Though the deposition of Bahadur Shah II marked the final denouement of the last vestige of the magnificent Mughal empire, in all its splendour and glory, ferociousness and defeat, it wove itself intrinsically as a part of India. Perhaps the history of India witnesses one of its most lively drama through the peaks and valleys of this regime in which the Mughals transformed India by their brilliant art, architecture, literature, and in diverse other ways, but the one thing, whose fanciful thoughts help us sail through our mundane ‘maggi days’ in the hostel, is none other than the exotic Mughal Food.
It is true that this tantalising culinary was an intermingling of Middle Eastern cuisine with Indian spices and ingredients to produce some of the most exquisite Mughal dishes. The Indian touch was brought into this foreign cuisine, much later, by Akbar, thanks to his many alliances with Rajput families. The cuisine evolved through time, and was not this rich and velvety in the beginning.
The Mughal physician or the Hakim played an important role in deciding the regular menu, hence each grain of rice for the biryani was coated with silver oil, that helped in digestion and acted as an aphrodisiac. There are many other such instances where we find the Mughals too particular about the medicinal value of the food prepared.
One such occasion was, when Shah Jahan shifted his capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad. The deteriorating health of his subjects due to the transfer resulted in the substantial increase of haldi, red chillies, cumin, and coriander, for their medicinal properties.
Almost each of the emperors added their own preferred flavours into the cuisine. The different Sultans of the Delhi Sultanate who ruled various regions of India from Delhi including the different Turkic and Pashtun (Afghan) Muslim dynasties introduced the use of Tandoor, Kebab, Keema and Naan prior to the Mughal dynasty. However, with time, these items developed as an integral part of the Mughlai Food culture.
The names of the dishes are quite often Persian, the official language of the Mughal court. Sometimes Turkish names were used as well, as the native tongue of the Mughals were Chagatay Turkish. Mughal cuisine was strongly influenced by the Persian food culture of Iran, which identified with dried fruits and nuts, ingredients commonly used by imperial cooks in meat and rice dishes.
In fact, under the Mughals, the fruit was not merely a food product, it was a symbol of sophistication and their elevated position in society. Babur wrote in Baburnama, “Hindustan is a country of few charms. Its people have no good looks; of social intercourse, paying and receiving visits there is none; of genius and capacity none; of manners, none; in handicraft and work there is no form or symmetry, method or quality; there are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, muskmelons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks”.
Grand, lavish and wasteful are some of the adjectives that define the Mughals quite suitably.
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.
Among the most distinctive features of Mughlai Food is the unique use of a combination of ground and whole spices and the distinguishing aroma that gives each dish a unique and exotic taste. Extensive use of milk, cream and butter in various gravies and curries makes the dishes even more appetising with foodies.
Mughlai cuisine has a profound influence on the culinary styles and regional gastronomies of present day India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Its cooking style is very prevalent in traditional North Indian cuisines, particularly in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh as also in the South Indian city of Hyderabad in Telangana.
The cuisine is also present in the city of Karachi in Pakistan, especially among the Muslim immigrants called Muhajir, who migrated from different regions of India following the Partition of India. The Mughal cooking techniques also had a profound influence in the Awadh region which eventually led to the development of the Awadhi cuisine of Lucknow.
The Mughlai cuisine includes a variety of keemas, kababs, pulao, biryani, and desserts, which have developed their own variants. All the modified versions of the different dishes have their stories to tell, which are equally enchanting. Biryani itself offers us with so many choices,
Mughlai Biriyani (mostly available in Delhi), Lucknow Biryani ( a milder version of biryani mainly from Lucknow), Hyderabadi Biryani ( a blend of Mughal style with Andhra cuisine), Ambur Biryani (From Tamil Nadu), Malabari Biryani (From the coasts of Kerala), Kolkata Biriyani (coming along with our minion potatoes), Bombay Biryani (Mumbai), Tahiri Biryani (A vegetarian variant mainly from Uttar Pradesh), Sindhi Biryani (one from Pakistan), Sri Lankan Biryani (Sri Lanka), Middle Eastern Biryani (popular in Iraq, Bahrain and other Arab states ), Afghani Biryani (From Afghanistan), Nasi Kebuli (From Indonesia), and the list goes on. Such multifariousness of delicacies is offered by just one dish of the cuisine!
The Mughals turned Indian cooking into an exquisite art and patronised the art with passion. Central Asia, from where the Mughals came, has a rich tradition and an instinct culture with a history of many centuries. Their respectful relations with their neighbours like Tajiks, Kirghiz, and Tatars, Turkomans, Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have greatly influenced the Uzbek region. Mughal food brought all of these influences together and gave Hindustan a rich and varied cuisine.
Thus, the next time you divulge yourself into a plate full of biryani in our very own venerated Arsalan or may be in the lanes of Chandni chowk(Delhi), and even when you stand in long queues waiting for your turn to grab a table in the Paradise of Hyderabad, aptly named indeed; just give it a thought how indebted we are to the Mughals indeed!