12 Nov, 2006, 0125 hrs IST,Vikram Doctor,
Dalrymple’s ‘The Last Mughal’ has been acclaimed for its depiction of the 1857 Rising including rarely used Indian sources. Almost as noteworthy is his use of the same sources to paint a vivid picture of the twilight years of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court.
Beset by British demands on one side, by fundamentalist Sunni mullahs on the other, Zafar presided over a shrinking world that maintained the tolerant, syncretic aspects of Mughal rule. Zafar’s mother was Hindu, he celebrated Holi and watched the Ram-Lila at Diwali, drank only Ganges water and in his own faith was a Sufi rather than orthodox Muslim.
Delhi’s food reflected this as well. Dalrymple shows how the British and Mughal worlds, once close in the era of the Anglo-Mughals like Begum Sumru and the Skinner and Gardner families, were now diverging by contrasting their dining habits. The British woke at dawn for a huge breakfast that was heavy on meat: “brain cutlets, beef rissoles, mutton hashes, brawns of sheep’s head and trotters.”
And that was just to start with. By the time the court rose, near noon, for a light breakfast of fruits or a mutton shorba, the British had almost finished their day’s work and were settling down to a light (for them) lunch of grilled chicken.
Nobody did much during Delhi afternoons, but by evening the British were settling down to another vast meat heavy dinner, while the court was preparing for its main meal of the day. Dalrymple writes that Zafar himself rarely had dinner before 10.30 p.m. by when the British were asleep.
His favourite dishes were “quail stew, venison, lamb kidneys on sweet nan called shir mal, yakhni, fish kebabs, and meat stewed with oranges,” though the royal kitchens could also produce a Mughlai feast of 25 types of bread, 25 pulaos and birianis, 35 curries and 50 different puddings.
Zafar liked his food well-spiced, including with the chillies that had only relatively recently become a common ingredient in the Indian kitchen.
Today Mughlai refers to a rich, rather restaurant style of cooking, but this does little justice to the role the Mughals played in the evolution of Indian food. Major shifts in a country’s cooking have always been driven by invasion, as with the Normans in Britain, or by royal marriages, as when Catherine de Medici took her Italian cooks to the then unsophisticated French court of her husband Henri II.
The Mughals did both. When Babur invaded India he brought not just the simple grilled meats of Central Asia, but also a love of fruits and sophisticated food habits picked up in his conquests of great cities like Samarkand.
Akbar started abstaining from meat twice a week, then for months at a time, and the use of beef was discouraged to allow him to eat with his Rajput allies. Jehangir famously fell for a rich dried fruit and nut enriched khichidi of Gujarat called lazizan, which became one of his favourite foods. The wealth of the Mughals attracted traders from across the Islamic world, then the Portuguese and English, all bringing new foods and ingredients such as the chillies that Zafar liked.
Less often realised is the Mughal influence on the use of onions in Indian food. Onions were well known to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, but find no mention in the Vedas and Upanishads.
By the 7th century AD a Chinese traveller noted that onions were known in India, but not favoured much. Yet today a rise in their prices shakes governments. The change seems to have happened with the Mughals, with the ‘Ain-i-Akbari’ noting much use of onions with meat dishes, such as dopiaza with its onions used twice.
This might reflect the influence of the larger Islamic world. In Ziryab, Farouk Mardam-Bey’s excellent collection of essays on Arab cuisine, he refers to Morocco and India as the great “onion heavens”. Many Moroccan tagines (stews) start with a base of caramelised onions; add ginger and garlic and you have the standard Mughlai base.
The fall of Delhi ended the Mughal influence, but not that of Mughlai food. Where the Mughals at their height gathered together traditions, in their decline they dispersed them. Breakaway kingdoms developed Mughlai traditions in new directions, most notably in Avadh and Hyderabad, but also places like Bhopal and Calcutta.
Meanwhile the core cooking remained intact in Delhi, both in its Mughlai essence and its Kayasth Hindu vegetarian variant. In his exile in Rangoon, Zafar and his family had to survive on Rs 11 a day doled out by the British (with a magnanimous extra rupee on Sunday). Perhaps it might have been some comfort for him to know how the richness of the cooking of his court would long outlive him.