Cooking from books feels like such a modern urban phenomenon, that one hardly associates it with the Middle Ages. Mothers pulled out recipe clippings from Sunday papers only on days when cheek-pinching uncles and aunts arrived from faraway lands. On all other days, everything else seemed to come from the wellspring of motherly genius. Fathers requiring cookbooks was, of course, usually a sign of male ineptness in this domestic sphere. In the 15th and 16th centuries, however, men, many of them in the king’s service or the king himself, were busy compiling cookbooks. Assisted by an army of minions, they developed elaborate recipes and noted them down. We are not sure for whom these cookbooks were meant. It doesn’t look like it could have been replicated by a 20-something trying to impress his parents. Ordinary housewives could have ill-afforded many of the ingredients they called for. Perhaps these were meant for the compiler’s use alone or to be shared with friendly visitors over a royal meal, although the latter appears unlikely, given potential rivalries over whose table served the best fare. Luckily, some of these compilations have survived to this day. Anyone not put off by vague instructions and a few missing measurements could effectively try and replicate a medieval meal.

The Ni’matnama is perhaps the most comprehensive recipe book known to us from medieval Indian history, and it is currently housed in the India Office Collections of the British Library. This illustrated manuscript containing recipes for food, aphrodisiacs, and perfumes is credited to Ghiyas Shah, the king of Malwa (in present-day Madhya Pradesh) who famously abdicated his throne. One imagines that the research and the writing of a book such as the Ni’matnama would call for absolute focus. Accordingly, Ghiyas Shah researched every pleasure of the body and put to paper a prescription. His son Naseer Shah made additions to the book, but appears to have conveniently omitted the recipe for the poison he administered his father when he tired of him.




Illustrations: Dipankar

‘Make a ditch two yards deep and one-and-a-half yards wide. Rub flowers on the inside of the ditch, line it with clay and put sticks into it. Light a fire.’ — The Ni‘matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu , translated by Norah M Titley.

More than five centuries ago, the sultans of the kingdom of Mandu were obsessing about every flavour, ingredient, and culinary technique. This direction for prepping a clay oven calls for meat sealed in banana leaves and flowers to be cooked overnight. One can almost inhale the smell that must have permeated deep into the tender meat under the night skies, and almost taste the meat falling off the bones after it was removed from the hot oven the next morning. Recipes in the Ni’matnama are an olfactory treat. The ghee must be sweet-smelling, the flavours tempered by spices that are infused into the broth instead of being dumped into the dish. There is indulgence writ large in every aspect of this book. Wash meat and add it to a pot of sweet-smelling ghee. 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 add this to 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.

A quarter century after the Ni’matnama was written, a prince from Central Asia arrived in India in search of gold and a kingdom. Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur was only 32 when he won Delhi. He didn’t have much time for frolicking and decadence, but did find time to complain in his memoirs about the lacklustre lands of India wanting in charms and fruits. The mango seemed to be the only thing that pleased him about India, besides the gold. When invited to invade Delhi, he is said to have prayed for a sign that he would be victorious. This sign was to be mangoes or betel, both fruits of India. It so happened that Daulat Khan, who had invited Babur for the invasion, presented him with semi-ripe mangoes preserved in honey. That mango is the reason we have Mughlai food today.

In fact, the mango — known to have been a great favourite in cooking — is suspected to have wooed many a conqueror and poet. In Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa , the rich infuse their wines with the smell of mango flowers. Yudhisthir of the Mahabharata is supposed to have given a large feast in which venison cooked with mangoes and spices was a prominent feature. The Ni’matnama mentions the mango at least 30 times and uses both ripe and unripe varieties, the leaves, and even roasts the kernel and adds it to yoghurt as a flavouring. This unusual recipe for greens could easily be a Michelin star contender:

Green vegetables are fried with asafoetida, salt and ghee, and topped with sweet and holy basil, mango leaves, fresh lime leaves, sour orange leaves and mint, each tied in a separate bunch. The vegetables are steamed briefly with the leaves, which are then thrown away.


