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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Food Historian Salma Husain Brings To The Table Conversation On Mughal Cuisine And Culture

  • IWB Post
  •  June 19, 2019

The royal cuisine of Mughals a.k.a. Mughalia Khana is one of the popular cuisines of the traditional restaurants, and given the heavy influence of meat dishes in it, a vegetarian like myself has only heard about the meaty indulgence. But today, my conversation with food historian and author, Salma Yusuf Husain, didn’t just have me listening without being able to draw any connect, but her heartfelt descriptions and knowledge about how the cuisine originally came into form, had me thoroughly captivated. 

A Persian graduate from the Bombay University, Salma Husain has spent a lifetime studying Indian food and has used her knowledge of the Persian language to explore the history of food from the Mughal era. She has travelled extensively in search of culinary delights from different parts of the world, and is a regular on Indian television for food-related shows.

And her recent book, ‘The Mughal Feast’, is a delightful transcription of the original handwritten Persian recipe book Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s time. Published by Roli Books, a culinary journey into the Mughal imperial kitchen, where food was cooked with just the right amount of spices to enhance the base flavours of the dishes, the book is said to effortlessly recapture the nostalgia of Mughal times while remaining a practical guide for the current time.

Salma ji recently underwent an angiography, and though recovering, but if only I could make you hear the spark in her voice when she spoke about the dinner she cooked last night for her friends. Passion, indeed, gives you the energy to keep going!

Tell us a little about the original eating habits of the Mughals, and the ideas we can adopt from them in making our food in the current times. 

If you trace history, you will find that the Mughals came from the Central Asia and owing to their nomadic nature then, there wasn’t a very sophisticated food history associated. It was when they set out to conquer Iran, Turkey, and later came down to India, that flowed along a heavy influence of Persian culture.

Humayun, Babur’s son and the second emperor of the Mughal Empire, was the first one to focus on the need of nafasat (English: Refinement) in the Mughal kitchens; to bring the Iranian food influence on the table, for which he got cooks from Iran. Later, Akbar, too, paid a lot of attention to the potential of food. He even made a separate department of food, and there is a chapter on it in Akbar e Azam, his biography.                                                                                                 

Today a lot of restaurants are serving ‘Mughalai cuisine’; what parameters do you suggest should be used to judge the authenticity of this cuisine?

The Mughal food that is being served in restaurants hardly has anything to do with the real cuisine. Someone recently asked me about what Shah Jahan’s reaction would have been if he were to try it, and I said that it would make him faint. It really would. Today it has all become about spices and oil, whereas the recipes then were much simpler and saw very less use of spices. I strongly believe that food should be more about the main dish and not so much about the other ingredients, that way not only will it be true to the image of royal food but will also be more healthy. Though in context of the latter, since more and more people are becoming health conscious now, we somewhere are going back; but the difference in lifestyle and the want to have everything made quickly is messing up with the original and healthy style of cooking.

The Mughal Feast

Amba Pulao. Cooked and photographed by the author herself!

How would you suggest the readers to approach the book in terms of the ingredients and time that each dish takes to prepare?

Cooking simple food is not a difficult task, or one that requires a lot of money; it only calls for interest and little bit of time. To quote Bhagavad Gita, we are what we eat, and so food has a major role to play in one’s personality. If you stand in the kitchen and cook dedicatedly, you’ll find that it doesn’t even require you an hour to prepare an everyday meal.

Another important aspect of cooking is the use of spices; you have to balance the main dish with the spices. In earlier times, the few spices that were used were onion, ginger, garlic, coriander powder, garam masala, saffron; and the food was cooked on low heat with minimum use of water, so as to preserve and cook the dish in its original juices. 

Which is your favourite dish from the book? And if you could share with us the recipe of it! 

Amba pulao, which is a mango and lamb based rice dish. It’s the season of mangoes, and the dish was also a favourite of the emperor. Whose recipe it must be remains a history, because not much recognition has been given to the cooks; if at all, names of dishes were coined after the name of the important people who’d like and appreciate the dish. There were also some geographical connects, like there is a dish called ‘Kaliya shirazi’; I assume the dish was inspired from the city of Shiraz. So the book is not only about recipes, but speaks widely of the Mughal culture, about the eating choices and habits of people, etc.

Scroll down to find the recipe of the highly acclaimed ‘amba pulao’.

And speaking of geographical and cultural connects, while researching about the history of Mughals, did you also manage to discover anything about the life of women? 

In the old days, until Babur’s reign, emperors used to have their meals in the Harem, but he chose to have his meals in the company of his sister. And from what is accounted about Akbar in the history, he liked to eat alone. Women were never a part of cooking and kitchen, and they did not come out in the public, however, a lot has been written about the other aspects of their lives and versatility. They were well versed in poetry, had their own separate library, and most possessed a very deep interest in art.

The Mughal Feast

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