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.