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Fit for a king

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Ahead of her appearance in the Demo Kitchen, Asma Khan, owner of Darjeeling Express, explores the royal roots of Mughlai cuisine

Image: Justin Lambert

Mughlai food is the style of cuisine linked to the Mughal empire, which ruled over large parts of India from 1526 until the 19th century. The early Mughal rulers came to India from central Asia and their culture was a Turco-Mongol one, but a major influence on Mughlai cuisine was Persian. The second Mughal ruler, Humayun, lost his throne in 1540 and spent 15 years in exile with his entourage in Persia—Humayun was married to a woman with Persian heritage, and the Mughal court had close diplomatic ties to the region’s Safavid rulers. When their exile ended and the Mughals returned to India, there was a distinct shift in the royal court from a Turkic to a more Persian style of feasting. 

Mughal words like ‘shahi’, which means royal, and ‘Mughlai’ are often over-used and inaccurately applied in Indian restaurants. There are recipes in my forthcoming cookbook that have genuine Mughal roots, and I hope that once you try them, you will be able to recognise the distinct style of this beautiful cuisine. The food is fragrant and light, the spicing layered, often missing common spices like turmeric and ground cumin.

Family heritage
The Mughlai influence on my own style of cooking is linked to my family heritage. My parents came from two regions of India with very different culinary traditions, and Mughlai spicing and cooking techniques were the only things that linked their cuisines. My father’s family home was geographically close to the royal courts of Delhi and Awadh and many of the specialty Mughlai dishes of that region, like the yakhni pulau, were cooked frequently in the home.

My mother is from Bengal and her culinary roots were Mughlai Bengali. This is different from traditional Bengali cooking, a very simple style of food preparation, much of it based around mustard seeds and oil and fresh fish, with very little use of dairy or nuts. Mughlai Bengali food—the cuisine of the courts of the Mughal nobility in Bengal and the ports where traders from Persia, the Middle East and Central Asia had settled—is more complex in character.

Larger than life
One major influence on this cuisine’s development was the exile of Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Oudh (modern day Lucknow) by the British following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Afraid that he would become a figure around which a future uprising could manifest, Wajid Ali Shah and his entourage were moved to Garden Reach Metiabruz (a suburb of Calcutta, in West Bengal), where they were kept isolated from the local population. Wajid Ali Shah was a Henry VIII-like figure—a larger-than-life character, famous for his love of food and women, his patronage of the arts and his gifts as a composer and poet.

The legacy of his exile for Bengali cuisine was significant: once the royal cooks of Oudh, who were famous for cooking exquisite Mughlai food, were allowed to leave the premises, they set up small restaurants and cafes of Mughlai food around Metiabruz. This food tradition continued separate from the local cuisine and made the Mughlai food of Bengal unique. There are recipes in my cookbook, like rezala and chicken chaap, that are distinctly Mughlai Bengali.

Join Asma for tips, tastings and recipes on Thursday 13th September in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm