Eat like a royal

Live quails in pastry may be a thing of the past, but these blue-blooded chefs and hoteliers are turning family recipes like the Bhopali rezala and soita into pop dishes

It is a scent I am familiar with, but never before has it perfumed my glass of milk! The last time I got a whiff of it, I’d figured out it was from the pricey Tom Ford oud, a perfume the world of fashion was going crazy about then. Now, at Amir Mahal in Chennai’s Royapettah, I encounter it again — emanating from a glass of milk ‘sherbet’ decorously served to me on a silver tray. We are sitting in a parlour in the palace, chatting with nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, who dreams of music and, sometimes, of days past.

Ali is the son of the prince of Arcot, a titled former royal whose family once functioned as rulers of the Carnatic state (between the Krishna and Kaveri rivers) established by Aurangzeb, with its capital in Arcot. Inside the house, time stands still. Small rituals of hospitality bear the stamp of the more gracious time gone by. The sherbet — “milk is boiled for hours, then almonds and pistachios added to it, before it is smoked,” explains Ali — is smoked with oud, an expensive local wood now sought after by perfumers the world over. Ali also offers us tea time treats like devse, little discs made of semolina and wheat flour (a little like the North Indian mathri) that sandwich spicy mince cooked with fenugreek greens. These are heritage recipes that you are unlikely to get anywhere else.

However, even as some food rituals remain within the family’s fold, others are being democratised. Some of it — like the Nawabi gunchha e kebab (clay oven roasted broccoli florets in mustard marinade) and Soova machhi (gravy of fish with dill leaves) — are now part of a new menu at The Verandah, at the newly-refurbished Taj Connemara. Then there is the biryani, now the food of the masses.

Eat like a royal

Know your biryani

The Ambur biryani, popular all over Tamil Nadu, apparently has its origins in the royal kitchen of Arcot. Many versions of the recipe exist, depending on the shop selling it.

Earlier this year, Mohammed Fahd Khaleel, a 26-year-old cousin of Ali’s, brought the family’s original 200-year-old recipe to the public domain — through a takeaway. “I wanted to open a [fully-fledged] restaurant, but since I am new to the food business, everyone advised me to start small. So I decided to start with just biryani,” he says. The Biryani Shop on Greams Road follows the original Arcot recipe and is cooked by descendants of the royal cooks. “It is distinctive because we use saffron and other secret ingredients. Every grain of rice is infused with flavour from the stock,” says Khaleel, who wants to expand in Chennai in the coming year, to take it to places “where the demand is high, as per Zomato and Swiggy research”. At around ₹200 per portion, it is food for the commoners and erstwhile kings alike.

Akshraj Jodha, Executive chef, ITC Windsor, Bengaluru

Akshraj Jodha, Executive chef, ITC Windsor, Bengaluru   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Democratising the table

The history of food is full of such delicious irony. What was food for the marginalised often becomes delicacies for the entitled (think bouillabaisse, originally a fisherfolks’ stew), pasta puttanesca, or even the nihari and galauti kebab (bazaar dishes in Delhi and Lucknow). Food of royalty, in turn, becomes pop dishes. It bears introspecting that even something all pervasive like the samosa was once an exclusive snack for the Turkish nobles of the Delhi sultanate. Or that batashas, those sugary confections distributed as temple offerings, were once meringue-like delicacies sought after by ladies of the Mughal harem in days when refined sugar was an exclusive, expensive commodity.

It is not just the Arcot biryani that has become democratised. Many members of India’s former royalty, as well as descendants of cooks once employed by the former elite, have been refashioning their culinary heritage to make it accessible to our middle class. In Bhopal, Niloufer Khan, a descendant of the former Begums of Bhopal, will tell you how her great grandmother, Shahjahan Begum (the begum from 1844-60 and 1861-1901), was a “colourful character”. She loved colour, Niloufer says, “and used to host various festivals like Jash-ne-gulabi (celebrating pink) and jash-ne-hariyali (celebrating green), where all the people wore that particular colour, the décor was of that hue, crockery was custom made in that colour, and all the dishes were of that colour, too.”

