Kunwar Rani Kulsum Begum, niece of Salar Jung III, is not just royalty, she's also a treasury of royal recipes. SHONALI MUTHALALY samples the fare.

“The princess is in the kitchen making kebabs.”

“The princess went to the market to buy vegetables.”

“The princess was cooking in her jeans and needs to change.”

What! No jewelled palanquin? No rose petal-strewing attendants? Not even a couple of bare-torsoed bodyguards? So much for my feverish images of Indian royalty fed by gaudy comics, glittering TV serials and The Far Pavilions.

Kunwar Rani Kulsum Begum, niece of Salar Jung III from Hyderabad, finally appears, she's surprisingly enigmatic. A vision in cascading hair and sparkling diamonds, she's languidly regal. Yet she talks of pumpkin-hunting in Koyambedu market. She's exacting with the Chefs. Yet she pulls her weight in the kitchen. She's stately, soft-spoken and elegant. Also giggly.

Born and brought up in a royal Hyderabadi family Kulsum Begum is a treasury of elaborate royal recipes. She lists a typical menu at ‘home' in the palace. “Kebabs to start with. One mutton dish. One chicken. One prawn. Maybe fish. Not too many vegetables… Maybe two or so,” she says, thoughtfully counting off items on her gold-ringed fingers. “Santre ki roti, kneaded with orange juice and ghee. Or roti made with cream and then roasted till crisp on the tava…” she smiles, wrinkling up her nose and adding, “We served dry phulkas only if someone was sick.”

Perfecting the art

Our lunch is as intricate. We begin with luscious Santre ki rotis, subtly laced with the wonderful flavour of fresh oranges. As plate after plate of food arrives, Kulsum Begum fastidiously makes adjustments. “It must taste just right.”

Her grandmother, who ran the royal kitchen with an iron hand, was just as particular. “Every vegetable had to be cut differently. When a new cook came, nani would ask him to just cut onions. Onions have to be cut differently for every dish — biriyani, vegetables, chicken. If they didn't know that they wouldn't get hired.”

The Salar Jung begums worked with hakims (traditional doctors) to maximise the benefits of healing ingredients. “The hakims would use seeds as weights and tell us exactly how much of what to put into each dish. So you couldn't just put a fistful of khus khus. You actually needed to measure it out,” says Kulsum Begum, rolling her eyes. “It took so much time!” Spices would change with every season. “Elaichi, jeera, gongura in summer because they're cooling… Also churans and halwas, which were medicine grated into a paste.”

All this learning was developed into zealously guarded recipes. “Even the cooks didn't know how each dish was made. Nani would slip in ingredients when people weren't looking. She wouldn't even teach me. She said I'll take the recipes into another family when I get married.” The kitchen, teeming with staff, was divided into sections. “Roti walas. Tandoor cooks. Masala grinders… Each person only doing his job and nothing else.”

Kulsum Begum did eventually manage to get her grandmother to part with some recipes. “I had an arranged marriage, and moved to the Lucknow royal family. But their food was so different. So I telephoned nani and cried. I said, ‘You have to teach me!” she smiles adding, “Even then she left a couple of ingredients out, but I gradually figured out what they were.”

This tradition of secrecy was essential in the grand of days of royalty. “Food was entertainment. Every family would have parties, and people would compare kitchens…” Kulsum Begum describes the fantastical dishes begums conjured up. “Big mutton golas stuffed with biriyani. Special vessels were needed for just this dish. Everything took a long time…servants would sit all night fanning the coals to cook chicken slowly. Now its all chop, chop, chop,” she grimaces.

From being a princess who travelled to Lucknow with four cooks to heading teams of chefs in a professional kitchen, she's come a long way. “So much has changed. When we were in school the servants would come with tiffins and set out a multi-course lunch for us on the lawns. If I do that now, everyone will laugh.”

Fortunately, her children are thriving in contemporary India. “My eldest daughter had an arranged marriage to a boy from a royal family. He's a photographer,” she says. “My son's a TV actor.” She adds with a laugh, “My youngest daughter's studying sound engineering here in Chennai… The only thing she can cook is alu fry. And even to make that she rings me up for help!”

Kunwar Rani Kulsam Begum's food is being showcased at The Residency – Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers for dinner till May 23. Call 044 24994101 for reservations.