Mughlai cuisine: as elusive as it’s sumptuous

Despite being so widespread, Mughlai food suffers from an image problem. The mere mention of it conjures up images of robust gravies, heavy meats and over-spiced dishes. Much of this bad press is due to the inexpert preparations sold in restaurants in India and abroad where a mishmash of Punjabi dishes, generic curries dubbed as qorma, potatoes and paneer overwhelmed with cashew or almond paste, Anglo-Indian dishes such as jalfrezi and dodgy biryanis are bunged into this large and unwieldy category.

When you go to Muslim homes in northern India or other parts of the country influenced by this medieval courtly culture, you realise how corrupted most commercial cuisine is. However, a full understanding of the sophistication of Mughalai cuisine is still elusive.

That may change an iconic manuscript with handwritten recipes from the time of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, kept in the British Library in London, has been translated from the original Persian into English by scholar Salma Husain and published Roli Books. This translation is significant because Nuskha-e-Shahjahani (literally, Shah Jahan’s recipes) is one of the few sources of detailed recipes from the time of the Mughals.

“While working in the National Archives, I came across Persian manuscripts on many subjects but not on food. I was inquisitive whether there were any records of the recipes, which could be shared with future generations. So I began to search in various libraries and museums all over the world,” says Husain. Finally, she found two manuscripts with recipes. The Alwan-e-Nemat was in the National Museum in New Delhi while the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani was in the British Library. Roli’s publisher, Pramod Kapoor, was able to access it and enable the translation. The Mughal Feast, as the English version is called, is pitched as a “transcreation” of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. This is because while the recipes are direct translations, medieval measures have been replaced with modern equivalents.

The Mughal Feast contains detailed sections each on naan (the generic word for breads), aash (soups with meats, pulses, bulgur, noodles and yoghurt — a class of dishes that have mostly disappeared from our tables), qaliya (meat in refined and sophisticated gravy), do piyazah (meat, chicken, fish or vegetables stewed with onions and spices), bharta (mashed dishes, including ancestors of baigan ka bharta), pulao (rice cooked with spices and meat), zeer biryan (a prototype of the biryani, where cooked meat is layered with parboiled rice, and then steamed on indirect heat in what is essentially an oven), kabab, harisa (the origin of haleem), shisranga (which seems to have been a class of minced or mashed dishes topped with egg and slow-cooked), samosa  and shirini (sweet dishes).

Even reading these categories makes you realize the importance of the recipe collection. First, it documents categories of foods that have vanished. Flavour combinations of sweet and salt — the use of fruits while cooking meats (like the unique recipe for amba pulao — tangy mango and lamb pulao) are no longer “in” even though they are so unique and interesting gastronomically. More importantly, these recipes give a perspective on how “evolution”, though inevitable, is not necessarily progress in a positive sense. The sophistication of many dishes from Shah Jahan’s time is far more than anything you come across in modern Indian kitchens.     Qaliya ghoora, described as a tempered lamb curry flavoured with spices. Qaliya/qorma are sophisticated Mughal stews and many traditional Muslim or Kayastha homes still cook these. Many Indian homes, and certainly most restaurants, however, make generic mutton curry, which take the idea from the Mughal dishes but seem to have been passed down into common use via the British Raj, when curry gained currency and the long cooking processes of the qaliya/qorma seemed to have been abridged.

The Nuskha-e-Shahjahani’s recipe is a revelation. Onions, ginger, coriander seeds and cinnamon are used as a base flavour while stewing meat. A yakhni or stock is made and strained. This is then discreetly flavoured with a clove. The scented, clear stock and meat are added back together and then almond paste, rice paste (as a thickener) and cream are added to the gravy, with a final layer of seasoning by way of black pepper (chillies had come in by Shah Jahan’s time but may not have been popular as yet) and green cardamom (as an aromatic). The way in which spicing is done at three different intervals and cooking broken up into three distinct stages is a far cry from the bung it all in recipes of today for curry calling itself qorma. Sometimes, one needs to look at history to see things clearly.