A History of Mughal Cuisine through Cookbooks

On any given weekend, my head is usually occupied with the thoughts of food. The tastebuds have been working over time for a year now – ever since I started following my friend Richa’s amazing food stories. Turns out that Kings and Royalty had a thing for food too. The cookbooks of Akbar, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb give us an idea of the history of Mughal cuisine. Apart from royal food, you also get to look into their kitchen! For instance, the Ain-i-Akbari mentions that during the reign of Akbar, there was a Minister for Kitchen! He had his own budget, an independent accounts department and ran an army of cooks, tasters, attendants, bearers and other sundry designations. It is true – there was a time when people really lived to eat (and life sounded like Harry Potter books)!

Noor Jahan’s plate: The edge of the plate is decorated with a lotus design made of gold thread rubies, emeralds and green glass inlays. Photo: Sotheby’s.

In fact, as per Mughal traditions, food formed a part of the gift-giving culture and laid the rules for diplomatic etiquette. The gifting and sharing of food could at various times convey messages of friendship and goodwill, status and power. The location, occasion, mode of presentation and the nature of food item – all had a bearing on the messages conveyed. The importance of food in political intercourse is illustrated by way of a “farman” issued by the Shah of Iran to the Governor highlighting the arrangements that were to be made to welcome Humayun.

Shah of Iran with Humayun : enjoying a feast and festivity

The farman read : “Every day have ḥalwā and delicious beverages with white bread (nān- hā-i safed) kneaded with oil and milk and containing caraway seeds, poppy seeds and nuts – the addition of which makes bread fine and wholesome (lat̤īf o nāfiʿ) – prepared and delivered to the emperor, to the members of his retinue and to the servants of the court…when they arrive have served rose sherbet prepared with lemon syrup and chilled with ice and snow. After the sherbet have served marmalades of Mashhad apples, watermelon, plums etc. with white-flour breads (nān-hā-i safed maida) made in accordance with prior instructions, and try to have all beverages passed before the emperor’s sight, and have them mixed with rose-water and ambergris so that they will taste and smell good. Serve five hundred dishes of various foods everyday”

During a course at the Smithsonian, I learnt about decoding the past using a cookbook. So it was particularly fun to see art-work from recipe-books from our country. It’s another thing that I really did feel like going back into the past to eat!  The earliest evidence of India’s culinary history dates back to a 12th century book from the Chalukya dynasty, though for this post, I will stick to Mughal cuisine and its roots. This, because it was the Mughal kitchen that changed the very way and average Indian thought about food. Under their patronage, culinary arts were illustrated beautifully and found place in the  calligraphed royal memoirs.

The Ni’matnama-i Nasir al-Din Shah, 1495-1505 [British Library] :  All the miniatures depict Sultan G̱ẖiyās̤ Shāh at the centre of their narrative. This text differs in terms of the recipes it describes.
Mughal cuisine, however, finds its roots in the Delhi Sultanate, which takes us back to the 15th century manuscript, Ni’matnama (The Book of Delights). The most famous cook-book till date, it contains the recipes of the eccentric Sultan of Mandu (Madhya Pradesh), Ghiyath Shahi, collected and added to by his son and successor, Nasir Shah. The recipes include a variety of delicacies and epicurean delights, as well as providing remedies and aphrodisiacs for the Sultan and his court. It also includes important sections on the preparation of betel leaves as well as advice on the logistics of hunting expeditions and warfare.

A cook frying sanbusa (Samosa) for the Sultan.

Here are some recipes from the Ni’matnama ( the measures have been converted for ease):

Samosa [I think it’s equivalent to present-day Fried Momos / Wantons] :

You will need:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons butter, cold, cubed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup water, cold
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1 pinch asofeotida
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 large onion, minced
1 pound lamb shoulder, ground or cubed 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ginger, ground
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted

*The method for samosas of tender meat of mountain sheep (parbatī) or of deer: mince (the meat) finely (f.3b) and add turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, cardamom and cloves and mix them together. *Flavour sweet-smelling ghee with asafoetida.
*When the ghee has become well-flavoured, put the mince in it and leave it so that it becomes well-cooked.
*Add lime juice and pepper and then put in a quarter of a sīr of dried ginger (zanjabīl) and one sīr of chopped onion and remove it.
*Add one rattī of camphor and one rattī of musk. Prepare a few large samosas and a few small ones the size of one mouthful.
*Having stuffed them with the mince, fry them in sweet-smelling ghee and, when they are to be eaten, sprinkle them with vinegar or lime juice.
*Serve them and eat them.

