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Eating with the Emperor

In her home in Gurgaon,food researcher Salma Husain soaks in some winter sun as she shows off her latest acquisition—a 19th century Persian manuscript on cooking tips.

Written by Meher Fatma |
February 15, 2009 2:27:10 am

Salma Husain’s The Emperor’s Table is a guide to good eating in Old Delhi

In her home in Gurgaon,food researcher Salma Husain soaks in some winter sun as she shows off her latest acquisition—a 19th century Persian manuscript on cooking tips. “I got this during my trip to Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad last week. It’s written by two English women and has guidelines for Indian cooks,” she says. “The book,Hidayat Namaye Bawarchiyan-e-Mulk-e-Hind,shows cooks how to perfect bread crumbs and give steamed rice a silver glow,” she says.

And in her recently published The Emperor’s Table (Roli,Rs 695),Husain has innovatively paired prints of Mughal scriptures and paintings with recipes from the royal kitchens. “It is quite difficult to imitate the cooking of those days. We hardly use saffron,it is difficult to find edible silver warq and instead of making vegetable dyes we buy synthetic colours,” she says.

Her book traces the food habits of seven Mughal rulers—each chapter is sprinkled with personal anecdotes on the king,his lifestyle,favourite dishes and even his zodiac sign. “It took me over five years to complete this book,” says Husain,whose research took her to libraries all over India and in Tashkent,Samarkand,Iran and London.

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From tracing the nomadic lifestyle of Babar,who preferred simple food like cabbage rolls and rice and lamb soup to the rule of Akbar,when the concept of kitchen gardens came about and food became an important department,the book tracks the gourmet spreads of royal kitchens. “History has it that in Akbar’s reign the kitchen gardens were watered with rose water so that the vegetables that grew were aromatic.”

While most recipes in the book can be cooked under one hour,be ready to shop for packets of saffron and pistachio,sheets of silver warq and even rose petals. “It is impossible to replicate a royal meal without these ingredients. Unlike the spice-laden curries served in city restaurants that claim to serve Mughlai fare,garam masalas were introduced much later when the regional influences came in,” she says.

But the food of old Delhi,Husain says,has a mysterious connection to the royal era. “When Shah Jahan shifted to Delhi,his people kept falling ill. The hakims were called in and they found that the narrow stream that gushed in Chandni Chowk was causing the illness. For the first time the use of turmeric and chillies was prescribed in food and we still use them in our daily cooking,” she says.

It also helped that the last Mughal ruler was stationed in Delhi and even after his rule,the cooks found patrons in the lanes of Old Delhi. “During the British rule,bawarchis fled to cities like Hyderabad and Lucknow where the nawabs had the money and the appetite for the oil and dry fruit laden food,but the younger cooks who worked as masalchis and helpers in the kitchen dispersed in the quaint lanes of old Delhi and gave it the famous street food.”

The cooks who worked in sarais too played an important role in preserving Delhi’s traditional recipes. “These cooks were called bhatiyare and they hosted guests. It was the women (bhatiyarin) who cooked,” she says.

Near Matka Pir,the smell of spices will lead you to a tiny block of eatery run by Babu Bhai Bawarchi. “His forefathers ran a sarai and he is well-versed in the low-cost food of that era,” adds Husain. While he stocks biryani,qorma and kebab that are polished off within a few hours you can ask him about tarkaliya (a stew of bones) and he will begin talking about his grandmother’s cooking. For something more traditional head to Hakim Sons at Lal Kuan. “The eatery is run by Lali and Muqeem. Apart from delicious mutton stew and koftas,they still cook Shab-Deg. A traditional recipe of mutton and turnips,it is cooked night long.”

All is not lost into the crumbling pages of history,Husain says,Delhi still has some offerings from the royal times. Nestled in the back alley of Jama Masjid,is Abdul Malik Kebab Wala. “He specialises in kali mirch ke tikke,that you cannot get anywhere else in the city,” says Husain. “Then there is Jawahar Hotel that has kept the royal flame burning with its mutton qorma and stew,” she adds. And Aap ki Khatir in Nizzamuddin is worth a visit if kakori kebabs are on your mind.

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