Faiz Rashid, Owner of Jehanuma Palace hotel, Bhopal

Faiz Rashid, Owner of Jehanuma Palace hotel, Bhopal  

The Bhopali rezala originated as a jashn-e-hariyali dish: meat cooked in green coriander (1 kg of leaves for 1 kg of meat) apart from other spices. It is distinct from the Kolkata-style rezala, which is a white gravy with restrained spicing. Similarly, the Bhopali pasande (escalopes) — smoked, cooked with poppy seeds and dried fruits, and mashed — is different from the Delhi or Lucknowi versions.

Scions lead the way

These dishes and other heritage ones are on the menu of the iconic hotel Jehan Numa Palace, owned by Niloufer’s nephew Faiz Rashid, the third-generation descendant of the General Obaidullah Khan family. The palace itself is a 19th century mansion, one of the homes of the erstwhile royal family. The hotel is a bid to keep alive the heritage of old Bhopali culture, which was distinct from bigger centres of power like Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad. “Gastronomy is an important part of experiencing that way of life, so my aunt has trained the hotel’s staff and we’ve revived some of the lost recipes of our family,” Rashid says.

Other scions have taken up the ladle themselves. Akshraj Jodha, from a small thikana near Jodhpur (he is related to the former Jodhpur royals), is now executive chef at the ITC Windsor and one of the leading chefs in the country when it comes to preserving the Rajput culinary legacy. Deolia, his village near Ajmer, and the seat of former power, has influences from both Marwar (Jodhpur) and Mewar (Udaipur); its cuisine shows that on a platter. Soita — grains cooked with meat like a sort of a porridge — is a speciality. It can be made with either millets (bajra) or corn (makki). His family was also influenced by the cooking of Kashmir since Maharaja Hari Singh was a friend of his grandfather’s at Mayo College and often came home on short holidays with a retinue, including cooks. “We do dishes like safed maans with lots of almonds and poppy seeds. Because of the Kashmiri influence, we started putting more nuts, dried milk solids and made it even richer,” he says.

Jodha has put heritage dishes of his family such as mawa pulao, soitas and even whole roast rabbit and whole quail on his buffet and banquet menus at the ITC Windsor in Bengaluru.

Flavours lost and found

As the demand for traditional food has gone up in the last five years, specialists are in big demand — those who can do the now-pop sheermal and galawat ke kebab, Awadhi biryani and qorma. Rehman, who is well known in the wedding and hotels circuit (he also conducts food festivals in India and abroad), talks about lesser-known dishes such as gole kebab ka salan (rounded minced kebab cooked on sigri and then curried) and bezaari kebab (loosely translated as kebabs that make you tired).

The latter gets its name from the painstaking cooking process. An egg with shell is pierced on top, its yolk and white drained, and then spiced minced meat filled through the hole. It is boiled in such a way that the keema cooks without the shell cracking. Rehman’s repertoire also includes a host of vegetarian dishes — tahiris made with fruit and dried fruit, and dal mumtaz, where husked urad is cooked in ghee and milk. “Many people think that Lucknowi food does not have vegetarian dishes, so I’ve focussed on researching and improvising these recipes,” he says.

Qutub Khan (left), Owner of Chicha's, with his partner

Qutub Khan (left), Owner of Chicha's, with his partner   | Photo Credit: G Ramakrishna

In Hyderabad, too, there are quite a few cooks who trace their lineage back to the days of the Nizams. Muneer Mian, whose uncle was the head cook in the Nizam’s kitchen, is popular with the city’s old families, as a caterer for weddings. However, one of the biggest patrons of old Hyderabadi culture and cuisine is Mehboob Alam Khan, who belongs to the influential Shah Alam Khan family (an industrialist and educationist at the time of the last Nizam in the early 20th century).

Khan’s nephew Qutub started Chicha’s (a colloquial way of addressing acquaintances) in 2016 with partners, when he despaired at not finding “authentic” dishes. “Over time, because of commercialisation, authentic biryani took a back seat and people were cooking it in all sorts of ways. We have tried to reacquaint people with this dish,” Qutub says. There are also dishes such as Mulla do pyaza that have been revived. The base of this dish is a rich rogini roti (made with ghee, saffron and milk), which is topped with fried meat pieces and various toppings, “sort of like a pizza”, as Qutub puts it.

