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.

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