Author and food historian Salma Yusuf Husain is an expert on Mughal cuisine and has recently published a cookbook that lists recipes from Shah Jahan’s royal kitchen. She speaks to Ritika Raj.
Q. The Mughals made significant contributions to various streams of Indian culture—ranging from arts, architecture and literature to, equally importantly, food. We read in your book that Shah Jahan’s kitchen was “an exhibition ground for boundless creative energy and culinary finesse”. How central a role did the culinary arts play in that era?
A. The silver twilight of the Mughal civilization began with Shah Jahan. He was not made for the glories of conquest; he regarded war as inhuman and was not a great general himself. His reign was essentially a period of peace, in which literature flourished, education made mighty strides, architecture, painting, poetry and music progressed by leaps and bounds. Shahjahanabad, the 17th-century Mughal capital, was home to an urbane, sophisticated court which had taste, even elegance. Shah Jahan’s hospitality was legendary and he enjoyed showing off his power and wealth to the outside world, to the dignitaries who visited his court seeking favours. With the advent of so many other arts and crafts at this time, cuisine also developed into a fine art. Food was used to exhibit the power, wealth and richness of Mughal culture.
Q. Why do you think Mughal cuisine has lost its essence and identity in our time? And what efforts need to be made to preserve it?
A. Today, what is labelled as Mughal cuisine is a far cry from the original and traditional Mughal food, which was brought to this country and developed by the Mughals. Documented details on food from the Mughal era—like Ain-I-Akbariwritten by Abu’l-Fazl; Alwan-I-Nematfrom Jahangir’s era; and Nuskha-I-Shahjahani—very much bear witness to the fact that their food was not masked with sauces and spices, but was healthy and balanced. It was prepared with the few spices that were available back then. The food was made exotic and aromatic by using dry fruits and aromatic herbs. Chefs from different regions made Mughal dishes exotic with their creativity.
The need of the hour is to educate people and let them understand what Mughal food really was. For this purpose, it’s very important to translate their original writings on food. Similarly, hotels of repute should organise festivals of traditional Mughal food to promote this cuisine.
Q. How did Mughal cuisine evolve under Shah Jahan?
A. Shah Jahan’s relationship with the Portuguese led to the introduction of new ingredients in the royal kitchen, like chilli. Also, vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes appeared on the scene and the food culture of the imperial kitchen became rich in colour, varied in variety and hot in taste as compared to the bland food of Shah Jahan’s ancestors. Besides kababsand qaliyas, vegetables in different garbs, European cakes and puddings adorned the tables of the Red Fort.
Q. What about Shah Jahan’s successors? Did they lose interest in food? They were certainly not as committed as Shah Jahan was to the cause of popularising and transforming Mughal cuisine.
A. Shah Jahan inherited his passion for food from his grandfather and contributed towards the development of the royal cuisine. Also, Shah Jahan’s reign was a peaceful one, where culture and cuisine flourished. But after Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, who was mainly involved in military campaigns, had no time for and no interest in the finer things in life.
Q. What can food teach us about the history, culture and heritage of a particular age?
A. The history and growth of cuisine is intangible heritage, prone to vanishing over time. In fact, cuisine is an essential aspect of our culture. We draw our food habits from the terrain we inhabit, our seasons and our festivals. Our food is therefore linked to our daily life.
The advent of Muslim rule between the 10th and 11th centuries resulted in a great fusion of various culinary traditions, and the culinary art reached its peak of sophistication. This development is crucial to our understanding of the history and heritage of the ancient and medieval periods in India.
Q. Do Indian historians take the subject of food seriously enough? Why is the history of food such a neglected field of research in India?
A. It is not true that the history of cuisine is neglected in India. Many writers and researcher are coming up with new books on the subject and Indian food itself has taken the world by storm. Books such as Indian Food: A Historical Companion by K. T. Achaya, Flavours of Spice by Marryam H. Reshii, and Matter of Taste (edited by Nilanjana S. Roy) are some that deal with the subject seriously.
Indian cuisine reflects an 8,000-year history of various groups and cultures that interacted with the Indian subcontinent. This is what led to the diversity of flavours and regional cuisines found in modern India. Later, trade with the British and the Portuguese influence added to the already diverse history of Indian cuisine. The history of Indian food is interesting due to its diversity and it has attracted many researchers.
Q. What inspired you to write The Mughal Feast?
A. My passion for food, and my wish to make use of the language I had learnt to explore the history of food from the Mughal era. To bring to light the lost legacy of Mughal cuisine. To introduce the present generations to it.
Q. What challenges did you face while researching this book? Which archival sources have you referred to?
A. Translating the recipes from the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani was a challenging task. While translating the recipes, I wondered if this book, and these recipes, would be accepted by the present generations. But the fear disappeared as I went on with the translation and as I tried out some of the recipes included here.
Q. Is this the first Mughal cookbook ever published? Is your book targeted at the general reader or at historians and researchers?
A. Ain-e-Akbari, an account of emperor Akbar’s reign written by Abu’l-Fazl, has a detailed record of kitchen management of that era, with names of dishes, vegetables available then and their prices. But it does not have recipes and therefore can’t be called a cookbook.
Alwan-e-Nemat is the first such cookbook. It comes from Jahangir’s period, and includes detailed recipes. Then, Nuskha-e-Shahjahani is a complete cookbook from Shah Jahan’s period, which has been translated and published by Roli Books. There is no written account or recorded history of cuisine from the later phases of the Mughal era.
Q. What was Shah Jahan’s favourite dish? And what’s yours from the Mughal era?
A. As the manuscript [of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani] mentions several pulaos of different kinds, it appears that the emperor enjoyed rice dishes more than other preparations. In the later part of his life, he ate a lot of chick peas and was rather satisfied with it.
My favourite dish from that time is Amba Pulao.