Thanjavur palace cooks give a peek into royal recipes

The Maharaja of Thanjavur and his wife with Chef Praveen Anand

The Maharaja of Thanjavur and his wife with Chef Praveen Anand   | Photo Credit: K_Pichumani

While palm leaf manuscripts list exotic menus with ingredients like powdered flamingo bones, the food of the modern royals is more practical, luxuriating in local ingredients

“Dusting is a challenge,” sighs Abaji Rajah Bhonsle. “By the time the cleaners finish one round, it is time to start again,” he adds, sombrely nibbling on delicate slivers of grilled yam. Thoughtful pause. “Even my bedroom is 3000 sq feet,” he shrugs.

We nod sagely, as kebabs are served. As far as audiences with royalty go, this one is unusual.

Bhonsle and his wife, Dhanashree A Rajah Bhonsle, are at the ITC Grand Chola, with executive chef Ajit Bangera and chef Praveen Anand. (Abaji Bhonsle is the younger brother of the present king Babaji Rajah Bhonsle Chattrapathy.) Chef Anand is a culinary historian and obsessive recipe hunter, which is how he ended up travelling to the royal palace of Thanjavur, where he dived excitedly into their well-stocked library Saraswathi Mahal, and found a treasure trove of recipes.

The result: two of the cooks from the royal kitchen are now travelling across India with ITC hotels to give guests a glimpse into their intriguing menus, influenced by successive rulers.

“We have never done anything like this before,” says Bhonsle. “But we wanted to share our recipes, because they are unusual.” Explaining why, he says Thanjavur was the capital of successive dynasties, from the powerful Cholas to the Marathas and Nayaks. “Each ruler built and developed over what was done before, so the culture got richer each time. Which is what makes Thanjavur so special,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “So, we did multi-cuisine menus first!”

Old world charm

The Thanjavur Palace is set in 120 acres and was first built in the 15th Century, after which it was altered and renovated by successive rulers.

“In 1885, we became a British residency,” says Bhonsle. “Today, the Public Works Department (PWD) helps us maintain it, and also uses part of the palace,” says Bhonsle, adding that it is a constant battle to keep the graceful building and its treasures from decline.

“I once put bright lights over our Raja Ravi Varma paintings, for better display. Then an American researcher who was visiting us saw it. She was shocked — she told me the paintings will fade, and need to be in dim light. Now we just keep that whole room in darkness,” he says, adding, “Thank god for scholars! Otherwise we would not know all this...”

His disarming candour is what makes it possible for the chefs to dive in and out of the Saraswathi Mahal library and the palace’s two kitchens, ferreting out recipes. Reportedly one of Asia’s oldest libraries, Saraswathi Mahal has a rare collection of palm leaf manuscripts, which are still in the process of being translated.

Of course, as with all royal recipes, not everything can be recreated today. “There is a recipe for a fish curry, in which one of the ingredients is the powdered breast bone of a flamingo,” says chef Praveen. “The recipe says it is to tenderise the bones... But I don’t understand why they would take so much trouble to tenderise bones!”

Komda Pulao

Komda Pulao   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The more practical suggestions, however, have been taken on board by the hotel’s culinary team. “While the ingredients are similar to what is available in the South their food tastes different because of how they treat the spices, and the combinations they use,” says chef Praveen.

While the food is not particularly spicy, dried red chillies and pepper are used to impart heat. Many of the curries use coconut milk. “We also use hurit,” says Dhanashree, explaining that it is a blend of dals, which are roasted with sesame and rice before being pounded into a grainy powder. “It’s their secret masala for vegetable curries; it thickens them, and gives body,” says chef Praveen.

“The palace used to have three kitchens,” says Bhonsle. In the Maratha kitchen they cooked meat, and one kitchen was strictly vegetarian. The couple is still vegetarian on Mondays and Saturdays.

“The third was the English kitchen. It was influenced by the British, and food was served on silver plates.” Dhanashree says as she starts listing the menu, “They would make jellies. And wafers.” She adds with a laugh, “They even made puffs, so many years ago.”

An elaborate spread

Meanwhile, the dining table is laden with plates. There are spiced meatballs studded with cashew nuts, called rustom golas. And ‘Komdiche’ chicken kebabs fragrant with coriander, pepper and ginger. Plump parcels of dhanedhar shunti, filled with spiced lamb meat, and Bhonsle’s favourite dish: kesari maas. A morish shredded meat, it consists of mutton redolent with saffron, and tossed with poppy seeds and chillies till it is dry, but still tender.

Thanjavur palace cooks give a peek into royal recipes

“I first went to the palace about 15 years ago to use the library,” says chef Praveen, between directing the waiters to serve a creamy fish curry, with spoonfuls of steaming basmati rice. “The Maharaja had a scientific bent of mind, so he encouraged his cook to write down their recipes in palm leaf manuscripts. Some of these are written in the Modi script, which very few people know how to read today.”

Bhonsle nods. “It is only a written language, not a spoken one.” He then waggles his eyebrows and adds playfully, “It’s our secret language!”

Dessert is a deceptively simple sweet rice pulao, crunchy with almonds, and luxuriant with copra and sultanas. “This takes so much work,” groans chef Praveen, clearly delighted at the challenge it poses. “You have to start with a channa dal, which you cook with a bouquet of whole coriander, fennel, cinnamon and shahi jeera. Then you make syrup with dry fruit and poppy seeds. You fry cloves in ghee. Then comes the dal, milk and basmati.” He takes a deep breath, “Then you add cardamom, nutmeg, rosewater and saffron, after which you need to cook it sealed.”

There is an impressed pause as everyone reverently takes one more spoon of dessert. “There. Now you know our secrets,” smiles Dhanashree.

There’s just one more question. What does royalty eat for breakfast at the grand Thanjavur Palace palace, with its huge kitchens and gifted team of cooks? Bhonsle replies instantly, “Oh, I really love idlis.”

The Thanjavur Royal Kitchen menu is available for dinner at the Madras Pavilion, ITC Grand Chola till July 28. Call 22200000 for more details.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 12:53:52 PM |

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