We may not be able to live like the former royals, but we can still eat like them.

Anoothi Vishal is the author of Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture. The Kayasths were medieval scribes, who were part of the Mughal courts.

Eat like a royal

Mouthful of history

As Mughal power that had united a large chunk of the subcontinent waned, subsidiary courts in Lucknow, Hyderabad, Rajasthan and central India assumed greater power and independence and became centres of patronage. Artists, writers and highly-skilled cooks gravitated towards these and became part of evolved sub-cultures, where food was treated like an art form. Dishes were concocted to surprise and delight. We have all heard of fabulous creations of Lucknow and Hyderabad, where nawabi khichdi could be made of pistachios and almonds, each nut carved individually to resemble grains of rice and green lentils, or flaky lukhmis with live baby quails enclosed inside the hot pastry, which would fly out when the dish was poked open. We only have oral accounts of such fabled creations.

Lucknow’s cooks at the height of Nawabi culture were not merely bawarchis, who executed dishes, but highly-paid raqabdaars, whose job it was to invent new dishes and research ingredients: spices, itrs (fragrances), varq (gold and silver foil) and more. After Nawabi power disintegrated, the raqabdaars tried to find employment in the homes of provincial rajas and taluqdars (landowners), as well as in courts like that of Rampur. Some went into the service of the newly-emerging elite. However, they could be snobbish with their nouveau masters.

Eat like a royal

Chef Mujeeb ur Rehman, who runs a restaurant called Afreen in Lucknow, and traces his ancestry back to a bawarchi in the kitchen of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, has an interesting story to tell. “Most people do not know the origin of the phrase ‘yeh mooh aur masoor ki daal’ (someone who is too big for his boots). Apparently, it was coined by a Lucknowi cook, whose new master told him to make a simple masoor dal,” Rehman narrates. The cook, used to the nawabi kitchen, gave a long list of expensive ingredients; the new master, aghast at the cost, pointed it out. The uppity cook told him off with the quintessentially Lucknowi insult, which loosely translates to ‘how can someone with your face appreciate masoor ki daal’!


Eat like a royal

Kings of the kitchen

In Guzishta Lucknow, Abdul Haleem Sharar (1860-1926), essayist, novelist and historian, has painted a fair portrait of Lucknowi culture and lifestyle, including the Nawabi focus on gastronomy. Sharar’s much-referenced narrative tells us that Nawabi kitchens spent as much as ₹60,000 per month on food, besides salaries of cooks. There were various categories of cooks too, and even the bawarchis specialised in just one dish each. So a biryani cook would not make a qorma and a kebabchi would be different from the halwai (sweet maker).

After the exile of Wajid Ali Shah to Matiaburj, Awadhi cooks followed him to Calcutta and were responsible for the emergence of the Calcutta style Mughalai dishes such as dum biryani (with potatoes), rezala, and so on. However, a new type of cook emerged in British India, employed by the colonial masters. The khansama cooked dishes to entertain — unlike the Brahmin cooks who made home-style food. The inventive ‘party’ cooking of the khansamas became the basis of restaurant/club food in India.


Eat like a royal

On the recipe trail

Sailana, a minor principality in Madhya Pradesh, is well known to anyone interested in Indian gastronomy, thanks to The Cooking Delights of the Maharajas, a cookbook published over three decades ago by Digvijay Singh, son of the former raja of Sailana. Digvijay’s father, Raja Sir Dilip Singh, was a well-known gourmet who had collected recipes from the royal kitchens of Kashmir, Awadh and Bhopal, as well as from old books in Persian and Sanskrit. Some of these are in the ‘Sailana cookbook’, as it is commonly called. Now, the third generation of the family under Vikram Singhji, and his daughter and son-in-law, conduct food festivals across the country.

There are also groups like Delhi-based Eat With India, who host dinners and meals with former royal families of Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and attempt to bring to diners dying recipes such as nal badiya (dumplings made of colocasia) and amal ka saag (a Malwa delicacy made of poppy leaves).

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 10:45:18 AM |

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