My mum’s reaction to Mughlai food reflects a common response to this royal cuisine. Although we’re both Indian, she’s not a fan of the oleaginous slop that many cooks serve up, and she usually has to be cajoled into coming out to what will inevitably turn out to be a dinner of biryani and koftas heaving with fat. She’ll usually make a face, only grudgingly acquiescing after several rounds of sweet talking, often beginning from the day before. And if there’s chicken on the menu, she’ll need to be positively bribed by a special treat of some kind.
She’s a hard bird to please, so imagine my surprise when she pronounced a recent iftar of this dreaded fare totally worth going back to.
I won’t lie: iftar at Taj Dubai’s Bombay Brasserie is substantial, and liberally employs fat, nuts, dry fruit and yes, gold leaf. But thanks to judiciously sized servings, we leave the restaurant full and sated — but even after nine dishes, we aren’t so stuffed that we want to be rolled out the door.
But the meal is also a revelation of sorts, and armchair food anthropologists will find themselves fascinated by the experience. For Ramadan this year, the hotel’s executive chef, Jitin Joshi, and his team claim to have recreated the fare that could have been placed before Shah Jahan, one of India’s most refined rulers and the aesthete who had the Taj Mahal built in memory of his wife.
“When my colleague talked about this project he’d been interested in, it ticked all the boxes,” Joshi told tabloid! at the hotel. “It’s grand, luxurious, celebratory food that you’d eat on a special occasion — that’s what Ramadan is about. We’re going right back to the 17th century with this menu.”
Rolling back the years
Through a procession of meat and fish dishes served family-style at the table — there’s nothing for vegetarians — Joshi and his team are hoping to take diners back through the centuries for a taste of life in the golden age of the Mughal empire. Founded by Babur in 1526, the empire reached its apogee in the 17th century, before declining over the next hundred years. Mughlai food is the staggering array of culinary innovations produced for these emperors, particularly for Shah Jahan, his father Jahangir and grandfather Akbar, who would have meals going up to 100 courses.
Their source literature lies in a ten-volume tome documenting the methods of the royal kitchens, and thought to have been written down between 1626 and 1658, when Shah Jahan was on the Peacock Throne. How they found the recipes and reconstructed them with today’s ingredients is a fascinating yarn in itself.
Sous chef and history buff Thoufeek Zakriya, who grew up in the ancient South Indian harbour city of Cochin, has spent years tracing the origins of different recipes, beginning with the cuisine of his native Kerala. “You can find more than 22 different cultures on the island of Cochin, and people from all over the world visit the city. When I was growing up, I would interact with a lot of them. That’s why I became interested in history,” he says, by way of explanation of his fascination with the history of food. “And because I’ve always liked in cooking, I’ve tried to put them together.”
For the Taj, he turned to the Nushka-e-Shahjahani (or Recipes of Shah Jahan), a handwritten chronicle of all the dishes being served at the royal tables. “A portion of the manuscript is in the British Library and another copy in the Madras Archives,” he tells tabloid! Each chapter of the book, also called Naan-o-namak (literally, bread and salt) deals with a different section of the meal, but because they couldn’t find the entire manuscript, the final menu relies both on other sources and on kitchen experiments.
Some reference material appeared to be available, if not necessarily easy to come by. The chapter on rice dishes, for example, had already been translated into English by the author Salma Husain, but they couldn’t track down the book. “It’s out of stock everywhere — the copy we got finally came from a Pakistani contact,” says Joshi. He’d have done well to ask the chefs at Ashiana, over at the Sheraton Dubai Creek for their copy — for a biryani festival in 2005, the restaurant served several dishes from Husain’s book.
Lost in translation
The next hurdle? The book was in Persian, the official language of the empire, but liberally employed Urdu words. Zakriya, who is familiar with the scripts for Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, as well as several Indian languages because of a passion for calligraphy, was able to translate much of the work. “Some of the Urdu words I couldn’t translate at all — because they’re no more in existence,” he says. Dictionaries didn’t help, neither could contemporary speakers of the language. “The word jugaarth, for instance, means yoghurt. But I couldn’t get the meaning. It’s not in use any more. So I tried to think what it could mean, how the ingredient was used.”
Sourcing ingredients were another problem. At four million square kilometres, the Mughal empire was the second-largest in the history of the subcontinent, and the largest in (relatively) recent times. Ingredients would come from its farthest corners, and would be combined with other ingredients by any of a motley army of cooks in the royal kitchen. (Under Akbar and Shah Jahan, food was an entire department, headed by a bureaucrat who reported to the prime minister.)
The Kaliyan shirazi on Joshi’s menu, incredibly delicate braised lamb shanks infused with saffron, apricots, almonds and pistachios, refers to the 4,000-year-old city of Shiraz, an ancient centre for spices and dried fruit. A Do piyaza badnijan Rajputi, lamb mince topped with thinly sliced aubergines, takes its name from the people of modern-day Rajasthan, but its similarity to moussaka suggests it could easily have originally come from the Mediterranean. Hotel kitchens in Dubai may be able to import from all over the world, but some things just aren’t available today thanks to either political problems or processing methods.
