'The Mughal Feast': unravelling the mysterious history of the emperors' cuisine

Learn of feasts from the court of Shah Jahan in a new book of royal recipes

Detail of Figures from Mughal Painting with Man and Attendant   (Photo by Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
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Two hundred years after their rule ended, the great Mughals remain an ever-present theme in Indian life. The dynasty of emperors of Central Asian descent – beginning with Babur in 1526, and including Akbar (who dreamt of a blend of Islam and Hinduism called Din-e-Elahi) and Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) – at their zenith, ruled over a state bigger than India today.

The dynasty has been much studied by modern historians, but many mysteries about the Mughals remain, such as how their rule in India had transformed local tastes and culinary practices.

Food is in some ways the most common and prosaic expression of material culture. But there is still very little information in the public domain about Mughal cuisine. Unlike architecture, which often survives hundreds of years, and fashion, which is depicted in pictures in intricate detail, food is a much more elusive subject for historians.

Cooks then were unlettered and worked not from recipe books, but by assimilating practical knowledge in the kitchen. The textual sources describing food tended to be from those who were eating it, not cooking it. Even the feasts one sees in period paintings can be deceptive. Was this everyday food or the food of celebrations? A picture of reality or an idealised image meant to project power and pomp?

So it is delightful to browse through The Mughal Feast, a book by food historian and Persian scholar Salma Husain, who is based in Delhi. She has earned a reputation in India as something of a specialist on the Mughal cuisine.

'The Mughal Feast' by Salma Husain. Roli Books / Lustre Press
'The Mughal Feast' by Salma Husain. Roli Books / Lustre Press

Husain's previous book, The Emperor's Table (2008), was a broad survey of Mughal culinary practice culled from various textual sources. The Mughal Feast is based on one of the primary sources of the period, Nuskha-e-Shahjahani (recipes from the age of Shah Jahan), a book written by unknown authors in Persian. The copy of the recipe book was recently attained in the British Library by Pramod Kapoor, an Indian publisher and founder of Roli Books.

Shah Jahan’s reign is in many ways an ideal period to study Mughal cuisine. The fifth of the great Mughals, he ruled between 1627 and 1658, in what Husain calls “a period of peace and plenty”. It was a time for the creative arts to flourish – and nowhere more so than in the kitchen.

There are more than 30 recipes in the book for different kinds of pulao

Shah Jahan was a great gourmand, writes Husain in an introductory essay. His mealtimes – always spent with his queens and concubines, except at official banquets – were prepared and served by a staff numbering in the hundreds, and often lasted for hours. The food "was cooked in rainwater mixed with water brought in from the Ganges for the best possible taste".

The mainstays of Mughal food, the book describes, are rice and meat, cooked in three or four different styles and in dozens of fascinating combinations. This was no ordinary meat either, for the livestock also ate like royals.

“Sheep, goats and fowls were maintained by the kitchen,” writes Husain, “and were given a special diet mixed with aromatic herbs, silver, gold, pearls, saffron marble mixed with sugar, perfumed grass to get pleasant-smelling flesh from the animals. Cows were fed with cotton seeds, sugarcane, nutmeg, coconut, cinnamon, pulses, partridge eggs and bamboo leaves.”

Husain says it was under the Mughals that cooking rice in the subcontinent transformed into a fine art. The Nuskha-e-Shahjahani proves as much. There are more than 30 recipes in the book for different kinds of pulao – a single-pot rice dish that incorporates meat, vegetables and spices.

Delhi-based food historian and Persian scholar Salma Husain has written two books on Mughal cuisine. Courtesy Salma Husain
Delhi-based food historian and Persian scholar Salma Husain has written two books on Mughal cuisine. Courtesy Salma Husain

A repeated instruction throughout the book is to "finish with dum". Dum means steam, and the cooking style is still practised throughout kitchens and restaurants across India. It is the art of partially finishing the cooking process on a low flame in a pot sealed with dough. Cooks then apply heat to both the base of the pot and the top using some hot charcoal. The ingredients are then left to cook in their own juices, intensifying the flavour and producing a blast of aroma when the dough is peeled off.

Another interesting feature of the recipes – and a testament to the Persian origins of the Mughals – is the minimal use of spices for flavour. There is an abundance of fresh and dried fruits and nuts in the recipes. Raisins, almonds and pistachios are often ground to prepare rich gravies, and saffron is used to add both aroma and colour.

A few recipes are so deliciously decadent, it is evident they could only be served at an emperor's table

A few recipes are so deliciously decadent, it is evident they could only be served at an emperor's table. These include the pukhtan-e-qaaz or whole grilled goose flavoured with spices. The meat in this dish undergoes four separate bastings (once with sandalwood powder) and washings before it is stuffed with lamb mince and grilled on live charcoal, then basted once more with almond paste.The Mughal kings loved sweet and sour flavours. Many meat dishes are cooked in sugar syrup, and oranges and mangoes often feature in main courses rather than dessert. Readers will also note the absence of potatoes, tomatoes and chillies – three staples of most Indian cuisines today. In fact, they were introduced to the country by the Portuguese, and were, at the time, yet to become widely available.

Recipes such as this make even the phrase "feast fit for a king" seem like an understatement. Yet, even Shah Jahan, Husain reminds us, did not eat this way all his life. Embroiled in a dispute over succession among his sons in his later years, the emperor was imprisoned by one of them – the austere and spartan Aurangzeb, who disapproved of all excesses.

The very emperor who had feasted on the most varied and delicious food in the world was, legend has it, condemned by his son to eat one staple. Shah Jahan chose chickpeas because of the many ways it can be cooked.

The opulent Mughal feast described in the pages of Husain's book may have lasted for hours on end, but it eventually became a poignant memory, even for the man whose reign it symbolised.