Welcome to Shah Jahan’s feast

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on May 31, 2019 Published on May 30, 2019

Beyond ordinary: There are over 30 varieties of kebabs mentioned in the book   -  ISTOCK.COM

A new book allows a magical peek into the Mughal world of date-stuffed naan and samosa-studded biryani

For those of us who grew up in the ’70s, eating out was an occasional treat. We went to restaurants to celebrate birthdays and exam results. And though we sometimes opted for sweet-and-sour chicken or lamb stroganoff, we usually headed for plump shami kebabs, rich kofta curries and fragrant yakhni pulaos.

We went to restaurants we had visited before. We leafed through leather-bound menus as familiar as the Mughal rulers in our history textbooks. “Babar the Conqueror, Humayun the Weak, Akbar the Great...”

Naturally, then, I assumed that Mughlai cuisine was one that I knew and understood. Then, a fortnight ago, a book arrived at my desk — fat with exquisite paintings and recipes. With every soup or kebab that I perused, it became apparent that the greasy, heartburn-inducing fare served in the guise of Mughal cuisine would have been as inappropriate in Shah Jahan’s court as a veg Schezwan sandwich would be at a Chinese banquet.

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The Mughal Feast is a translation and reworking of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, a handwritten Persian manuscript from the royal kitchens of the Emperor Shah Jahan. Lovingly translated by food historian Salma Yusuf Husain and produced by Roli Books, it allows a magical peek into the world of date-stuffed naans, biryanis topped with samosas and pulaos made out of an Indian version of pasta.


Husain gives the reader a fascinating introduction and context to the elaborate array of recipes. Shah Jahan’s Delhi, she says, was an urbane, elegant and international city — a place where ideas mingled, as did flavours.

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When Babur came to India from Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, he brought along the hearty pilafs and kebabs of his homeland. By the time his great-great grandson Shah Jahan sat on the Peacock Throne, the bland dishes his ancestors ate had acquired heat from the chillies that Portuguese traders had introduced to India, the brightness of tomatoes, and the punch of Indian spices.

“The hakim (royal physician) planned the menu, making sure to introduce medicinally beneficial ingredients,” writes Husain. “For instance, each grain of rice for the pulao was coated with silver warq, which aided digestion and acted as an aphrodisiac.”

Once the menu was in place, a few hundred members of the kitchen staff swung into action. No shortcuts were permitted. Water from the Ganga was mixed with rainwater to enhance the flavour of each dish. Cartloads of raisins, apricots and nuts travelled across snowy mountains and sun-baked plains till they arrived at the busy kitchens in Delhi, where they were added to baklavas, biryanis and breads.


The Mughal Feast serves up recipes under seven headings — naans to bhartas, kebabs to desserts. There are, for example, 12 different kinds of naan, some made with besan, others flavoured with almonds or pistachios. There are over 30 variations on the kebab theme, including a dish of mashed apples topped with egg. And about 40 pulaos and biryanis.

I’m not likely to coat every grain of rice in silver foil, or ask Blue Dart to fetch me water from the Ganga. I won’t attempt the kalla khasa (a dish of sheep head). Or even the bharta mahi (my building society would baulk if I marched into the garden to bury uncooked fish in mud and hot ashes.)

There are, however, recipes that seem attainable and appealing. I’m tempted by the qaliya amba — a sweet-and-sour lamb curry cooked with raw mango and studded with raisins. And the ananas pulao — steamed pineapple served with lamb rice. I’m both enamoured of and intimidated by the naranj pulao, an orange-flavoured lamb curry cooked with rice and served in almost-intact peels of oranges alongside halwas and minced lamb.

(Peel the oranges carefully so that the case remains intact. Remove the segments and keep aside. Sprinkle salt inside the case and float them in whisked yogurt for an hour. Remove the cases from the yoghurt and wash with cold water. Boil the orange cases for a minute. Remove and keep aside.

In another pan filled with water, squeeze the juice of one lemon and boil the orange cases again. Simmer to make them tender.)

One day soon, I decide. Then I think of the emperor who left so much behind.

After Shah Jahan was deposed by Aurangzeb, he spent eight years in Agra Fort till his death. “Legend has it that Aurangzeb ordered that his father be allowed only one ingredient of his choice, and Shah Jahan chose chickpeas,” writes Husain. “He chose them because they can be cooked in so many different ways. Even today, one of the signature dishes of North Indian cuisine is Shahjahani dal, chickpeas cooked in a rich gravy of cream.”

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Somehow, I feel that the shade of that chickpeas-and-mango-loving emperor will be hovering in my kitchen when I make amba pulao this week.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

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    Published on May 30, 2019
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