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Moghlai

It’s the fusion of Persian and Indian culinary styles. It has rich sauces, butter based curries, ginger flavoured roast meats and sweets that are fit for the king! Sumptuous shorbas and creamy kulfis….Moghlai food offers a rich fare that is irresistible. And, no surprise then, that it has caught the fancy of food lovers all over the world!

It is a similar fusion of Persian and Indian culinary styles that sets Moghul cooking apart from other Indian cuisines. Moghlai food is food for kings and queens, courtiers and nobility, and also for modern-day food enthusiasts. 

Moghlai food brings in visions of dishes that are aromatically marinated in masalas of ginger and onion, tinged with nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon; dishes of rich sauces combining a perfect balance of a range of spices, yogurt and cream, almonds and pistachios, the base to receive morsels of chicken of meat cooked in ghee; vegetable dishes with the nutty flavour of poppy seeds and sweetened with honey; extravagant rice dishes, biryanis and pilaus, each grain separate and full of flavour, garnished with cardamom and strands of saffron; silky-smooth, ice-cold desserts flavoured with essence of roses, decked with tissue-thin sheets of real gold or silver and decorated with a scattering of rose petals; drinks squeezed from fresh fruits. All prepared to please the eye as well as the palate!

Royal repast

From Babur to Aurangzeb, this long line of Moghal rulers is the one that gave India a stability that facilitated the flowering of a cultured and lavish lifestyle. Babur was the founder of this great dynasty followed by his son Humayun, then Akbar, his son Jahangir, followed by Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb. Although the power of the Moghul rule declined after Aurangzeb, the grand lifestyle continued and magnificent tables laden with innovative dishes found their way into the opulent palaces of nizams of Hyderabad, nawabs of Lucknow, nobles of Lahore, Rajput rulers and into the stately homes of Pandits of Kashmir.

Babur was meticulous in keeping a journal, which leaves us with a record of his rule. He planned and planted gardens and brought in seeds, plants and gardeners from Kabul and Persia to grow his favourites – melons, peaches, apricots, pistachios, walnuts and almonds. Babur appeared to enjoy the luscious mangoes of his own gardens. He does not tell us much about food he enjoyed, but there is mention of bouts of wine drinking and of a refreshing drink called julabmost (sherbet). He talks of a sheep being made into kebabs; chikhi, a meat dish incorporating a paste of wheat flour and ginger which also appears later at Akbar’s table and is still in the repertoire today. This gives us a clue that spices had found their way into the Moghul kitchen. We do know that Babur employed Hindustani cooks – and that they were bribed to poison him. They made a good attempt, but as they were being watched they could not drop the poison powder directly into the cooking pot, so they hastily sprinkled it on the bread, probably naan or roti, and covered it with buttered fritters. Besides, they had to taste first from the cooking pot! 

After that the records give proof of the magnificent feasting in the Humayun's time: fine sherbets of lemon and rosewater, cooled with snow; preserves of watermelon, grapes and other fruits, with white bread; drinks with sweet attars and ambergris; and on each day a banquet was prepared consisting of five hundred rare, delicious and colourful dishes. 

Then, Akbar’s wonderful palace at Fatehpur Sikri was the scene of great jubilation on these occasions. With more than four hundred cooks in Akbar’s kitchen, there was great potential for experimenting: perfect blends of marinades and sauces combining meats and fruits, using spices for their aromatic and pungent attributes as well as for their medicinal qualities. Royal banquets became a focus of entertainment at the Moghul courts and Abul Fazl, the philosopher poet and Akbar’s favourite courtier and confidante has kept records of the hectic activities in Akbar’s vast kitchens.

Abul Fazl had great interest in food. And he had a huge appetite! His son sat by his side to serve him when he ate, while the kitchen superintendent stood by, watching closely to observe which dishes met with Fazl’s favour. Fazl’s records about Akbar reveal that the emperor ate only once in the course of twenty four hours, but there was no fixed time for eating. So the kitchen staff was constantly on call, ready and waiting for the royal command, so that within an hour no fewer than a hundred dishes could be presented. With the ladies of his harem it was a different story – their kitchen staff were on the go from morning to night running back and forth with trays of delicacies to cater to special whims. Only trustworthy and experienced staff was appointed to the royal kitchen for the possibility of being poisoned was never far from an emperor’s mind. The imperial kitchen was run like a state department with a treasurer, storekeeper, tasters, clerks and cooks from Persia and various regions of India. The treasurer issued the budget on an annual estimate, purchases were made accordingly and the storehouse sealed with two individual seals, those of the superintendent of the stores and of the head of the kitchen. These two were responsible for daily expenditure, for receipts and for the servant’s wages. Rice, according to the season in different areas, was purchased quarterly. Fowls were never kept for more than a month after fattening, and the cooks fattened even animals such as sheep and goats. An abundance of vegetables was supplied from the kitchen garden, which was supervised by horticulturalists from Persia.

During the time of cooking and when the foodstuff was taken out, an awning was spread and lookers-on kept away. The cooks rolled up their sleeves and the hems of their garments and held out their hands before their mouths and noses when the food was taken out; the cook and the Bakawal tasted it, after which it was tasted by the Mir Bakawal and then put into the dishes. The gold and silver dishes were tied up in red cloth and those of copper and china in white ones. The Mir Bakawal attached his seal and wrote on it the names of the contents, while the clerk of the pantry wrote out on a sheet of paper a list of all vessels and dishes, which he sent inside, with the seal of the Mir Bakawal, so that changing of the dishes became highly unlikely. The Bakawals, the cooks and the other servants carried the dishes and mace-bearers preceded and followed, to prevent people from approaching them. The servants of the pantry carried at the same time, in bags containing the seal of the Bakawal, various kinds of bread, saucers of yogurt piled up, and small stands containing plates of pickles, fresh ginger, limes and various greens. The servants of the palace again tasted the food, spread the tablecloth on the ground and arranged the dishes; and when after some time his Majesty commenced to dine, the table servants sat opposite him in attendance; first the share of the derwishes was put apart, then his Majesty commenced with milk or yogurt. After he had dined, he prostrated himself in prayer. The Mir Bakawal was always in attendance. The dishes were taken away according to the attached list. Some food was also kept half ready should it be called for. 