While the Ni’matnama mentions several rice recipes, the pulao or biryani does not feature anywhere. Historians often trace the pulao’s origin to Central Asia. But this one-pot dish likely developed in several regions at the same time. It is probable that lazy cooks and harassed daughters-in-law everywhere were throwing rice and vegetables or meat in the same pot so that they could get about their lives more peacefully. Many stories even attribute one-pot dishes like the halim to Sufi wanderers who depended on food from others — light a fire, put in whatever was received into a pot and let it cook while the fakir said his prayers. Divine intervention, one would assume, transformed this mishmash into what we now know as the halim .



Aroma central: Food was lightly flavoured, the focus being on the complexity of taste and not the richness that we have come to associate with fatty gravies Image:

The Mughals, however, took the pulao and made it art. The Nuskha-e-Shahjahani , or recipes from Shah Jahan’s kitchen, features no less than 40 varieties. Mughal cooks competed to invent new variations. One of them invented a pulao in which each grain of rice would be half-ruby-red and half-gleaming-white. Another came up with the Navratan pulao, which we now find in restaurants (with more vegetables than can be considered decent for any dish to have). The original Navratan pulao featured rice in nine different colours. One may be assured that these colours were entirely organic, considering these were folks who killed musk deer and sperm whales to source the most natural fragrances for their kitchens. The Moti pulao involved beating nearly a quarter kilo of silver and gold foil into a single egg yolk and cooking the mixture inside a chicken. The bright silver-gold pearls were then removed from the chicken and the meat and rice mixed together. The sweet pulaos, except for the muzafar , have largely exited the scene. And when it does make an appearance, the muzafar is sans the meat that it once used to contain. Its recipe in the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani reads:


“Tear open a chicken and fill it with almonds and raisins. First mix the meat, onions, coriander and ginger, and cook. Take out the piece of meat and filter the broth (yakhni) through a piece of cloth and season it with star anise. Add sugar to the broth and simmer. Stir in saffron and keep aside. Put the meat in the lidded pot and sauté. Add two ladles of the yakhni to the meat and put it on fire until the yakhni dries out. Parboil rice, flatten it and smear oil on top. Cook the rice with the meat. Fry dry fruits in oil. When the rice is done, garnish with the fried dry fruits and serve.”



Measures and techniques in medieval food writing tended to be vague. Unlike now, when most recipe books are targeted at those who cook (or intend to), the audience back then was ambiguous. Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari , for instance, was an account of Mughal administration. Nevertheless, most contemporary research will almost inevitably quote his measurements for the biryani. He neatly categorises the food in Akbar’s kitchen under three heads: those cooked without meat, called sufiyana (ascetic), whenever the king abstained from meat; meat with rice; and, finally, meat with spices. While the royal kitchens of Muslim kings are usually associated with an excess of meat, the medieval recipe books, in fact, have an extensive repertoire of vegetarian dishes. Take, for instance, this measure for a spinach dish from Abul Fazl: 10 sers of spinach, fennel and so on; 1 ser onions; ½ ser fresh ginger; 5½ misqal of pepper; ½ misqal cardamom and cloves (ser equals 900 gm and misqal is about 6.2 gm).

He declares that six different dishes may be made with this combination. We have no clue how.

In a small kingdom in Mysuru, a few decades before Akbar’s time, another compilation of recipes was made on palm leaves. Written in Kannada in a poetic structure, the Supa Shastra was commissioned by the Jain ruler Mangarasa III of Kallhalli. While Abul Fazl and the unknown author of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani are generally precise with measurements (presumably for imperial kitchen economies), the Kannada work dispenses with measures and focuses on techniques instead (the former leave you guessing how to yakhni the meat for the muzafar , for instance). The recipes are all vegetarian and some even venture to use onion and garlic, despite the general injunction against them in Jain cooking. Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts — A History of Food in India picks up an aubergine recipe that the Supa Shastra recommend thus: “This is one of the top preparations of aubergines, with all its aroma, charm, taste, and makes you crave for it whenever memory recalls it.”

