A Shah Ja­han-era cook­book takes us back to a time when food was art

India Today - - LEISURE - —Arund­hati Ray

Abook that claims to doc­u­ment “recipes from Shah Ja­han’s cook­book” cre­ates a high de­gree of ex­pec­ta­tion amongst in­ter­ested read­ers. Hap­pily for them, Salma Yusuf Hu­sain’s The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Em­peror

Shah Ja­han, a tran­scre­ation of Nuskha-e-Shah­ja­hani, the hand­writ­ten Per­sian recipe book from Shah Ja­han’s reign, does not dis­ap­point.

The text is a fas­ci­nat­ing voy­age into the so­phis­ti­cated, multi-faceted culi­nary cus­toms and creations that were cel­e­brated and nur­tured in the court of the fifth Mughal em­peror. The recipes are enough to en­chant the senses with their gen­er­ous use of spices, herbs and fruit and nuts. There are also a host of exotic el­e­ments like be­tel nuts, be­tel leaves, Fuller’s earth and san­dal­wood to bring out the best in the meats, fish, veg­eta­bles and grains that they dress. Dishes range from the fa­mil­iar tikka ke­bab to exotic savoury creations like the shishranga saib chash­nidar (mashed ap­ples in sugar syrup topped with eggs and slow cooked).

We see the Mughal pen­chant for fus­ing in­tense sweet with the earthy flavours of lamb and other meats and their love for ex­trav­a­gant com­bi­na­tions (reshteh pu­lao, for in­stance, is an en­sem­ble built of sweet­ened strips of bread and lamb pu­lao, redo­lent of warm­ing spices like green car­damom, cloves and cin­na­mon). The Mughals’ strong Timurid an­ces­try ap­pears in the pres­ence of cen­tral Asian sta­ples like noo­dles (of­ten in com­bi­na­tion with rice, like in the keshteleh lamb pu­lao). In­ter­est­ingly, even though the Por­tuguese had ar­rived, new world in­gre­di­ents, like to­mato, potato and chilli, were yet to make their de­but in this royal fare.

The in­tro­duc­tion paints a colour­ful pic­ture of Mughal life­style where food—its prepa­ra­tion, serv­ing, en­joy­ment—was re­fined to the sta­tus of fine art. There is an anec­dote which il­lus­trates Shah Ja­han as a pas­sion­ate con­nois­seur of man­goes. He would weigh the man­goes him­self, tak­ing great joy from the exercise. On one oc­ca­sion when one of his sons failed to send him his favourite man­goes from the Dec­can, eat­ing all of them him­self in­stead, Shah Ja­han flew into a ter­ri­fy­ing rage. Another tells of how Shah Ja­han, im­pris­oned dur­ing the last years of his life by Au­rangzeb and, al­lowed to se­lect one in­gre­di­ent, chose chick­peas be­cause it can be pre­pared in myr­iad ways.

Hu­sain has tried to ad­here to the Per­sian orig­i­nal, but has tweaked the recipes to make them suitable for con­tem­po­rary kitchens. Yet, even if one never plans to try out th­ese bad­shahi dishes, there is much plea­sure to be de­rived from a slow, savour­ing read of the elab­o­rate, sen­su­ous recipes and from browsing the ex­quis­ite paint­ings of Mughal court life that are in­ter­leaved be­tween the pages. ■

LIFE OF BADSHAHS (from left) Shah Ja­han watch­ing an elephant fight; sit­ting on the pea­cock throne; and a feast on the bal­cony

Recipes from the Kitchen of Em­peror Shah Ja­han by Salma Yusuf Hu­sain ROLI BOOKS `1,495; 224 pages THE MUGHAL FEAST

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