History & Culture

Tales from the Mughal kitchen recounted by cooks of Matia Mahal

A scene at an eatery at Matia Mahal in OId Delhi   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Abul Fazl, Akbar’s wazir and one of the navratnas (nine gems) of his court, had a voracious appetite. It is said that 8 maunds (a maund is about 37 kg) of khichri was cooked on Abul Fazl’s orders every day and anybody could just walk in and join in the meal.

At night the learned Abul Fazl was the emperor's friend, confidant, and chronicler, who wrote the Ain-e-Akbari. He would have 12 seers (a seer is almost a kg) of delicious food placed on two tables placed on either side of his bed. Whenever he got up he would eat, first from one side and then from the other. By morning there was nothing left. No wonder his wide girth is a prominent feature of Mughal paintings. But even so one marvels at the man's digestion.

There were other nobles who, though not as great eaters as Abul Fazl, were nevertheless fond of good food at breakfast, lunch, and dinner without being guilty of the sin of glutton. Akbar himself was a frugal eater, though his son Jahangir ate well. Going by the popularity of Mughlai dishes in our age, it is not hard to guess that the Mughals were connoisseurs of food, besides other things.

There is a gali in Matia Mahal near the Jama Masjid in Delhi, where reside cooks whose forebearers were around during the Mughal era. Today they are mostly old men who take contracts for marriages and other festive occasions, because the younger generation has taken to other professions. The family occupation does not pay as much as it used to in days gone by.

Korma, rogan josh, tandoori murgh, biryani, kathi kabab. gola kabab, shammi kabab, tandoori kabab, pulao-zarda, with kheer and shahi tukre are only some of the dishes which tickled the Mughal palate. All these are prepared by the cooks of Matia Mahal even now.

These Indian delicacies have charmed many dignitaries. We had such connoisseurs of food as Mughal emperors Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Jahandar Shah, Mohammad Shah Rangila; the Nawab of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah; and in our own times the Nawab of Rampur, Jawarharlal Nehru, and Dr. Zakir Husain.

Despite his age, the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar retained his taste-buds and besides the usual delicacies, the Mir Bakwal (head of the royal kitchen) saw to it that the menu included venison, quail, partridge, and haral (green pigeon).

The cooks of Matia Mahal do not prepare wild birds, probably because of laws, changing tastes, and the fact that birds are hardly available in these times when wildlife is getting fast extinct.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 3:12:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/tales-from-the-mughal-kitchen-recounted-by-cooks-of-matia-mahal/article31330900.ece

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