notion may stand true to some extent, there are exceptions to this praxis.
Mighty Mughal emperors like Akbar, Jahangir and Aurangzeb were not big fans of meat eating. They had a strong disinclination for flesh. Akbar even went on proscribing hunting and fishing for a good six months of the year. He also didn’t consume meat – at first two days in a week and then almost gave it up entirely in the later years of his life. He once said,
“It is not right that a man should make his stomach the grave of animals.”
Similarly Jahangir was also not a big fan of meat eating. He not only continued his father’s practice of avoiding meat for two days in a week, but also added a fast on Thursday. Since Jahangir had spent some time in Gujarat, so it’s influence is also evident from his dietary habits. Jahangir’s favorite dish was Khichri i.e. rice cooked with lentils and served with yogurt. It remained part of his meal spread throughout his life.
Likewise, Aurangzeb also adopted local dietary habits of vegetarian eating. He was very conscious of his diet. His dastarkhwan consisted of very frugal items. His favorite dish was Daal Chawal i.e. cooked rice served with a pouring of lentil soup on top. He preferred vegetarian food and called it “Sufi” in nature, but apart from his religious beliefs, he also favoured vegetables because they were nutritious yet easily digestible.
It seems that the Mughals greatly fancied desserts. Every Mughal emperor without any exception had a sweet tooth. There was a distinct department in the imperial kitchen for the chefs that were masters in making sweets. Those special cooks were called chashni-girs. Ironically the desserts that we associate with the Mughals i.e. Shahi Tukra, has no actual relation with the Mughals whatsoever. But there still are plenty of sweet dishes that we enjoy today that do indeed date back to the Mughal era.
The Mughals’ dessert menu was quite extensive. The main items included Halwas (of all sorts, almond, walnut etc.), Firni, Kheer, Zarda, Kulfi, Sheer Biranj, Mutanjan, Jaleebi and Sharbat. Moreover different fruits were caramelized to form Murabba. There were at least 20 different kinds of Murabba including apple and carrot.
The Mughals ruled India for more than three centuries. Their contributions to art, literature and architecture are known to everyone but their benefaction to cuisine is not discussed enough. This, even though food in Mughal times was considered an art form, at par with painting and literature.
To promote our cultural heritage, it is necessary for Pakistanis to fully embrace the living legacy of Mughal cuisine and introduce this treasure to the whole world.