Akbar’s son Jahangir was also very fond of his food and wine. The now renowned dishes cooked in the tandoor oven were a favourite of his and his cooks were instructed to carry the tandoor whenever the emperor travelled. The clay tandoor came to India from Central Asia and today dishes like Tandoori Murgh are favourites wherever there are Indian restaurants.

The lajawab Lucknowi pilaus

Persian culture introduced richness to the rice dishes in the forms of the pulao or pilau, a Persian word meaning rice boiled with meats and spices. As Lucknow became the centre of high society, expert cooks were brought in and the preparation of food became more and more elaborate as the cooks competed for supremacy. New dishes were created. And any that came from the kitchens of Lucknow were of the greatest interest to the nobility elsewhere in the subcontinent. Cooks were paid high salaries. One nawab, Salar Jang, paid his cook the unprecedented sum of one thousand two hundred rupees per month (a princely sum in those days) to prepare pilaus. His dishes became so renowned that other nawabs tried to bribe the cook into their service. At this time Lucknow specialised in several types of pilaus with exotic-sounding names: gulzar, meaning garden, nur (light), koko (cuckoo), moti (pearl) and chameli (jasmine).

One Lucknow cook is said to have prepared a khichri of pistachios and almonds cut and shaped to resemble and replace the usual rice and pulses. There is another anecdote about one pilau in which the rice was made to resemble pomegranate seeds, each grain being painted half red and half white so that it looked as if a dish of rubies had been set before the king. For moti pilau, the rice was made to look like pearls. Tissue-thin sheets of pure gold and silver leaf were beaten into the yolk of an egg. This was mixed into the rice, which was then stuffed into the gullet of a chicken. The chicken was tied up with string and heated slightly, and the skin then cut to release the rice, which looked like pearls. The rice was then cooked with the meat of the pilau. One renowned Lucknow chef used to make a bird pilau in which the rice formed a type of pie from which small birds flew out when it was opened.

Fastidious emperors

Tempting dishes were sent to the emperor after his periods of fasting. Murgh Mussamman, a forerunner of today’s Murgh Mussalam, was one of the favourite dishes of Rajput warriors that became fused into the Moghul style. The chicken is skillfully boned so that it remains whole, stuffed with well seasoned mince and rice and marinated in a spicy masala paste, placed on a rack in a heavy pan and cooked slowly in the oven in the dum-pukht manner in which the lid is sealed with dough. The method has changed little since the days of Akbar. Akbar demanded nothing less than perfection from all his state departments, including the royal kitchen. One chicken dish had to be prepared 247 times before it was pronounced fit to bear the name Murgh Akbari. Akbar commanded that a special dish be created and dedicated to his nine favourite courtiers, one of whom, of course, was Abul Fazl. The nine were well known as ‘Akbar's nine jewels’ or ‘Navratna’ and the spectacular pilau with nine different jewel-coloured vegetables garnished with tiny grapes that resulted was called Navrattan. Another of the ‘nine jewels’ was the philosopher-wit Mullah Dopiaza. Do-piaza Gosht named after him is a full-flavoured meat dish using large quantities of both fried and ground onions introduced into the spices in two stages. It is still a favourite on Hyderabadi tables today.

Khichri, a simple dish from Gujarat in the west of India, caught Akbar’s fancy and took on a more sophisticated form as cooks in the royal kitchens prepared it. Aurangzeb also enjoyed Khichri and one version, Khichri Alamgiri (Seizer of the Universe) was named after him. Being allowed to name a dish after an emperor was a great mark of prestige for the kitchen department and particularly for the cook who had created it. Khichri is still a popular dish.

Shahjahani Biryani is an elaborate rice dish: rice is parboiled, layered with lamb, chicken or vegetables cooked in a special masala of onions, ginger, crushed almonds and spices, spiced yogurt and finally milk and ghee, sprinkled with saffron and baked slowly in the oven. Mumtaz, the lady of the Taj, also has dishes that commemorate her name. Murgh Kheema Mumtaz Mahal is a very tasty chicken dish flavoured with poppy seeds and cashewnuts served on a bed of savoury minced meat. 

A touch of sweetness

Today India specialises in confectioneries like Halwa. This is a typical Moghal sweetmeat that came to India via Central Asia. Hindus might call it Tar Halwa or Mohan Bhog, but any variation uses large quantities of ghee! Today’s Jalebi is often thought of as a typical indigenous sweetmeat, but records say that the name is a corruption of the Arabic Zalibya introduced to India by Arab traders in the eighth century. The Barfi is derived from the Persian word baraf meaning snow. Shahi Tukra is a dessert of the Nawabs and is without any semblance of a doubt India’s most exotic and famous sweet dish. Garnished with dry fruits and covered with sheets of silver varq, Shahi Tukra is worth its weight in gold! Gulab Jamun, a khoya delicacy stuffed with pistachios and green cardamom seeds takes on a different note as Kalajam which is an over fried version of Gulab Jamun. The balls are deep-fried till dark brown, immersed in syrup and removed. One combination of marble sized gulab jamuns with creamy rabri called Zauq E Shahi is a contemporary presentation with a Moghlai flavour. 

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