“Most vegetables for the Mughal kitchen came from Kashmir, almost impossible to source produce from today. Everything was organic. And then certain recipes called for incredibly detailed ingredients, specfying whether the meat to be used should come from a black or white goat, and the fat sourced from male or female lambs,” says Joshi, whose own training in continental food helped.
“Today nobody bothers with the kind of potato used in an alu paratha, for instance, but if you were making a classic French mash, you’d want to use Maris Pipers,” he adds. “But these early recipes indicate how incredibly detailed Indian food can be in terms of techniques and ingredients. That detail has disappeared, and in some ways I wish we hadn’t left the seventeenth century.”
So he and his team, led by Bombay Brasserie’s Ajay Negi, ran experiments. And then they junked the results and started again. For the kebab baida murgh, a marinated chicken kebab coated with egg white and glazed with goat fat, Joshi simply rolled the meat in grated egg (a recipe for which appears in the Good Food & Fine Recipes Ramadan cookbook, out on the stands now). “But that was just a little too dry. So we wrapped the partially cooked meat in egg whites beaten to the stiff peaks needed for meringues,” he says. The result is soft, gently spiced meat in a silky wrapping that sees my chicken-hating, Mughlai food-eschewing mother ask for seconds. That has never been known to happen. Suffice to say this menu is nothing like Mughlai food you’ve eaten anywhere else.
Royal Refinement Reviewed
One famous yarn about Roman gluttony concerned the way they dined. Having partaken of a lavish feast that was brought to them in a procession of courses, they’d trundle off to a corner and upchuck the lot. Seneca says they’d come back and sit down to start eating all over again. The Mughals, who presided over an equally rich and bountiful empire, were a little more refined, and simply left the table (or dropped into a food coma) once they’d finished eating.
That refinement shows up in all the recipes being served at Taj Dubai’s nine-dish plated iftar. The kebab baida murgh, a minced chicken kebab wrapped in a fluffy egg white omelette, is cooked twice, but yet manages to fall apart on the tongue. A gentle heat lingers afterwards, but if more variety were needed with each bite, two chutneys accompany it — of mango and red pepper. The Aash Badrun, a thick soup made from lamb trotters, flavoured with green cardamom and ginger, is a rich and hearty broth that’s also gentle enough to sip like tea, and makes for the perfect start to an iftar.
You taste the Yakhni Teh Bala, a kofta pulao cooked with goat stock and ghee, with your nose first — its rich aroma wafts across the table well before it even touches the plate. And because it’s cooked in stock, you’ll keep going back for more. The star, if there has to be just one, is the Shiraz-style braised lamb shanks, cooked with nuts and dried apricots. The meat is so tender it’s almost desperate to leave the bone, and the gravy has a luxuriant, elevating quality about it, while hinting at its origins along the Silk Route. Even the dessert, the classic Phirni or rice pudding, has been lifted to a new high.
If this was truly a banquet for a Mughal emperor, there’d need to be at least one hundred dishes on the menu, according to the historian and cookbook author Salma Husain, but thankfully for our already over-extended stomachs the hotel limits itself to nine. What you’re left with is the incredible subtlety of these very complex dishes. Several excite entirely different sets of taste buds at the same time, and occasionally a hint of spice might linger on the palate. It’s a far cry from the greasy mash-up that passes for Mughlai fare in most restaurants.
My main quibble? Everything comes garnished with gold leaf — which although probably authentic, is the only bit that feels a little over the top. But then, this is Dubai, so tuck in without guilt.
Where: Bombay Brasserie, Taj Dubai
Four source books for Indian food history fix, as suggested by Chef Thoufeek Zakriya
- Nuskha-e-Shahjahani (Recipes of Shah Jahan). Divided into 10 chapters, covering omelettes, meats, mashes and so on, this handwritten volume is pretty much unavailable, except at the British Library and the Madras Archives. The chapter on rice dishes, translated by Salma Husain, is unavailable online, but could be sourced by local bookshops
- Nimat namah (Book of Delicacies/ Pleasures). From the royal kitchen of Sultan Giyath Shah, of Malwa in present-day Madhya Pradesh, the book was completed during his son Nasirudheen Shah’s reign. A copy is at the University of Minnesota.
- Ain-i-Akbari (Constitution of Akbar) The third volume of the famous Akbarnama or Book of Akbar, it has a fair amount of detail on the recipes in use during Akbar’s reign, about 50 years before Shah Jahan. It is currently housed in the Hazarduari Palace in West Bengal.
- The Emperor’s Table by Salma Husain. Perhaps the easiest way to access Mughal food, this book tells how the cuisine evolved from its Central Asian roots to incorporate influences from Iran, the Middle East and South Asia. $13.95 on Amazon.