The Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazl, the court chronicler of Mughal emperor Akbar, mentions that Akbar’s court had a Minister for Kitchen, who had his own budget, independent accounts department, and also a legion of cooks, taster, attendants and a manifold of other designations. Culinary traditions in India date back to a book written under the Chalukya dynasty in the 12th century, but developments in the kitchen and culinary arts took place under the Mughals, as under their patronage, culinary arts found its place in the royal memoirs. Food formed a part of the Mughal traditions and the gift-giving culture that was very famous when nobles approached the emperor under the setting of the diplomatic etiquette of the Mughal court. The Mughals not only saw food for mere consumption, but saw it as Tehzeeb o Adaab or etiquette, hospitality and the development of a syncretic culture. Major centers of Mughal control were, Delhi, Agra, Awadh, Lahore, and Multan, but it was in Delhi and Awadh that some of the greatest culinary gems were created.
Under the Mughals, food also had an importance in political deliberation that is visible from a ‘Farman’ that was issued by the Shah of Iran to the Mughal governor highlighting how Mughal emperor Humayun was to be welcome. 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”.
However, Mughal cuisine finds its roots back to the Delhi Sultanate, which can be traced to the 15th-century manuscript ‘Ni’matnama’ (The Book of delights); one of the most famous cookbooks till date. The book contains eccentric recipes of the Sultan of Mandu (Madhya Pradesh), Ghiyath Shah (Malwa), and Nasir Shah. It also contains remedies and aphrodisiacs for the Sultan and his court along with important sections on food that are to be consumed during hunting, expeditions, and warfare. The Ni’matnama also contains the original recipes of dishes such as Yakhni (spiced meat broth), seekh kebab, Khichri, and Pulav. These foods that are still famous today, were part of the Indo-Persian diet of the Mughals. Speaking of the emperors, Mughal cuisine was shaped by all kinds of influences such as Iranian, Afghani, Persian mixed with the flavors of Kashmir, Awadh, Punjab and Deccan. When Babur came to India, he initially didn’t enjoy Indian food, as he was a lover of fresh meat and fruits that were native to Samarkand. Although Babur did enjoy fish which was not available in Samarkand (Babur’s homeland). Humayun’s Iranian wife introduced Saffron and dry fruits in the Mughal kitchen. Akbar on the other hand was a vegetarian three times a week and had his own kitchen garden, where he watered the vegetables with rosewater so that they passed on fragrance while cooking. Shah Jahan shifted the capital from Agra to Delhi, and upon shifting he discovered that people were getting sick due to the water in Delhi. Shah Jahan then ordered that food should be cooked with more Haldi, cumin, and chilies, as certain ingredients could solve medical ailments. Under Shah Jahan, a Persian manuscript called ‘Nushka-i-ShahJahani’ was written. The manuscript had 10 chapters on Nanha (breads), ash-ha (pottages), dopiyazas (dressed meat dishes), Bhartas, Zerbiyans (rice-based dish), pulaos, kebabs, harisas (porridge), shishrangas (omelet), Khichri and Murabba (Jams). The Raukat-e-Alamgiri, which is a collection of letters written by Aurangzeb to his son, shows that Aurangzeb who was a vegetarian most of his life, loved Qubooli which is a Biryani made with Bengal Gram, Apricot, Basil, almond and curd. Other works under Alamgir include the Khulasat-I Makulat u Mashrubat and the Alwan-I Ni’ mat (specifically written for sweetmeats).
Coming to culture; Delhi and Awadh were the major cultural hubs of the Mughals. Awadh is the land of Sangam, where the Ganga and Jamuna meet, hence Awadh became the place of the development of the Ganga-Jamuni syncretic culture, as this was the place where many cultural streams met. Today Lucknow is famous for its Shami Kebab and Kakori Kebab, whose recipes run deep into family lineages. These recipes are often a secret and are passed on in the family as a tradition. On the other hand, if one visits the old city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi, one can still feel the history in its tapered lanes. The Nalli Nihari is still a famous breakfast dish in Old Delhi, whose origins can be traced back to the 17th-18th century. The word Nihari comes from Nahar which means ‘morning’. The dish was originally consumed by Mughal nobles early in the morning after their morning prayer (Fajr). The Nihari soon became a favorite of the Mughal army, as they would consume it during the chilly winter mornings of Delhi to gain energy. The Nihari was prepared overnight for 6-8 hours and served in the morning for free to the laborers who used to work on the construction of forts and palaces. It also came to be used as a remedy for common cold by the Hakims and the tradition still continues. Popular traditions also tell us that when Nadir Shah sacked Delhi, his army was feeling very cold and they consumed Nihari to feel better. Such traditions still continue in Delhi and one can still enjoy some of the best silky stew (Nihari) by going to Haji Shabrati Nihariwale or Kallu Nihariwale in Old Delhi.
Sar e atish jo ashk rezaan thaa
kisi aashiq ki thi kabab mein jaan
(No doubt this kebab has a lover’s mind
Fire and tears together where else would you find!)