Mughal recreations

The Family popped her head round the door to whisper, “I’m off. I’ll be back for lunch. The mutton’s thawing. Do make that and something else.” I nodded and went back to my meeting. It wasn’t till rather late that I remembered her instructions. The mutton had thawed, and I had no idea how I wanted to cook it. As I washed it I realized I did not want to use the usual masala.

Why don’t I try something aromatic? Maybe middle eastern or central Asian? Hardly any herbs at home. Maybe then something closer in spirit to Mughal food than most dishes which have the adjective mughlai added to them? Their food originated in central Asia after all, but accumulated Indian touches within a generation. I’d written about the food of the Mughal court earlier. My phone contains a translation of Abu’l Fazal’s Ain-I-Akbari. Although it has no recipes, it does have a list of what the kitchen needs to stock, as well as a list of dishes which could be made, each with a little gourmand’s comment on it.

I assembled the listed ingredients which my kitchen had: ghee, fresh ginger, onions, lime, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, pepper corns, and asafoetida. Chop the onions fine. Grate and rub ginger into the mutton. Heat a heavy pan with ghee in it, and temper it with small amounts of the spices. Drop half the onion into it and cook till it is transparent. Drop the cubes of meat into it and let them cook well on each side. I could be almost done. I saw a message from The Family saying that she’d left work and would be home soon.

Then I remembered that she’d wanted me to make a whole lunch, not just the mutton. Quick thinking was called for. The Mughals were rice eaters, and brought the fried and baked rices of central Asia into India. I didn’t have time for that. Instead I took out the red rice poha (parboiled flattened rice) that we keep for breakfasts and soaked some in water with Himalayan salt. I also soaked some raisins and almonds separately. Abu’l Fazal writes that these two ingredients were also used by the Mughals. Five minutes, and everything was ready. I strained the water out of them and dropped them into the ghee in which I’d cooked the mutton. I can never follow instructions, even when it comes from the emperor’s diwan. I had to run out to the balcony and get a few curry leaves to drop into the pan.

Cook and layer. I thought there was still something missing. Perhaps a final layer? In the film of ghee remaining in the pan, fry the rest of the onions till they are crisp and brown, and layer this over poha. I declared this was it. What did I have? I cross between Kashk and Dupiayazah? There is now a small community of historian-chefs who try to recreate the methods of the Mughals: from the kitchen and utensils to the authentic ingredients and recipes. They would laugh at this pretension. I wasn’t trying for their level of authenticity. All I wanted was something which, to my untrained palate, would be closer to the tastes they create than to the ones passed off in restaurants.

I’d finished dressing a salad to accompany this when The Family entered. I was ready with an answer when she asked “What did you make?” But I certainly wasn’t ready when she asked “Did you take photos?” I hadn’t. Which is why this long post has only one photo: that of the finished bowl.

What we know of real Mughal food

There is such a world of difference between the oily and spicy mess which is routinely passed off as Mughlai food in restaurants across the country and the descriptions left by travelers, that I spent some time looking for source books on Mughal food. The Mughal empire stands at the beginning of the modern era; life in the empire is well documented by many travelers. Food is described, names are given, but the ingredients are seldom discussed in detail.

After some futile search, I picked up the book of Akbar’s laws: Ain-I-Akbari. I was stunned to find that section 24 of book 1 has very detailed descriptions of food. As a legal document, it is more focused on measures than on methods of cooking. Akbar’s wazir, Abul Fazl, who wrote this, was probably somewhat of an epicure, because brief sentences about cooking and tastes seep into this otherwise dry document.

I made chaklis and sent some to a friend of mine from the North. Next day she thanked me for the delicious masala jalebis

Aruna Sheth in The New Indian Cookbook (1968)

To appreciate these descriptions we have to start with weights and measures. The most important is the seer. The British Indian version of the seer was 0.93 Kilograms and, since it was derived from the Mughal imperial measure, was probably very close to the sense in which it is used in Ain-I-Akbari. The dam is very close to 20 grams. Gold and expensive spices were measured in misqa, each of which is 6.22 grams.

The first group of foods have no meat and is called cufiyanah in this book. The ten dishes listed are Zard birinj, Khushkah, Khichri, Shir birinj, Thuli, Chikhi, Badinjan, Pahit, Sag and Halwa. Of these Zard birinj, Shir birinj, Thuli and Halwah are sweet. Pahit (made with dal, ghi and salt) is meant to be eaten with Khuskah (which is made with rice from Dewzirah or Jinjin paddy and salt and nothing else). Sag is said to be “one of the most pleasant dishes”. The book says that Zard birinj can be made sweet and without meat, or salty and with meat. 10 seers of rice for Zard birinj is said to give four ordinary dishes. This probably means that each dish is to be shared among several people. Rice, ground wheat and flour, split dal and gram are the major ingredients of these dishes. Raisins, almonds, pistachio are mentioned. So are ghee, fresh ginger, lime juice, saffron, cinnamon, round pepper, coriander seeds, cloves, cardamom, cumin seeds, and asafoetida. Sugarcandy is the only sweetener mentioned by name, but addition of milk and other sweetmeats is also allowed. These sweetmeats are only mentioned in passing. Abul Fazl also writes that there are many kinds of sugared fruits and drinks which will not be described.

The second group of foods mixes rice and meat. The complete list of ten dishes is Qabuli, Duzdbiryan, Qimah Palao, Shullah, Bughra, Qimah Shurba, Harisa, Kashk, Halim and Qutab. The source of meat is not specified in these recipes. Apart from the ingredients I listed above, onion, garlic and vinegar appear in these recipes. Carrots, beets, turnips and spinach are added to the meat and flour in making Bughra. Fennel and a flavouring agent called summaq are also mentioned. It is said that the people of Hindustan have the name sanbusah for Qutab, and it can be cooked in twenty different ways. The measures show that spices were used sparingly even in the imperial kitchen. As an example, Qutab involves 10 seers of meat, 4 seers of flour, 2 seers of ghee, 1 seer of onions, a quarter seer of fresh ginger, half a seer of salt, 2 dams of pepper, coriander and cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves and summaq, to give four dishes. That amount of meat is more than a feast today, perhaps even an invitation to a cardiac care unit.

The third group of dishes is only meat. The ten dishes mentioned are Biryan, Yakhni, Yulmah, Kabab, Musamman, Dupiyazah, Mutanjanah, Dampukht, Qalyah and Malghubah. Modern Indian cooking seems to have a false similarity to these, since our versions of Biryan involve rice. Ain-I-Akbari lists the ingredients of Biryan as a whole Dashmandi sheep with 2 seers of salt, one seer of ghi, and two misqals of saffron, cloves, pepper and cumin seeds. The specified meats are sheep, lamb, kid and “fowls”. K. T. Achaya mentions that quail, pheasant and other wild fowl appeared on Mughal tables. Most of these are cooked in ghee, but fat trimmed from the meat is prescribed for Dupiyazah and Mutanjanah. The book digresses from measures to tell us that for Qalyah the meat is minced and the gravy is thick, in contrast to Mutanjanah. Kababs are said to be of various kinds, and involve relatively large measures of the spices already mentioned. The Malghubah calls for equal measures of meat and curds. This is the only time curds appear in this list.

In my search for authentic historical origins of modern Indian food, I have finally found one little bit of solid ground.