Take an aubergine and remove the top with a knife such that it can be replaced afterwards. Remove the inside and set aside. Take another aubergine that is already boiled, and remove the pulp. Mix the following ingredients with the pulp: grated coconut fried in ghee; pepper, cumin seeds, fenugreek, sesame seeds, chickpeas, urad dal, little pieces of bread dried and fried, turmeric powder, all fried in ghee; ginger, onion, curry leaves, coriander leaves, all chopped finely, and then fried in ghee. Stuff the mixture into the unboiled aubergine, then fry it nicely in ghee or oil.

Another 16th-century cookbook comes from the kingdom of Vikramasena of Ujjain. The Ksemakutuhalam , unlike Supa Shastra , is not limited to vegetarian preparations. Although the lengthiest chapter is dedicated to fruits, vegetables, edible roots, and flowers, this king from Ujjain ate everything from boars to peacocks, tortoises, and even lizards. The only exception is beef, considered taboo by some Hindus. The book discusses nine different ways of cooking meat and even details a dish called tanduram , which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Persian word ‘tandoor’.


Writing about food in medieval India almost inevitably assumes a certain character of excess. And, in fact, there is little that is known to us directly about what people outside royal courts were eating. Legends of breads and kebabs from Awadh are almost entirely from the courts of the nawabs. Stories tell of the toothless nawab for whom the gilawat ke kebab was developed. Another nawab, Syed Muhammad Haider Kazmi, was said to be so stung by a British officer’s innocuous remark about the chewy kebabs in Kakori village that he ordered his cooks to produce melt-in-the-mouth ones. That led to the kakori kebab . Food was lightly flavoured, the focus being on the complexity of taste and not the richness that we have come to associate with fatty gravies. Food posing as Mughlai in restaurants today is almost always congealed with cream and dry fruits.

Even though the food is lavish, most compilations from royal kitchens make sure that there is a balance of lighter, simpler meals. This was usually the food the kings ate on a more informal table. In the Ain-i-Akbari , for instance, the king’s khichri calls only for lentil, rice, salt, and ghee. Khuskah is simply rice and salt, which Abul Fazl says was cooked in four different ways. The pahit is much like the dal prevalent in north India, with lentils, ghee, salt, ginger, cumin, and asafoetida which, through some magic, could be alchemised into 15 different dishes. The Ni’matnama called these dishes gharib , or the poor man’s fare, which the king ostensibly ate when he wanted a break from his extensive dining. One recipe boils vegetables with lentils and flavours it with oil and asafoetida. Meat would be cooked over coal fire in a dough and leaf casing when it was ‘poor’. Sadly, some of these recipes are nearly impossible to replicate today. A number of the grains and millets mentioned can either be no longer found or found only in the areas where they are grown. Many of these were displaced by hybrids after the green revolution. Other ingredients we are best off without. The hunting of musk deer and sperm whales is, mercifully, banned. Natural ambergris from the sperm whale stomach and musk from the deer are unlikely to be found legally today or affordable (in 2016 the ambergris was valued at £50,000 for 1.5 kg). The royal kitchens used them not merely for their intense and complex flavour and aroma, but also to flaunt the diner’s wealth.

Democracy may have its merits, but there’s something to be said for the decadent royal who can dedicate a lifetime exploring whether camphor, ambergris, or screwpine will best serve to fragrance a preparation of meat or a bottle of perfume. Ghiyas Shah certainly thought so. He was not compiling a book of recipes for the rice-cooker clan. It takes a retinue of servants to dig and line a pit with flowers, layer herbs in the correct order and watch over nightly fires, lest they go out. Even the Supa Shastra was written largely for rich housewives. Millet-eating aam aadmi almost never had access to these recipes. The cuisines we have inherited are the dummies’ version of what medieval Indian cooking looked like. Pressure cookers have replaced the slow overnight cooking of the shabdegh and the nahari . The smoky and earthy flavours of clay oven cooking must be simulated with pieces of smouldering coal placed within a sealed pot for a few minutes. It makes for good Instagram, for sure. But maybe it’s time to bring mango leaves, orange peels, and roasted mango kernels back into vogue. Nobody quotable has said this, but you eat with your nose before you even set eyes upon your food. And, once in a while, being decadent is not criminal. Just don’t shoot at musk deers.

Farah Yameen is an oral historian