Zoya Ansari describes the
culinary delights of the Mughal Empire
Mughals were highly cultured in their outlook and lifestyle and were extremely fond of all aspects of their existence and put their hearts into whatever they did. Like everything else they paid exclusive attention to their dining table and raised its standards to rare heights. It was very obvious that planning and executing affairs related to Mughal table was an exclusive and elaborate exercise. The result was cooking was a potpourri of aroma, colours, new experiments and rigid table manners. Emperors usually dined in the privacy of their inner household with their consorts and concubines instead of the European custom of dining in state watched and served by their courtiers. It was rare that emperors ate with courtiers and if they did it was on festive occasions and there also rigid protocol was followed.
Mughal kitchen was an elaborate affair supervised by an official known as Hakim who was usually the royal physician who ensured that the planned menu compulsorily included ingredients with proven medicinal value. Hakim ensured that each grain of rice for the biryani was coated with silver oil, considered helpful for digestion and with additional advantage of being aphrodisiacal in nature. Mughal kitchen fed gold and silver pellets to chickens, goats and sheep so that medical properties would be passed on to the eater.
To bring menu to fruition an elaborate staff numbering more than two hundred swung into action with each staffer assigned a separate function. The menu required about hundred dishes to be prepared and served entailing a flurry of activity in the huge kitchen area that saw staff chopping, cleaning, washing and grinding ingredients. Expert cooks were made to cook dishes and they competed with each other for gaining favour of the emperor who invariably rewarded the deserving. Fresh ingredients were procured for cooking and rainwater mixed with water from river Ganges was used for bringing about best possible taste.
Mughal cuisine was shaped by all kinds of influences; Central Asian, Iranian and Afghani to which a touch of Kashmiri, Punjabi and Deccan was added. Each emperor kept on adding to the repertoire of dishes: Babar loved fish which he did not get back home in Kabul, Humayun brought Iranian influence to the table due to his long stay in Persia while Akbar, deeply embedded in matrimonial alliances, brought the Indian. Shahjahan is credited with adding new spices to the cuisine such as turmeric, red chillies, cumin and coriander to beat negative effects of water. Aurangzeb was a casual eater preferring vegetables but he also had weakness for Qubooli, a type of mega-biryani with rice, Bengal gram, died apricot, basil, almond and curd.
Being originators of a specific style of eating Mughals initiated a cooking tradition that is the richest and most lavish cuisine in the subcontinent. Mughal kitchens excelled in cooking a wide variety of lamb dishes prepared with cream, luscious fruits, and almonds served with rich pulaos. Being central Asians Mughals were hearty meat eaters but use of beef was actively discouraged in a predominantly Hindu country. Unfortunately the geographical constraints did not allow cultivation of taste for fish or seafood. Although Mughals created mouth-watering chicken dishes but the onus of their culinary range remained on lamb.
Their new abode India encouraged them to garnish their cuisine with nuts, raisins, spices, and ghee creating meat and rice dishes, dressed meats, desserts and sweetened drinks. They prepared new dishes exclusively with mixing meat with finely ground wheat and rich ice cream of milk solids. By doing so the Mughals influenced both style and substance of Indian food and their endeavours included a very sweet sherbet), light bread), samosas, mutton, the flesh of birds such as quail and sparrow and a mixture of almonds, honey, and sesame oil. Mughals ate on carpets with table settings and colourful spreads. Food was eaten with hands although knives were used to cut meat and spoons for serving. Before eating the emperor would reserve stipulated part of food for mendicants and the unconsumed food was distributed amongst the needy. After the meal, it was customary to serve betel leaf to refresh the palate and to aid digestion.
Akbar promoted three classes of cooked dishes and the first was known as sufiyana, consumed on his days of abstinence that were without meat and included khuska, khichri, lentils, palak saag, halwa and sherbets. The second class included meat and rice cooked together, or meat and wheat prepared together such as pulaos, biryanis, shulla, shurba, halim, harisa and kashk and qutab both prepared with meat and wheat with different spices. The third and last class comprised of dishes of meat cooked with ghee, spices, curd, eggs such as yakhni, kebabs, dopiyaza, dumpukht, qaliya, a meat dish cooked with a vegetable, in which the gravy is thick and sauce-like and malghuba.
Mughals preferred wheat as complement of dishes with bread served were either thick, made from wheat flour and baked in an oven, or thin, made from unleavened dough and baked on iron plates using a dough of either wheat, paratha was an adaptation of the deep-fried pooris, baqar khani, leavened bread enriched with clarified butter whereas shirmal, a sweet baked bun-type bread was prepared exclusively for upscale dinners.
Mughals obtained raw materials for cooking and eating from all over the subcontinent as rice was procured from Gwalior, ghee from Hissar, ducks, water fowls and vegetables from Kashmir and fruit from northwestern areas. Cooks were specifically trained to present their food as impressively as possible. Visual effect of food was encouraged as was the colour. The processing went through various combinations for bringing maximum lustre to the output. The Mughals introduced rich, milk-based sweets in India such as small bits of bread coated with sugar and ghee were prepared for the ceremonies of Fatiha and Niyaz. Malida, a sweet made with broken bread, sugar, and ghee was another sweet dish which was a particular favourite of royal children.
In Mughal cuisine thickened milk replaced flour in preparation of sweet dishes. Mughals introduced a wide variety of candies and conserves particularly murabbas and pickles were commonly used. The most popular halwas Mughals relished were sohan and habshi. Barfi originated in Persia that Humayun brought with him to India. . Balu shahi, sheer khurma, gulab jamun are all legacies of Mughal cuisine.
The outstanding quality of Mughal cuisine was the art of retaining the rudimentary character of a food preparation while incorporating multiple seasonings such as biryani. Two incompatible ingredients—rice and lamb—were not only marinated, but also mixed with spices, curds, saffron, an aromatic mixture of spices, and garnished with silver varq. Although Biryani has been modified over time but its basic formula holds good as that of another Mughal specialty kebab that takes its shape after multiple processing of lamb, which is minced and steamed. The kebab family is proud of its two outstanding varieties: shammi kebab and nargisi kebab. All Mughal dinners ended with betel leaf known as paan as the Mughal emperors were very fond of it. Offering paan was a royal favour whose ingredients such as camphor and musk sweetened breath and were pleasant to chew. TW