Whenever I think of India, I think of the Mughals. To me, the two are one and the same, synonymous, identical, superimposed upon each other, so that history, legend and fact are interchangeable.
What do you think of when I say Mughal?
Rich curries and pilaf, pistachios and almonds, apricots and peaches, a cuisine of refinement, sophistication, extravagance.
By the time the last Mughal was deposed by the British in 1858, Hindustan was changed forever. Three centuries of Mughal reign left behind an enduring legacy of culinary art that permanently altered the landscape of Indian cuisine. The Mughals were lavish and extravagant, connoisseurs of beauty. Courtly food of the Mughal Empire was sumptuous, rich and complex. Curries and gravies were made thicker and richer with creams and yogurts, and it was not uncommon for food to be decorated with fresh flower petals and edible thin foils of silver and gold.
Photo by Karan Verma CC-BY-SA 2.0.
An example of biryani cooked in the Mughal dum pukht style.
Under Mughal rule, cuisine was distilled to perfection and refined into an art form. Biryani is one such dish that was polished in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Emperors. The word biryani comes from the Persian birian. It is basically a dish of rice and meat, not unlike the pilaf. This is no coincidence, because the word biryani was used interchangeably with pilaf as late as the sixteenth century. What we do know for sure is that as a cuisine, the biryani or pilaf was refined during the reign of the Mughals. Flavours were enhanced using exotic spices. The curry was made rich and smooth with cream and yogurt. Imperial cooks threw in spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, and nuts such as cashews and almonds. The result was a fragrant, heady and flavourful dish fit for royalty. Till today, biryani is one of the cornerstones of Mughlai cuisine.
Diners took their place atop rich carpets. The centrepiece of the imperial spread was a dish of rice cooked with ghee, spices and meat. After their meals, they rinsed their hands with perfumed water poured from jugs held by servants.
The Mughal Emperors impressed courtiers, nobles, foreign guests and dignitaries at their dining table. The menu, finalized by the hakim (royal physician), would consist of about 100 dishes, each prepared by one cook. Diners took their place on the ground, atop rich carpets laid with protective white sheets. The centrepiece of the imperial spread was usually a dish of rice cooked with ghee, spices and meat: the pilaf. This was accompanied by a huge variety of game bird, fish, lamb, venison and beef cooked in different styles. After their meals, they rinsed their hands with perfumed water poured from jugs held by servants.
Emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire
On normal days – as though any day in the life of a Mughal Emperor could ever be called normal – the Emperor ate his meals with his queens and concubines. Served by eunuchs, daily meals were no less extravagant. The Mughals followed the Indian custom of the time by beginning their meals with pickles, freshly sliced ginger and lime. They also ended the meal with chewing on betel nut, or paan. What they introduced was the tradition of desserts, that is, the eating of something sweet at the end of the meal, rather than at the start or in the middle.
While Emperor Babur had only disdain for mango, the jewel of Hindustan, Emperor Jahangir introduced it to the courtly tables. “Of all the fruits,” he says, “I am particularly fond of mango.”
Mughal cuisine was strongly influenced by the Persian cuisine of Iran, which featured dried fruits and nuts, ingredients commonly used by imperial cooks in meat and rice dishes. In fact, under the Mughals, fruit was not merely a food product. It was a symbol of sophistication and their elevated position in society. At the time of the Mughal rule, fruits and nuts were thought of as incredibly opulent and luxurious. Hence, a gift of fruits was a sign diplomacy and even a matter of protocol.
When Babur, India’s first Mughal Emperor, looked about his newly conquered northern territories, he did not like it. Coming from a food-loving culture, Hindustan seemed to him a land stripped of romance. He writes in The Baburnama, “There is no grapes, quality fruits, mask melons, candles”. He did not fancy the local Indian food, which lacked the spices and flavours he was accustomed to in his native Samarkand. And while he had only disdain for mango, the jewel of Hindustan, Emperor Jahangir introduced it to the courtly tables. “Of all the fruits,” he says, “I am particularly fond of mango.”
From Kashmir, they imported peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and pears. They drank juices flavoured with essences. From the mountains, they brought down ice to keep their sherbets and desserts cool and palatable.
The formal gardens of the Mughal Empire were planted with fruit trees.
The Mughals were nothing if not lavish. From Kashmir, they imported temperate fruits unavailable in Delhi’s climate such as peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and pears. They planted formal gardens of fruit trees over conquered territories and drank juices flavoured with essences. From the mountains, they brought down ice to keep their sherbets and desserts cool and palatable. Emperor Babur often drank heavily at his lavish feasts and smoked copious amounts of hashish. Emperor Akbar had his own kitchen garden which he watered daily with rosewater because it added to the flavour of food when cooked. Emperor Jahangir admitted to drinking at least twenty glasses of wine daily in his youth. Luckily, as he grew older, he decided on a less indulgent approach: “I drink wine solely to promote the digestion of my food.”