Pilaf and Saffron meat:

You will need:

1 tablespoon ghee
1 pinch saffron threads
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds 1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup long-grain brown rice 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 drops rosewater
1 tablespoon shredded coconut

*Wash the meat well and, having put sweet-smelling ghee into a cooking pot, put the meat into it.
*When the ghee is hot, flavour it with saffron, rosewater and camphor. Mix the meat with the saffron to flavour it and when it has become well-marinated, add a quantity of water.
*Chop cardamoms, cloves, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cassia, cumin and fenugreek, tie them up in muslin and put them with the meat.
*Cook almonds, pine kernels, pistachios, and raisins in tamarind syrup and add them to the meat. Put in rosewater, camphor, musk and ambergris and serve it. By the same method cook partridge, quail, chicken and pigeon.

Marinated Chicken Kababs

2 pounds chicken thighs, ground or minced 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon basil, fresh, minced
1 tablespoon mint, fresh, minced
1 tablespoon parsley, fresh, minced
1 tablespoon lime juice, fresh
1 tablespoon safflower oil
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, fresh, minced

*Another recipe is for skewered meat for use where fires are available, either for taghran (game birds) or sheep meat.
*First of all, cut the meat very finely, wash it with … good water and boil it.
*Add salt, asofeotida and chopped potherbs and boil it.
*If it has become well-cooked, tie it with thread and marinate it with all kinds of potherbs mixed with lime juice.
*Leave it in one place for several hours and then roast it.

A Spice Mixture that Can be added to Any Dish

Four parts rosewater, ten parts white hibiscus, 20 parts cardamom, one part cloves and four parts mace

Sherbet Recipe

Another recipe for sherbet: mince coconut and leave it (to soak) in sweetened water. Strain off the coconut milk and, if desired, put the syrup in it and also mangoes if so wished. Add fresh ginger, onions, lime juice, cardamoms, cloves, pepper, turmeric and fenugreek and flavor it with asafoetida. Then drink it with bhāt [cooked rice or maize].

The sweet, cooling drink sherbet, shown served to the Sultan in this Book of Delights detail, left, was made with ice brought from distant mountains.

The origin of many delicacies such as the khichṛī (a dish of rice and lentils), palīv (pulāʾo, or a dish with rice, meat and other ingredients), sīḵẖ (skewered meat or fish), yaḵẖnī (spiced meat broth) and kabāb (skewered or roast meat),  kaṛhī (a yoghurt or sour milk based dish combined with chickpea flour), pīccha (a dish prepared by adding ingredients to the surplus water that is left in the pot after cooking rice or other grains) and khaṇḍawī (swollen parched grain) are attributed to Indo-Persian diet which is outlined in the Ni’matnama.

The uniqueness of the Ni’matnama lies in its form as well as its subject matter. The manuscript, preserved in the India Office Library in London, has fifty miniature paintings, and many of the faces in the paintings are painted in profile, as opposed to the Persian practice of painting in half-profile. These paintings represent some of the earliest paintings from Muslim courts of the Deccan and hence are early predecessors of numerous paintings of the Dakhni style from later periods. The text is written in bold naskh script, characteristic of Mandu calligraphy.

Women Cooking : Sultanate Period

As far as content is concerned, the book lies outside the usual gamut of medieval Persian literature, which mostly comprises of political chronicles and pure fiction. As for the field pertaining to the history of cuisine is concerned, the Nimatnama is an invaluable source for obvious reasons. While other Persian sources mention feasts and banquets, and even food, in passing, this is the only text from the medieval period dedicated entirely to the subject.

In 1498, the first Europeans arrived off the Malabar coast, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama opened up the sea route to the Indies (India). Twenty-eight years later Babur, the first great Mughal, invaded India from the north. These two events were to have a lasting impact on India’s culinary culture.

Served on the platter : Indo-Persian recipes

The Ni’matnama also mentions the betel or “paan” and its advantages.

Betel being prepared for the Sultan.

Mughal cuisine was shaped by all kinds of influences: Iranian, Afghani, and Persian, (because of the dynasty’s Central Asian roots) mixed in with Kashmiri, Punjabi and a touch of the Deccan. Each Emperor also had his favourites. Babur did not like Indian food when he arrived, preferring the fresh meat and fruits of his native Samarkand and created lots of kitchen-gardens. But he loved fish, which he did not get back home.

A banquet including roast goose given to Babur by the Mirzas (1507)

Humayun’s Iranian wife introduced sophistication into the Mughal kitchen with saffron and dry fruits in the first half of the 16th century, while Akbar — thanks to his many alliances — introduced the Indian flavours. In fact, Akbar was vegetarian three times a week, and had his own kitchen garden which he nourished with rosewater, so that the vegetables would smell fragrant when cooked. Shah Jahan is credited with adding new spices to the cuisine. Shortly after he shifted his capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad, he was informed that the drinking water in the new city was making his subjects sick. That’s when the king ordered that food be cooked with more haldi, red chillies, cumin and coriander, for their medicinal properties. European influences also made an appearance: apparently, Noor Jehan had curd set in seven moulds with rainbow-coloured fruit juices and garnished her dishes with floral patterns made with powdered and glazed rice paste! Aurangzeb, said to be the most devout of the emperors, was a vegetarian for most of his life.  The Rukat-e-Alamgiri, a book with letters from Aurangzeb to his son, show that the ruler loved Qubooli, a type of mega-biryani with rice, Bengal gram, died apricot, basil, almond and curd.

Male cooks mincing meat : Ni’matnama

Despite the contributions of all Mughal Emperors and their love for food, it is only in Ain-i-Akbari (written by the court historian Abdul Fazl) that gives us a peek into 30 different recipes and royal-appetite. To appreciate and understand the Mughal recipes, here’s a cheat-sheet to the measures:

1 s (ser) is roughly 900g

1 m (misqal) is 6g.

1 Dam = 20g

Murg zamindoz, from Akbar’s era,  was an amalgamation of Akbar and his Rajput wife Jodha Bai’s cooking traditions. While the chicken, a Mughal delicacy is spiced, it was wrapped in a dough and cooked under the earth with some charcoal in the traditional Rajasthani technique of cooking vegetables.

Recipe for Zard Birinj 

Zard birinj. 10 s. of rice; 5 s. of sugarcandy; 3½ s. of g’hí; raisins, almonds, and pistachios, ½ s. of each; ¼ s. of salt; 1/8s. of fresh ginger; 1½ dáms saffron, 2½ misqáls of cinnamon. This will make four ordinary dishes. Some make this dish with fewer spices, and even without any: and instead of without meat and sweets, they prepare it also with meat and salt. Read more recipes in Ain-i-Akbari.

Golden Spoon used by Noor Jahan

The Nusḵẖa-i Shāhjahānī or the Nān u Namak records the recipes of dishes prepared in Emperor Shahjahan’s (r. 1627-1658) kitchen.

Nuskhah-yi Shah-Jahani (‘Shah Jahan’s Book’) 18th century: This very rare manuscript contains recipes for breads, soups, pulaos, kebabs, fish dishes, samosas, sweets, and so on. The Persian title suggests that these are the very delicacies prepared for the emperor Shah Jahan. Credit: British Library

It contains ten chapters, on nān- hā (breads), āsh-hā (pottages), qalīyas and dopiyāzas (dressed meat dish- es), bhartas (also bhurta; mashes), zerbiryāns (a kind of layered rice-based dish), pulāʾo, kabābs, harīsas (savoury porridge), shishrangas and ḵẖāgīnas (omelette), and khichṛī. The last chapter covers murabbā (jams), achār (pickles), pūrī (fried bread), shīrīnī (sweets), ḥalwā (warm pudding) and finally some basic recipes for yoghurt, the preparation of panīr (Indian curd cheese) and for the colouring of butter and dough.

The Ḵẖulāṣat-i Mākūlāt u Mashrūbāt  from Audangzeb’s time (r. 1656-1707) is divided into 40 bābs (chapters) with each bāb devoted to a particular category of dishes. The first chapter is on various varieties of breads (nān and kulcha) and subsequent chapters deal with qalīyas and dopiyāzas, bhartas, kabābs, khichṛī, zerbiryāns, achār and various sweetmeats.  It includes many of the usual recipes for various varieties of breads, qalīyas, dopiyāzas, bhartas, kabābs, rice dishes such as tā̤ hirīs, pulāʾos, zerbiryāns, and khichṛīs, as well as ḵẖāgīnas, achārs, and ḥalwās.

A Khichdi recipe from Aurangzeb’s time:

…start with fried garlic, into which onion rings, cinnamon, and other spices are added and again fried. Then cumin is added, following which the whole mixture is removed from the heat. The dāl mūng (mungbean pulses) is then fried in that ghee, and the ghee is drained. Rice is added to the dāl (pulses or len- tils) and mixed well. The spice mixture mentioned earlier is added to this, along with hot water and ginger. Ghee is added and the dish is sealed and slow-cooked to finish.

I hope you enjoyed the post. The next time you are asked “What do you want for dinner?”, you can totally whip out a recipe from Mughal times!

Miniature of a portable coffee stall dated to 1582, taken from Sürname-i Hümayun (Imperial Festival Book), where the artisans of the coffee maker/seller participating in the festival procession were depicted in great detail. Source: Nurhan Atasoy, 1582 Surname-i Hümayun: Dügün Kitabi

#FunFact back when Chandni Chowk in Delhi was Shahjahanabad, the place had multiple Qahwa-shops. The elite would go for coffee almost everyday, and discuss poetry, politics, etc.

#FunFact2: Shah Jahan did not like to eat with the British merchants because they did not wash their hands before and after meals, drank water during the course of a meal and used tissue paper in the lavatory.

#FunFact3: Meals began with the recitation of the Bismillah-e Rahaman-e-Rahim — In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful. And they ended by Emperors prostrating themselves before God. In the zenana, the chief queen generally presided over the meal, though the harem residents were free to eat in their own quarters unless the emperor joined them on some special occasion. The ladies ended their meals with the exclamation, “Shukr Allah” Thanks be to God.

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