“I don’t know how many times this story has been told and printed,” sighs Maharaja Vikram Singh Sailana wearily. Undeterred, I spoon up more preciously pink rose kheer and look at him pleadingly. After all, how often do you get a king to tell you a story. That too, a story about a king. Over lunch, cooked by — yes — a king.
The maharaja smiles benevolently. “Okay. My grandfather was travelling...” “A hunting trip? On elephants? With an entourage?” I squeal, bouncing on The Park’s chic seating at 601, in excitement. “No,” he groans. “They were just going… I don’t know… somewhere. Then the cars were separated, and he ended up at a dak bungalow without his staff. He was with his friends, and they had no food. That’s when he decided it was important to learn how to cook. To know the basics.”
That’s how Raja Sir Dilip Singji of Sailana began his legendary collection of more than 5,000 recipes, culled from royal kitchens and cooks across a slew of princely states. “My grandfather collected recipes from everywhere he travelled: Kashmir, Lucknow, Rajasthan.” And of course, the recipes of Sailana in Madhya Pradesh. Vikram Singh continues, “Maharajas had many hobbies. They patronised art, music, dance. He was patronising food. A lot of what he did was research. He recorded recipes that had never been written down.”
Just as I begin imagining the expressions of the palace cooks on seeing the maharaja at the stove with a ladle, he quickly adds, “He never cooked in the kitchen! It was all on an open verandah. The staff would bring tandoor and sigree there. The whole family would gather. He would normally cook one dish — a non vegetarian dish… I was about eight years old then, and I remember it was the only time the whole family gathered. Otherwise we all had our meals in our own sections of the palace.”
When Vikram Singh’s father cooked, he and his siblings joined in enthusiastically. “I have five sisters and one brother. For parties, we would take charge of one or two dishes each. We would do the mutton, chicken, biryani, while the cooks did the rest.” So that’s how the royal family learnt how to chop and clean? Vikram Singh looks baffled. “Oh that part we never did. Cleaning, cutting… there were people for that. I remember having a staff of about 40 people in the kitchen. Earlier there might have been more.”
The maharaja’s eye for detail is what sets these recipes apart. Measurements are exact, painstakingly wrested and recorded from master cooks. Although many of these recipes are still secrets, a large number of them were printed in the popular Cooking Delights Of The Maharajas by Digvijaya Singh, Vikram Singh’s father, currently in it’s 15th edition. Vikram Singh also consults with The Park hotels. And 601 is currently running a food festival featuring some of his favourite dishes. Many are usual. British-Indian prawn kebabs, crisp with breadcrumbs and redolent with a potent paste of spiced onions. Delicate mutton kebabs set in thick cool yoghurt. For the main course, there is fragrant steamed fish wrapped in creamy mustard paste, rabbit tangy with yoghurt and smoky brinjal lush with raisins. Flavours are powerful and uncomplicated. Especially with dishes like the delicious makki ki dane, sweet and spicy with plump corn kernels and Sailana’s signature mutton, intensely flavoursome despite being made with just three ingredients: yoghurt, salt and ghee.
“Royal food isn’t necessarily heavy and complicated. What you get in restaurants is over spiced,” says Vikram Singh, adding their recipes come from multiple sources. “Once my grandfather was driving past a banjara camp in Rajasthan, and he saw them cooking. So he got down and joined them. That’s how he got his recipe for dal banjara.” Of course, there are whimsical recipes too. “My grandfather invented a mutton halwa, made with meat, khoa, cardamom and rose water. It was usually served to surprise guests. We would then ask them to guess what it is…”
Being born into the Sailana family doesn’t guarantee you access to its many handwritten culinary files. “My grandfather wouldn’t give his recipes even to his daughters. If they asked him, he’d say ‘Come here. I’ll cook it for you.’ He adds, “My daughters don’t have the recipes. But my son does. He’s in culinary college.”
Vikram Singh still cooks as often as he can. “I try and come up with new recipes all the time. I don’t want everything to have been handed down,” he says, discussing his need to create his own legacy. And what does he like to eat when he’s home? He smiles. “At the end of all this travelling, I want just some dal-roti.”
The ‘Royal Journey of Sailana’ food festival is on at 601, The Park hotel, till Sunday for lunch and dinner. Call 4267 6000 for reservations.