The Woman Who Gave Us Recipes from Shah Jahan’s Kitchen

The Woman Who Gave Us Recipes from Shah Jahan’s Kitchen

Food scholar Salma Husain’s recently published translation of Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani is a compendium of recipes from Shah Jahan's kitchen, featuring an exquisite range of food. It is one of the only two books dedicated to food from the Mughal kitchens that are currently known to historians.

When K.T. Achaya published his monumental Indian Food: A Historical Companion in 1994, he referred to only three sources from the Mughal period for the chapter Muslim Bonus — The Baburnama, the Ain-i-Akbari and the writings of Nicolai Manucci — suggesting that the 1956 copy of Nuskha-i-Shahjahani, recipes from the kitchen of Shahjahan, introduced in Urdu (but still untranslated) by Syed Muhammad Fazlulla, was still buried deep in the Archaeological Survey of India’s collections. Less than a decade later, Salma Husain received a section of this Persian manuscript from Rupa Publications. The publishing of Nuskha-i-Shahjahani: Pulaos from Shahjahan’s Kitchen quietly paved the way for more food literature to be unearthed. There are only two known texts from the Mughal times that devote themselves to the culinary arts. Both have been translated to English by Salma Husain.

 Husain’s real tryst with food did not begin at her grandmother’s elbow or in her mother’s kitchen in Bombay. She began attempting to replicate her mother’s food when she moved to Delhi, with a Masters in Persian, for a job at the National Archives’ manuscripts section. At the time, she had a small apartment in Curzon Road (Now Kasturba Gandhi Marg) and many friends in various government establishments. She fell in love with entertaining, piling takhats (a plain wooden bed) to make a table for her robust guest list.
”I loved entertaining. I would host two parties a month. They were the talk of the town. But I couldn’t continue making the same things. So I learned new styles and new things to cook. And quite serendipitously I grew increasingly engrossed in the history of food in India,” remembers Salma.

Image credit: Farah Yameen

Image credit: Farah Yameen

She turned to neighbours and friends, and old family recipes from all over the country found their way to her. The ayah ma of one household bade her take a day off and handed over a humongous grocery list; she taught Husain to make Hyderabadi haleem. Another friend taught her the delicate art of spreading out the parboiled rice of biryani over a kitchen towel, and then putting the biryani on dum with a towel sealing the lid instead of the more common method of using atta dough. The towel absorbs the moisture from the rising steam keeping each grain of rice ‘blooming’. The vocalist Ustad Munawwar Ali Khan serenaded her and taught her to make yakhni pulao.

In 1996, Husain’s talent for entertaining found her a job. Hakim Abdul Hamid, of Hamdard, offered her the role of chief of hospitality at Hamdard University’s convention centre. As Husain set about getting the kitchens of Hamdard in order, she was also offered a job at ITC. She refused, since she had already committed to Hamdard. They made a second offer, this time as a consultant on Indian food, which she accepted. At Hamdard, Husain was hosting theme parties for corporate conventions and conferences. Her work at ITC on the other hand took her deep into research to develop new menus for the hotel chain. She was already familiar with Farsi. Her time at the National Archives had equipped her well in translating manuscripts. She began her search for manuscripts on food from the Mughals, and the princely states in the twilight years of the dynasty. Wherever she went she’d hunt through libraries and museums. She was certain that the Mughals must have left some trace of their food. She wasn’t wrong. 

Although Ain-i-Akbari mentions a number of items cooked in Akbar’s kitchen, Abul Fazl, its author, was a vizier. The techniques of cooking were irrelevant to him. He mentions only the ingredients, and their volumes, that would have direct bearing on the expenses of the court. The same ingredients could, according to him, create four or six or ten different kinds of dishes, but he does not inconvenience himself with the specificities. In the collections of the National Museum in Delhi, Husain found copious notes on food, ostensibly from Jahangir’s kitchen. She began working on recipes from the manuscript on Jehangir’s kitchen, Alwan-i-Nemat, adapting them to the modern kitchens at ITC. She looked for publishers for this translation, but at the time there were no takers. In the early 2000s, there was still no market for this book. Food blogs were only just emerging. Although food and its history had always been of scholarly interest, popular interest in culinary history purely for the pleasure of cooking had not yet been galvanised. The arrival of food blogs and the eternal search for fresh content piqued new interest. The story of food and its heritage was a gold mine. Husain, who barely has a social media presence, now found that publishers were keen to have her translations.

In April this year Roli Books released her ‘transcreation’ of Nuskha-i-Shahjahani, this time a complete translation of the manuscript from the British Library’s Collection. A scrutiny of Husain’s translation of Nuskha-i-Shahjahani is a revelation of ingredients and techniques that are known as Mughlai. The manuscript is divided into several sections ranging from breads, soups, qaliyas, to kababs, and even bharta. Husain follows the scheme and sticks to the word, but restructures the recipe to a form we are familiar with. And, it transpires, the Mughal kitchens set up quite a show on the dining table.

Husain points to the pulaos, each grain a blank canvas for the light yellow of zaafraan (saffron), or the bright red of shangarf (cinnabar), the green hues of spinach or dill, or silver foil. The Naranj Pulao (orange-flavoured lamb curry cooked with rice) is bright with orange segments, complemented by a crust of pale yellow rice infused with saffron. It is served with the orange casing stewed whole, and used as edible bowls for halwa to accompany the pulao. The Nakhudi Pulao wa Kofta (coloured meatballs in lamb rice) bathes pearl-sized koftas in saffron and dill lays them over a bed of ivory pulao. The Saaq-i-Aroos (stuffed colourful bread-rolls) is similarly coloured ruby, emerald and opal, and stuffed with almond and rock sugar pounded together.

Ten years before Husain worked on the British manuscript of Nuskha-i-Shahjahani, she was on another journey to discover the heritage of Mughal cuisine. She travelled to Tashkent and met chefs and cooks in Samarkand and Ferghana in search of the oral histories of the Central Asian food that Babar carried with him to India. In Iran, Kabul and Turkey she searched for the influences on Mughal food. In Kashmir she found influences on Jahangir’s kitchen. In Delhi, the echo of food from Shahjahan’s time, and in the Deccan, the continuing tradition of culinary practices that found their way to Aurangzeb’s table. Through the heritage of food, she compiled a series of recipes and stories that informed the Mughal dastarkhwan in The Emperor’s Table.

 Husain carries her work easily without the usual self-consciousness of the scholar.  Her writings speak to multiple audiences: To those who take to the streets of the old cities, in search of history; to self proclaimed foodies on Instagram; to historians studying food practices (why, for instance, is garlic an ingredient so sparingly used in Shahjahan’s kitchen?); to sociologists studying food cultures (Was it an aversion to the odour?); to collectors of cookbooks; to chefs and home cooks who thrive on nostalgia; and, also, crucially, to entertainers, who, like Husain, always need something new for their table.

Farah Yameen is a public historian with a special interest in urban foodways and food history.

Banner image credit Yallamelo.