Mughlai cuisine: India’s royal palate that the world loves

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Did you know that the Mughal emperor, Aurangazeb, was a vegetarian? How about that saffron is only added to dishes during the winter? Such are the secrets of Mughlai cuisine in India.

Mughlai brings to mind murgh musallam, navratan korma and the famed rose phirni. However, Chef Osama Jalali, a 39-year-old Indian chef and food historian from Delhi, says it is often mistaken for just being restricted to the sweet yet spiced butter chicken and naan, both of which are part of north Indian cuisine. “The first thing one needs to know about Mughlai cuisine is that tomato-based gravies are not part of it.”

In India, Puraani Delhi – which is often referred to as Shahjahanabad or ‘the walled city’ – has been the go-to haunt for Mughlai food, mainly because the cuisine is said to have taken its form over there, at least 500 years ago but it all began in Iran….

A pinch of Iranian influence

Mughal food or Mughlai is a fusion of Iranian and Indian cuisines
Image Credit: Victoria Bowers/Pexels.com

Lavish in preparation and nuanced in flavour, Mughal food or Mughlai is a fusion of Iranian and Indian cuisines. The foundation of it all was first laid out by Mughal emperor Babur, who not only brought in an entire army but also memories from Uzbekistan, a place where he is said to have spent his childhood. Babur often hired cooks to prepare Iranian dishes by using Indian ingredients.

It is also claimed the Mughal emperor Humayun introduced the addition of raisins and sultanas to dessert dishes like phirni. His wife, Hamida, introduced the use of saffron in the royal kitchens as well.

However, it was Akbar who elevated the cuisine. The emperor is said to have had several cooks – all of which were brought into his courts – during his travel to other regions across India, and these soon paved the way to unique and mildly spiced recipes.

A well-curated menu for the royals

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Each recipe went through a three-step process before making its way into the royal table
Image Credit: Saveurs Secretes/Pexels.com

Since the Mughals were connoisseurs of rich recipes, it is only natural for one to assume that their recipes were well-thought of, ahead of preparation. According to Jalali, each recipe went through a three-step process before making its way into the royal table.

The best spices that you can use in a Mughal dish, should come from Old Delhi’s Khari Baoli market – which is Asia’s largest wholesale spice market.

– Chef Osama Jalali

“When a recipe was developed during the Mughal Era, the ruler ensured that it first went to the hakim or vaid, which means doctor. He would inform the ruler of the medicinal benefits of the ingredients in the recipe. Once the doctor advises the ruler on what to increase or decrease in a recipe, it would then go to a masalchi or spice maker, who would form a blend of spices that would pair well when mixed with the meat or vegetable. These spices would then be handed over to the bawarchi or cook, who would then bring the written recipe to life.”

Biryanis, balance and birista

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Biryani is the ultimate definition of a balanced meal – fats, carbohydrates and protein
Image Credit: Sohani Kamat/Pexels.com

All of these recipes would be cooked in copper vessels or deghs, from which it gets its unique flavour as well, explained Jalali. “The Mughal biryanis, and other dishes for that matter, are quite unique because of the copper vessels that were used in cooking. Biryanis, in particular, were made in them because these vessels helped in the even spread of heat while cooking. Plus, it came with health benefits.”

Jalali also believes that the biryani is the ultimate definition of a balanced meal. “It has everything – carbohydrates, protein and fats.” However, to perfect the art of making a biryani, one needs to get their spices right. Spices that play a key role in Mughal cooking include saffron, black pepper, cardamom, dry fruits and nuts. “The best spices that you can use in a Mughal dish, should come from Old Delhi’s Khari Baoli market – which is Asia’s largest wholesale spice market.” Jalali also highlights that green chillies are completely avoided, and that the use of ingredients like cream and butter is not present in true Mughlai cooking.

“For spices, in particular, we usually pound them using a hamam dasta, or what is known as mortar and pestle – only this one is made from metal. Even in the present day of Mughal cooking, we refuse to use a food processor, and use traditional tools itself.”

Since the cuisine is quite focused on several meat-based preparations, Jalali also mentions how a balance in flavour is achieved. “In Mughlai cuisine, the spices must never overpower the flavour of the meat. The meat is well done, of course, but the balance comes from how much spice you add in the dish – you must be able to taste the meat distinctively.”

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Birista or the browning of onions is the ultimate “litmus test”
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Another cooking technique that is important to Mughal cooking is the making of birista or the browning of onions. “It is the ultimate litmus test,” said Jalali. “The life of the dish, lies in the birista. You can use any number of spices, but the flavour of your dish relies on the browning of the onions. The longer it is fried for, the darker the gravy.”

A popular dish which plays an important role in Mughal cuisine is Nihari. “Nihari is usually eaten at sunrise on an empty stomach. Earlier, the capital of India was Agra and not Delhi. So, when people moved from Agra to Delhi, many fell sick because they had a tough time adjusting to the new city and its ingredients. It was during Shah Jahan’s reign, when the move happened. So after consulting his hakim, who advised that the spices and fats need to be increased in a dish and cooked with protein, Nihari was introduced. It was first made in the common man’s house as a means to heal himself, and as it grew popular, it travelled back to the king’s court.” Other notable Mughlai dishes include korma, biryani and the popular shammi kebabs.

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A popular dish which plays an important role in Mughal cuisine is Nihari
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However, in a fast-paced world, the art of Mughal cooking can often be looked at as time consuming. But the Mughals had already foreseen this, and had introduced one-pot meals, starting with India’s favourite – khichdi. “Mughlai meals are actually the oldest examples of one-pot cooking. When it comes to restaurants, you need to cater to a larger audience with a shorter time, then you have to deconstruct the recipes and make it according to certain tastes and foreign styles and so on. But the beauty of Mughal cooking – or any Indian cooking for that matter – is that every dish has its own spice mix, making it easier for all,” said Jalali.

While these were the culinary practices followed in Mughal kitchens for a long time, it was the Nawabs who polished the cuisine to what it is now.

Today, a lot about the cuisine has faded, with its notable dishes and recipes being confined to very few home cooks in the area of ‘Dilli-6’. Some claim that these recipes can be found in the narrow pathways or gullies, but you would never find them so easily because people prefer keeping it a secret. However, Jalali likes the challenge and aims to revive and bring it back on the map, one recipe at a time.

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